New Englanders Aren’t Talking About Alaska


People kept referencing the Yukon in conversations.  “Why are Vermonters, New Hampshireites, Connecticuters, etc. always discussing a nearly-uninhabited, Canadian wild-land four thousand miles away?” I wondered.  A month later, a lightbulb moment: the Yukon Territory isn’t on the collective radar after all.  What is?

The University of Connecticut.  Home to over 30,000 students.  Shortened almost always to U-Conn.

Ha!

uconn school of law at university of connecticut

The School of Law at our aforementioned UCONN – Univeristy of Connecticut. photo: wikimedia

You Say Tomato, I Say…

Regular readers know I’m fascinated by regional idiosyncrasies that give each place its character.

Cultural Tidbits I like in New England:

  • Grinders! – not a tool you’d find on a construction site, but a common food. You probably call yours a sub sandwich.
sub sandwich grinder

Try cutting or smoothing metal with this! photo: pixabay

  • Tag sale – sounds like a retail situation with discounted prices written on tags right? Nope!  I’ll give you a hint: tag sales take place in yards and garages. On offer: loot your neighbor no longer wants!
  • Class Six Road – Classes one to five are just roads as you know them.  Class Sixes are basically public four-wheel-drive tracks.  Officialy the designation “includes those that have been discontinued subject to gates and bars, as well as those that have ‘not been maintained and repaired by the town in suitable condition for travel’ for five successive years or more.”   aFor sake of accuracy, I should mention that only New Hampshire uses this class system, but I found the terminology leaks out to surrounding areas a bit.
  • Dunkin Donuts – unlike its reputation in the west as a seedy establishment full of overweight, cigarette-smoking, used car salesmen, Dunkin Donuts is New England’s Starbucks. The sugar (donuts and fake coffee bnot an espresso machine in sight ) purveyor’s advertising slogan? “America runs on Dunkin.”  If by “America” they mean 1.9% by area and 4.7% by population csize of New England divided by size of U.S. and population of New England (14 million-ish) divided by population of U.S. (300 million-ish.  Exact numbers: 14,444,865 and 308,745,538. ) Check out this awesome map showing Dunkin’ Donuts evil empire.  Which does extend outside New England, but the technically accurate math is too laborious for a one-off blog post. then… yes!  It does!
dunkin donuts doughnut with rainbow sprinkles dunkin donuts sign

The America I know definitely doesn’t run on Dunkin.  This Professor wishes none of it did.

  • Livin’ in a Linguist’s Paradise – the range of accents found in New England is unusual for America, but standard across countries like Germany and Italy.  I’m so fascinated by the difference 50 miles can make here.  And, as I’ve found globally, people from elsewhere in the region don’t seem to lose their native accent when they move.  Also cute: the Maine “redneck” accent sounds more like someone out of Brooklyn than the intensified drawl of the south one hears in pop culture.  Wikipedia has the academic explanation.  Someone make a Youtube video mash-up already!  dFor now this will have to do. Or if you only care about Boston, watch this.

I also find the backdrop against which these cultural things happens just as fascinating.

Local landscape facets I enjoy:

  • Sweet Sap – Maple trees dominate, as do cottage industries collecting the sweet nectar and reducing it 40 times ethat’s why it’s so expensive! to make you syrup.  The tiny red flowers that the trees produce in spring are in stark contrast to their huge leaves that turn amazing colors in the fall.  For more on why we collect maple sap and not pine or oak or hemlock or alder, read this footnote -> fBasically, maple trees, and specifically sugar maples, have a unique, multifaceted pressure situation.  Temperature swings plus distinctive biological processes add up to way more sap flow and sap sweetness than any other species.  From an old Cornell page that has now been adapted: What makes the sap rise?  During warm periods when temperatures rise above freezing, pressure develops in the tree. This pressure causes the sap to flow out of the tree through a wound or tap hole. During cooler periods when temperatures fall below freezing, suction develops, drawing water into the tree. This replenishes the sap in the tree, allowing it to flow again during the next warm period. Sap flows through a portion of the outer tree trunk called sapwood. Sapwood consists of actively growing cells that conduct water and nutrients (sap) from the roots to the branches of the tree. During the day, activity in the cells of sapwood produces carbon dioxide. This carbon dioxide is released to the intercellular spaces in the sapwood. In addition, carbon dioxide that was dissolved in the cool sap is released into the spaces between the cells. Both of these sources of carbon dioxide cause pressure to build up in the cells. A third source of pressure is called osmotic pressure, which is caused by the presence of sugar and other substances dissolved in the sap. When the tree is wounded, as when it is tapped by a maple producer, the pressure forces the sap out of the tree. At night or during other times when temperatures go below freezing, the carbon dioxide cools and therefore contracts. Some of the carbon dioxide also becomes dissolved in the cooled sap. Finally, some of the sap freezes. All three of these factors create suction in the tree. This causes water from the soil to be drawn up into the roots and travel up through the sapwood. When temperatures rise above freezing the next day, sap flow begins again.
maple leaves changing colors in the fall or autumn

photo: pixabay

  • Clawed Creatures – I’ve had lobster gcalled Crayfish in New Zealand around the world and never really saw what the fuss was about. Don’t get me wrong – I love shellfish.  Especially crab.  Now, I’m so thankful I acquiesced to my friends’ lobster dinner invitation!  New England’s lobster is the best I’ve had by miles.  I’m converted!
  • Spiky Situations – I saw the second live porcupine of my life shortly after arriving in New England. And then very quickly I saw the third, fourth, fifth, tenth…  They are quilling dogs and horses in the face, ending up as regular roadkill that wreaks havoc on tires, and enjoying many backyard compost heaps.
porcupine eating

They’re kind of cute when they’re not busy stabbing your dog or horse in the face, etc.  photo: oregongal

  • Tick but not Tock – a bizarre looking arachnid haunts the woods of the northeast. They feast on the blood of mammals.  Rarely does one feel the bug tapping a capillary, nor can you feel the disease carried by these creepy crawlies entering your bloodstream.  Lyme (pronounced “lime”) is a bacterial infection surrounded by a veil of fear-inducing mystery.  The closer you live to the woods, the more likely you are to have to find and painstakingly remove five or six ticks every day!
  • Mud Season – when temperatures begin to rise in late winter, the moisture locked in the ground for months is finally released.  For over 50% of region inhabitants h82% in Vermont, according to this page! who live on dirt roads, cracks appear and soon turn into full swamps.  For weeks anyone without the driving skills to make it through peanut-butter bogs appeals to the nearest tractor for a hand.
  • Postcard Cute – The rural nature of New England means that drives from A to B inevitably pass adorable little farm stands and sugar shacks, the latter with a retail shed where you can buy fresh maple syrup.
  • “Mountains” – As a woman from the High Plains/Rocky Mountains, I had to giggle a little when I realized the hills through which you rise and fall on any regional drive count as “mountains.” However, once I’d gotten a bit further afield into seriously flat upstate NY, seeing the Green Mountain State’s iVermont verdant topography return to the horizon was a sight for sore eyes!
green mountain state mt mansfield

This is the view from the top of the highest mountain in Vermont. photo: compass points media

myrvstuff.com

This is the view from the highest mountain in my home state.  The dark green strip of hills on the left touching the distant skyline is comparable to the “mountains” of New England.   photo: myrvstuff.com

  • Presto-Change-o! – While New England is famous for its long, monotonous winters, personally I’d nominate it for “fastest transformation I’ve ever seen.” When spring has sprung, it’s an almost-overnight revolution.  One day a few blades of green grass and buds on the trees.  The next day the forest has gone from graveyard to full canopy and violets dot lush lawns.  The next, everything has grown another foot!
  • Tweet Tweet – at a birds and nature museum nestled into the toe of a mountain summit, I discovered that all the new, bright-colored birds arriving at the home feeder weren’t actually new. They just got new plumage. Ha!
  • Lightbulb Moment #875 – The museum also clarified why a local sour-beer brewery is called “Hermit Thrush.” I thought maybe the owner liked to be alone when brewing beer jin my world I know “thrush” only as the commonwealth term for a female medical condition that you may google at your own peril.  Suffice to say it’s in the same department as sour beer’s trademark ingredient.?  Or maybe it was supposed to signify purity?  Or maybe they were piggybacking off the recluse-monasteries-monks-brew-beautiful-beverages concept?    Vermont’s state bird.  It’s a Hermit Thrush.  Oh.

When in Rome

There are a few New England characteristics I could easily absorb and espouse.  The “suck it up and deal with it, swallow your problems” values mirror those of my childhood state.  In New England, they say the local ethos is a result of the long, hard winters.  Maybe Wyoming, too?  Both Wyoming and all New England states are in the less appealing side of the worst winters in America list.

Also, it was such a relief to finally be in a place that walked the walk in the au naturale department.  Even on the west coast and in Europe – places reputed to not pressure women into spending 150 hours a year in front of a mirror painting on makeup or in the shower communing with a razor – my god-given gams and underarms got several second glances.  Not so in New England!

armpit hair isn't gross says budget travel blog author Jema Patterson

My fellow sisters in (under)arms. photo: ben hopper

While I wasn’t as quickly able to get on board with the regional communication style, I did eventually assimilate.  Without even realizing I was doing it, I stopped waving to fellow motorists who rarely waved back anyway.  I stopped chatting up fellow pedestrians at crosswalks who often responded awkwardly to small talk.  I began keeping to myself at cafés and checkout lines where most everyone else was busy keeping to themselves.  I stopped showering the generally unsmiling world with smiles.  I finally became conscious of my adopted social behavior when I realized I’d gone nearly two weeks without introducing myself to the new backyard tenants at the homestead.  I hadn’t been avoiding them, but I certainly didn’t go out of my way to welcome them either.

This, my friends, is why New England has a reputation for unfriendliness. ksee #11 in link

cranky new englanders says budget travel blog half the clothes

Standard expression for lots (not all!) New Englanders. Being in public is way less enjoyable here.  photo: gratisography

Perhaps the social script stems from the region’s hard-scrabble history?  lI don’t necessarily buy that it’s the winters.  Some of the places with the worst winters in America are pretty darn friendly.  The Mayflower touched down in November and promptly lost 48% of its passengers to one of the local, notorious harsh winters.  Maybe survival required a self-focused intensity that passed to descendants, many of whom haven’t wandered too far from Plymouth Rock?  Or maybe the folks who showed up initially were pretty jaded and sick of strangers getting in their business?  They came to block out the rest of the damn world and their defense in the face of serious population density is to pretend everyone else isn’t there?

Or is it option B – that I have a crazy skewed perspective?  Wary of my own observation bias, I repeatedly brought up the topic with other newcomers to the region.  Nearly every time, the fellow outsiders’ eyes lit up.  They fired off similar observations and experiences, their faces flooding with the relief of connecting in what seems to many outsiders a very disconnected world.

But!  They, too, adored the region’s lovely colonial structures, woods, farm stands, sugar shacks, “mountains,” and stone walls.  They, too, cherished watching spring explode all around us.  They, too, got confused the first time they heard locals talking about the Yukon.  Er… UCONN. ♣


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References   [ + ]

a. For sake of accuracy, I should mention that only New Hampshire uses this class system, but I found the terminology leaks out to surrounding areas a bit
b. not an espresso machine in sight
c. size of New England divided by size of U.S. and population of New England (14 million-ish) divided by population of U.S. (300 million-ish.  Exact numbers: 14,444,865 and 308,745,538. ) Check out this awesome map showing Dunkin’ Donuts evil empire.  Which does extend outside New England, but the technically accurate math is too laborious for a one-off blog post.
d. For now this will have to do. Or if you only care about Boston, watch this.
e. that’s why it’s so expensive!
f. Basically, maple trees, and specifically sugar maples, have a unique, multifaceted pressure situation.  Temperature swings plus distinctive biological processes add up to way more sap flow and sap sweetness than any other species.  From an old Cornell page that has now been adapted: What makes the sap rise?  During warm periods when temperatures rise above freezing, pressure develops in the tree. This pressure causes the sap to flow out of the tree through a wound or tap hole. During cooler periods when temperatures fall below freezing, suction develops, drawing water into the tree. This replenishes the sap in the tree, allowing it to flow again during the next warm period. Sap flows through a portion of the outer tree trunk called sapwood. Sapwood consists of actively growing cells that conduct water and nutrients (sap) from the roots to the branches of the tree. During the day, activity in the cells of sapwood produces carbon dioxide. This carbon dioxide is released to the intercellular spaces in the sapwood. In addition, carbon dioxide that was dissolved in the cool sap is released into the spaces between the cells. Both of these sources of carbon dioxide cause pressure to build up in the cells. A third source of pressure is called osmotic pressure, which is caused by the presence of sugar and other substances dissolved in the sap. When the tree is wounded, as when it is tapped by a maple producer, the pressure forces the sap out of the tree. At night or during other times when temperatures go below freezing, the carbon dioxide cools and therefore contracts. Some of the carbon dioxide also becomes dissolved in the cooled sap. Finally, some of the sap freezes. All three of these factors create suction in the tree. This causes water from the soil to be drawn up into the roots and travel up through the sapwood. When temperatures rise above freezing the next day, sap flow begins again.
g. called Crayfish in New Zealand
h. 82% in Vermont, according to this page!
i. Vermont
j. in my world I know “thrush” only as the commonwealth term for a female medical condition that you may google at your own peril.  Suffice to say it’s in the same department as sour beer’s trademark ingredient.
k. see #11 in link
l. I don’t necessarily buy that it’s the winters.  Some of the places with the worst winters in America are pretty darn friendly.


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