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Dear <I>GQ</i>: Yes, We Do Need Maine.

Maine Narrative
by Emma Thieme Jan 13, 2016
This is a response to GQ magazine’s recent article “Maine: Do we need it?” by Drew Magary (Jan. 9, 2016).

I did not just attend college in Maine (at the great state University of Maine in Orono), I was also conceived in that little cabin on Daicey Pond in Baxter State Park, I was born at Eastern Maine Medical Center and I was raised in the small Waldo County river town of Winterport. My sister, two cousins and I make up the fourth generation of children to be raised in Maine, and we all continue to live and work here as adults — not just because it’s a beautiful place but also because we get a pretty hefty tax break for doing so, thanks Opportunity Maine. There are quite a few other writers who might be more qualified than I am to write about my home state, Stephen or Tabitha King for example. Henry David Thoreau, even. Or maybe Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Nevertheless, I’m actually from here, so I’ll give it a shot.

Drew asked a simple question in the title of his article: Do we need Maine? He deemed himself qualified to give us the answer because he attended a nameless college in Maine. He defined himself “as someone who has been in Maine and fled it as quickly as humanly possible after graduation.” Light research reveals that the university Drew neglected to name was Colby College. Colby College is a great school and one of Maine’s “little Ivies.” Good job Drew, your SAT scores were probably much higher than mine.

Drew went on to give a loose list of pros and cons about Maine, scattered with some various attempts at the Maine dialect. The Maine dialect is a very mysterious and unique speech that is still being studied and preserved today, and it actually varies drastically across the state. Any amount of research into Maine linguist Michael Erard’s work would have helped Drew out significantly with his all-caps, grossly inaccurate depictions. Apparently, Drew spent four years in Maine getting yelled at by various citizens.

My guess actually is that Drew’s only experience with the Maine accent was when it was imitated at Colby frat parties, probably spoken by a trust-fund child wearing whale-printed pants. Maybe he was telling a story about his mechanic who recently serviced his straight off-the-lot BMW. And his mechanic said something funny, in a funny accent. I don’t know though, I didn’t go to Colby and I don’t have any friends who wear whale-printed pants, so I don’t know what they speak of. This isn’t meant to be a knock at Colby, or even trust-fund children, it’s more just a knock at anyone who attended Colby, graduated, left, and then considered himself a local expert on the very state that gave him Colby College in the first place.

So yes, maybe not everyone needs Maine. Some people just need a smartphone and a decent amount of Instagram followers. For the rest of us though, that’s not enough.

I don’t want to get too much into the intricacies of Maine speech, but I will offer a small correction for anyone who wants to improve their imitation. We don’t add “ah” to words that end in “r” and still pronounce the “r.” That defeats the purpose of adding “ah.” We’re more apt to replace the “a” at the end of a word with an “r.” I’ve been called “Emmer” more times in my life than I’ve been called “Emma,” but I don’t take this as a sign of ignorance, it’s just a part of our culture.

Anyway, back to the question. Maine, do we need it?

I would argue that yes, the United States does in fact need Maine. One large reason is that Maine has water, a great deal of it. According to Maine’s government website, 1,300 square miles of our state is made up of sand and gravel aquifers, which recharge about 240 billion gallons of water each year. If you’ve been reading the news lately, you may have caught a story about how California is currently going on its fifth year of drought that El Niño can’t even put a dent in. That sucks, for people who choose to live in California.

We not only preserve our water resources, but we preserve our natural landscape as well. I’m actually traveling right now, going on a little road trip. I drove through East Texas at night last week and mistook the Lyondell Basell oil refinery for Houston. That mistake just can’t be made in Maine, we don’t build oil refineries that look like cities here.

I also spent some time in Hackensack, New Jersey. I went to vocational school there. I’m no expert on the local culture, but every day I drove by the same baby carriage and broken fire extinguisher that someone had apparently thrown out the window on Route 46. They must have thought that was a legitimate place for their garbage, probably because there was and is lots of garbage on the side of the road in Jersey, as well as the rest of the United States.

While I was living in Hackensack, I’d take the train into New York City on the weekends. That’s a cool place, you can stay at the bars past 1 a.m. — we can’t do that in Maine. One thing I noticed about New Yorkers though is that they also are fine living amongst trash. I once saw a 20-something kid wearing an ‘Earth Day 1995’ t-shirt discard his empty pack of American Spirits on the sidewalk. That’s an anecdotal example, but it wasn’t the only empty pack of smokes I saw on the ground while I was in New York City. In Maine, you would be hard-pressed to find someone willing to throw their cigarette butt on the ground.

So those are a few reasons for you: we have water, we have a beautiful landscape, and we try very hard not to pollute either of those things.

Now let’s talk about racism, which is really at the heart of Drew’s short piece. I know this because he wrote “racism” twice and then attempted some more Maine speech about a guy named Kenny who saw a black person in “BANGOR-AH” once and feared that he would somehow be turned into clam juice. (…? I was confused by this example.)

Nevertheless, I write and edit for Matador Network, and when I write about Maine, there is almost always at least one commentator who likes to bring up racism — no matter what the article is about. So obviously this is something that’s on people’s minds, especially combined with Gov. Lepage’s recent racist comments. If we’re talking about what’s on paper, yes, I can step back and understand why an outsider could look at Maine’s 96 percent Caucasian population and think: Hey, they must not like minorities up there.

There is an explanation for all the white people though, and it’s actually simple. Our population has only grown to 1.33 million since the French and English Europeans got here in the early 1600s. We just don’t have a lot of people, and many of the people we do have are like me — they come from a Maine family that dates back multiple generations.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t welcome minorities. Those of us who know Maine, can tell you that Lewiston has been welcoming Somali refugees for more than a decade. And those refugees have remained, and grown families. They’ve developed new businesses. They’ve become local politicians and volunteers. The Somali people have become crucial members of the communities that they reside in, and any Mainer with a decent head on their shoulders will tell you that this newfound diversity is something to be celebrated. If you ask the Huffington Post about it, they’ll show you this heartfelt video about Lewiston’s nationally ranked and very diverse high school soccer team. It’s a tearjerker.

I spend a lot of time in Washington County, Maine. (If you want to hear an authentic Maine accent, this is where you go. Unfortunately, most of the people who like to imitate the Maine accent are too afraid to come here, so they’ll never actually get to hear what it is they’re trying to imitate.) Washington County is known for its blueberry harvest, which was once dominated by Native Americans — primarily the Passamaquoddy and Canadian Mi’kmaq tribes. In the 90s however, Mexican migrant workers caught on and now they are the ones who dominate the harvest every August. How do I know this? Because I raked blueberries alongside them when I was 13-years old. So did my mother. So did my boyfriend. So did many of the Maine kids who I grew up with. I also asked around, interviewed some people, and published two articles about it in 2014.

Washington County, which is maybe the most rural and desolate part of our state, is actually a very diverse area. There are between 300 and 400 people from Michoacán, Mexico alone living year-round in Milbridge. That doesn’t sound like a lot of people, like at all, but Milbridge has less than 1,400 residents in the first place. Washington County is also known for nurturing its Native American heritage, a visit to the end of the world — Eastport — would prove that.

I’ve also lived and worked on Mount Desert Island, and that’s also a very diverse place. I’m sure Drew has gone to a few bars and clambakes on the Island, but I highly doubt he has ever worked in a Bar Harbor kitchen. If he had, he would have known that the Bar Harbor tourism industry lives and breathes at the hands of the Island’s Jamaican community. I’m going to venture out and say that if the Jamaican community were to ever leave Mount Desert Island, the tourism industry there would have an extremely difficult year. This probably will never happen though because Maine supports the H-2B visa, an opportunity that some of my Bar Harbor friends have personally benefited from.

I could go on and on about the positives of Maine all day. We’ve led the nation in marriage equality and marijuana reform. We’ve also managed to keep our Planned Parenthood open, and that’s apparently a really difficult thing to do these days.

But yes, there are some negative aspects of Maine. I can’t get cell phone service in Washington County and our governor vetoed a 2014 bill that would have expanded Medicare to 70,000 low-income residents. Our governor, actually, is a big negative. But even with LePage in office, Maine is still carried by some very progressive politicians — Congresswoman Chellie Pingeree for instance or former governor and current senator, Angus King — who continue to fight for our basic needs in education, environmental protections and reproductive health.

So yes, maybe not everyone needs Maine. Some people just need a smartphone and a decent amount of Instagram followers. For the rest of us though, that’s not enough. We want to live in a beautiful environment. We want to go swimming where there’s no one else around, or drink water right from a spring off the side of the road. We don’t want to look at billboards or oil refineries or baby carriages left on the side of the freeway. And we don’t want our water to come out of the faucet in government-regulated 10-minute spurts.

So Drew, when you get sick of wherever it is you ran off too, come back up North. The land’s cheap and it usually comes with a well. And we’ll welcome you back because that’s who we are.

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