Samuel Eliot Morison in The Maritime History of Massachusetts describes our state’s liabilities—tumbling, shallow, un-navigable rivers that could never compete with the mighty Hudson or the St. Lawrence; “long-lying snow,” making for a short growing season; shallow soil too close to the underlying granite for successful farming, few natural resources beyond timber, and then there is the ice. Compared to the old country, Massachusetts presented daunting challenges to its early European settlers.
Morison goes on to credit those settlers with turning their liabilities into assets. Our forebears captured the power of the waterfalls that prevented navigation to turn the mill wheel, enabling them to grind wheat and develop industry. They used the snow’s slippery surface to haul big items, possibly the most famous being the captured British cannons that Henry Knox dragged on sleds from Fort Ticonderoga at the beginning of the American Revolution. He made it to Dorchester Heights, where General Washington trained them on the British fleet, which prudently left Boston Harbor on or about March 17, conveniently giving us a secular reason to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.
Finally, landowners, realizing New England’s soil was mostly only marginally fertile, quarried the underlying granite to build imposing architecture, headstones, curbs and now, kitchen counters. With few natural resources of their own, Massachusetts’ early entrepreneurs shipped other places’ goods. Then they sliced the ice from the ponds into blocks, packed them in sawdust in the holds of ocean-going ships, and sold the ice to tropical countries. I’m told that such entrepreneurs also introduced ice cream to show tropical-landers how to use frozen water.
Nevertheless, Morison’s description reminds readers of how uninhabitable America was to early Europeans. It still is. New England? Morison spelled it out. But other regions were and are even more challenging.
The mid-Atlantic states, the South and the Midwest? So hot and humid that British diplomats assigned to Washington, D.C. in the 1800s were allowed to wear Bermuda shorts. Texas— same heat, with the added threat of fire ants. South and the Midwest? Tornedos. The South? Bugs, big ones that bite and give you the creeps, not to mention poisonous snakes and the alligators that would get you if you tried to swim in the fresh-water ponds, rivers and lakes.
Arizona and some of Nevada? October through March is nice enough. But from April on you can’t go outside without collapsing. You will burn your hand if you touch anything outside. I once met a woman who grew up in the state before air conditioning. She said her family dipped their sheets in water before they went to bed and rolled up in them so they would be cool enough to sleep.
Arizonians say you won’t mind the heat because it is dry heat. They say this while sipping margaritas at an air-conditioned bar. They know better than to go outside.
In many other areas of the country you can’t go outside in the summer. That’s one advantage New Englanders have on most summer days. The southern states spend more on air conditioning than we do on heat. What kind of life is that to be forced inside all summer?
Then there is the West Coast, possibly the nicest place in all of America. Unfortunately, California is slowly tipping into the Pacific Ocean. It is wracked with earthquakes, fires and either droughts or floods. Oregon puts up with an active volcano.
With all the threats and challenges to human life in the rest of the country, Morison’s New England looks pretty good. We can still spend many days outdoors in the summer. Winter sports and a cozy fire in a fireplace, if we are lucky enough to have one, keep us going.
Still, we face global warming and sea rise, so that even in relatively livable New England we can expect overheated summers, winters too warm to stop the deadly southern bugs, and the Atlantic Ocean lapping at our doors. According to news reports, we might have to build a sea wall at the entrance to Boston Harbor to keep the rising ocean out.
We might get some solace from the fact the Florida, where the governor refuses to recognize climate change, will soon be a shallow salt marsh. But that also means that New Englanders won’t have Florida to flee to if they can’t stand weather or taxes.
We’ll just have to stay here and face the changes. Grist mills, granite quarries and ice seem pretty benign right now.