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JFB in NYT: This Astronomical Recession

JFB in NYT: This Astronomical Recession
August 5, 2011 Jennifer Boylan

This op/ed column appeared on August 5, 2011.  It was the first of a month of “guest columns” for the New York Times.  I was substituting for David Brooks for August, a substitution which itself is not without its own pleasures.–JFB


This Astronomical Recession

Published: August 4, 2011

Belgrade Lakes, ME

If the decrepitude of Neptune caused me to briefly lose my faith in America, it was the ingenious rings of Saturn that restored it for good.

Two weeks ago, on the day of the very last shuttle landing on Earth, I drove along Route 1, taking a good look at the Maine Solar System Model. This would be a scale mock-up of our cosmic neighborhood unveiled in 2003 and devised by Kevin McCartney, a geology professor at the University of Maine at Presque Isle, who built the thing because it “seemed like a good idea” at the time.

Driving the 40 miles from the Sun (at the university’s science museum), to Pluto (in nearby Houlton), also struck me as a good way, as the government likely prepares to cut the nation’s safety nets, to gauge the impact of the recession on Aroostook County, the state’s northernmost county and one of its poorest.

I saw plenty of signs of economic ruin — boarded up businesses, burned-out houses. But there were signs of life as well, like the tough-looking farms surrounded by fields of yellow-white potato blossoms and, on a mountain range between Saturn and Uranus, the swiftly rotating sails of a brand-new wind farm.

“We built it ourselves,” said Professor McCartney, meaning the universe. “Around here we sort of take care of ourselves.”

Hardship is nothing new for “The County” (as everyone in Maine calls it). “This area was never rich in the first place,” explained the professor’s wife, Kate, who runs a bed and breakfast. The county took its hit in the ’90s when Loring Air Force Base closed. “It’s not as if things are so much harder than they were. They’ve never been easy in the first place.”

As I headed away from the three-story-tall cross-section sculpture of the Sun, the inner planets came swiftly. Each mile represents one astronomical unit, the distance between the Earth and the Sun; I passed the silver model of Mercury in 0.4 miles, followed by a red and white Venus outside the Budget Traveler Inn. There, Stephanie McIntosh, a desk clerk, said occupancy was down except during snowmobiling season and the Maine Potato Blossom Festival. The best part of the festival, she said, is the mashed potato wrestling contest.

A cloudless planet Earth, about the size of a navel orange, sat on the top of a pole outside of Percy’s Auto Sales. Brian Rackliffe, a salesman there, told me sales have improved since the dark days of 2008. “But they have a long, long way to go before we’re back to normal.”

I found Mars by the “Welcome to Presque Isle” sign on the way out of town. From there, it was a long way to Jupiter. I passed fields of potatoes, hay and broccoli, and in a ditch near a lot filled with construction equipment, a model of Ceres that represented the asteroid belt.

Jupiter was by a sign marked “Moose Crossing.” Five miles beyond was Saturn, which had its own parking lot. It was hard not to be impressed by the planet, with its beautiful rings, built by students at local schools. “Saturn weighs over a ton,” Professor McCartney told me.

Next was Uranus, at the Bridgewater rec center, where a sign read, “Congratulations Chloe Wheeler. 2011 Pre-Teen Miss Potato Blossom.” Then there was Neptune, a blue basketball-size sphere another 12 miles down the highway, in front of a large garden of what looked like squash or pumpkin vines. Potatoes are still Aroostook County’s No. 1 agricultural crop, but the industry has been in decline for years, the result of shifting consumer tastes and competition from other states, particularly cursed Idaho. As I looked up at Neptune, it was clear that the planet had been through a few rough years itself. Paint was flaking around its equator.

I’d been wondering how the people of Aroostook County would handle Pluto, since it had been downgraded from planet to dwarf planet in 2006. Professor McCartney admitted that the demotion had hit him hard. With a Mainer’s mix of cussedness and generosity, he reacted to Pluto’s degradation by putting up a second Pluto. He also added a model for Eris, another dwarf planet.

At the second Pluto, I met a woman who said she’d spent her whole life in Aroostook County. “My son’s the son of a potato farmer,” she said, “but he had to leave. Now he’s a sea captain. It’s always a problem, keeping the young people from going away.”

Earlier in the day, I had driven up to Limestone, Me., on the Canadian border, to the old Air Force base. Once it was a weapons storage area and home to the 42nd Bomb Wing. Now the whole area is called the “Loring Commerce Centre,” a name that I tried hard not to find ironic. As a storm came on, I drove past ruined, rusted hangars, fields of decommissioned military vehicles and a rotting structure with four towers resembling desolated, ruined minarets. After a couple of wrong turns, I accidentally wound up on the vast, wind-swept runway, as rain blew horizontally past my car and lightning struck the ground.

The skies cleared on my way to Eris. Driving, I saw the St. Croix River off to the east, and the green forests of Canada beyond, and a black Labrador retriever with a snake in its mouth.

When I finally found the dwarf planet, it was across the street from a shuttered general store and next to a veterans’ memorial with a flagpole and no flag. But there was a new store a few doors down, selling fishing lures and cheeseburgers. Loggers were pulling their trucks into the parking lot, their rigs full of newly hewn timber.

I cast a glance north, toward the distant model of the Sun, and remembered something Kate McCartney had told me. “People always think the end of the universe is coming,” she said, referring not only to deadly asteroids but to the American economy as well. “But we’re more resilient than that. You drive the Maine Solar System Model, the speed of light is seven miles per hour.” She smiled. “At that speed, you have to believe everything is going to be all right.”

Jennifer Finney Boylan, a professor of English at Colby College and the author, most recently, of “Falcon Quinn and the Crimson Vapor,” is a guest columnist.


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