The children of the Industrial Revolution are being exploited again, this time for the sake of luxury apartments. The ghost of Little Timmy Two-fingers has to hang around in a $2,500 a month loft in a former textile mill with nothing to do every night but watch Love Island with the current tenant - a 34-year old IT transplant from Virginia - while she finishes her second bottle of Sauvingon Blanc and swipes through Bumble with a callused thumb. During the day, the tormenting click clack of her fingers on a computer keyboard remind him of the click clack of the mechanical loom that disfigured his hands, and he can't escape it, because Becky works from home and never leaves; after all, the locals in this town are a little rough around the edges.
It's a familiar dynamic all over New England; people in tech, their lives put into perspective by fears of COVID, have left their far-flung homes and grim cubicles and put down roots in picturesque old mill towns all along the Atlantic Coast. The freedom of at-home work has helped facilitate this, for no longer do you have to go into the office to get your daily bread. In the future, the office is everywhere! Imagine the possibilities.
Let's say you are one of these folks: in your mind's eye you can picture bucolic white-steepled churches, rambling millyards, walkable downtowns - and yes, all these hallmarks of Olde New England and more can be seen from the window of expensive apartments you'll never leave because it's too cold and too dangerous to go outside.
Your real-estate agent told you that the homeless population will "sort itself out" in the next three years or so, and you can only hope that by then, global warming will make the winters here a little more bearable. In the meantime, develop your nest! Don't like your neighbors? Don't worry - they all work night-time service jobs and if the sound of your four-hour daily Zoom meetings doesn't force them to leave, the constant construction in your rapidly-gentrifying apartment building will. Meanwhile the two-hundred year old place has taught you to redefine the word rustic so you'll need some plants; while they're available at a local nursery, it's cheaper to get them at the Wal-Mart thirty minutes away. Don't look the cashier in the eye, she may ask you for drugs. But have no fear: you can vote for an expanded police force in your next local election, where you can also help approve a fifty-million dollar parking garage to alleviate the California-style traffic that you brought to town with you. It will be located next to the Old Burying Ground, on the former site of Mom's Pizza.
I'm joking about all of this, of course - rising rents will dispose of us all much faster than anything mentioned above. In a weird irony of the 21st century, the established middle class has decided to move back to the city, which wouldn't be so bad in and of itself if they didn't impose their tired old suburban shtick onto it. There seems to be an expectation that where one lives must be quiet, spacious, and uneventful, which of course is exactly what most of the world is not, especially places that were built by and inhabited for the last one hundred or so years by armies of working-class immigrants who were not welcome in the kinds of places where the middle class was created in the first place. And now no one moving to New England wants to give up their car, or do laundry down the street, or live upstairs from a Polish deli. Nor do they want sailors in their bars, or live music after ten, or loud passenger trains ruining their silent, silent nights.
Meanwhile many townies may end up living in what burnt-out remnants of suburbia there are left, subsiding on stale scraps of American Dream and having no other option than to pollute and waste and spend and consume just to get to work, where they serve the kinds of people who now live in their old neighborhoods. If they're lucky, that is; others will just become homeless.
Of course, Little Timmy Two-fingers himself was a transplant; back in 1900 he was an industrial drone that immigrated to New England, and did dehumanizing work for an industry that upended the established social order and displaced scores of hard-working, honest locals. Those locals did the same god damn thing a generation before that, when they chopped down all the trees and hunted the whales to near-extinction. And their grandfathers did it to the Abenakis and Massachusset and the Penobscot and all sorts of other folks way, way back when. You may be seeing a pattern, here.
So who has dominion over this fine land of ours? If you answered no one, you'd be right. And, according to this week's Dollar Bin record Edge of the Meadow, you could say it doesn't even belong to the birds.
Edge of the Meadow is an offering from Providence, Rhode Island record label Droll Yankees, which in the last sixty years has evolved from making regional-culture spoken-word albums to making fine bird feeders. I am serious - check out your local Ace Hardware and you will discover that many of the bird feeders for sale come from a company once known for such hits as Swearing In The Bushes: A Shocking Record For Men (1962) and Ross McKenney As John Baptiste The French Canadian (1961). Droll Yankees was originally dedicated to capturing the sounds and culture of a New England that its founders felt was quickly disappearing, and the result is a whole bunch of weird records of ocean sounds, railroad recordings, bad jokes, poetry, storytelling, and bird songs.
Droll Yankees' record jackets are, like their material, oddly homespun; more often than not an album on this label will come in a plain black or white sleeve with an oversized front sticker. It all appears to be the work of a few dedicated individuals, working by hand, for the sheer fun of it. And it's a good primer for what you'll find inside, which will most likely be spoken word material recited in the kind of old-timey dialect you just don't hear anymore. So beyond its value as good ol' down home entertainment, this stuff is super valuable as a kind of cultural document - which I'm sure is what the label had in mind. After all, this is not the kind of stuff you put on at parties, unless your friends are really, really weird.
There were quite a few bird- and nature-sound albums coming out in the LP era. A lot of them were really scientific and collegiate and discussed things like bird song notation and were narrated by the kinds of guys who think doing your taxes is fun. What makes Edge of the Meadow stand out is its narrative approach, which instead of placing you in a lecture hall, puts you alongside a couple of old Yankee farts on a birding trip in early summer. Whether this is a carefully edited project or just an extremely fruitful field recording is hard to tell; either way, it has the amateurish quality that suggests two guys dragging a tape recorder out into the field behind their barn.
What's really interesting about this album is that the narrators' discussion repeatedly weaves between the subject of birds and the landscape and geographic history of New England. When one guy describes the song of the bobolink as being representative of a New England summer, the other quickly points out that the bobolink was only introduced to the region after a period of serious deforestation. At other points the two men muse about what kind of species existed in the times before colonial settlement, when the ecology of the forest was irreparably changed by subsistence farming and the shipbuilding industry.
As they walk around the edge of the woods, the narrators comment on the lay of the land - and the diversity of it - at the same time they acknowledge that what they see is a result of human activity. If you've seen the human development around eastern Massachusetts, southern New Hampshire, or southeast Maine in the last twenty years, you won't be surprised to hear that many of the species discussed on this record have seen major population decreases since it was recorded. In 1969, the woods in these regions were experiencing a historic comeback, reclaiming huge areas that were once logged or converted to pastureland. Fifty years later, many of these regenerated tracts of forest are being leveled again for suburban and urban development. This has already caused a few strange changes; the wild turkey, which was nearly extinct in New England at the time this record was made, has made an astonishing comeback as suburban housing has limited hunting activity. Meanwhile, a lack of agricultural activity has forced populations of common starlings to migrate to cities, where they bully other birds into giving up their nests, and carry pests and disease into populated areas.
However, as we discussed above, everything is subject to change - while we all have to live together at a fixed point upon the Big Wheel of Time, it stands to reason that in another fifty years things will look just as different. We're just visitors here. All the birds and animals, going about their daily business in your backyard, are a little more ancient - but in the grand scheme of things they're all just visitors too. Try and be polite. In the meantime, listen to Edge of the Meadow, because it is a weird little record and will bring the sounds of nature into your house.
If you're disappointed that we didn't talk about music this week, cheer up and flip Edge of the Meadow over - side two is just the bird songs, narration-free.