Back to the Land in Maine

Today we have a special treat, a post from special guest Elizabeth Penney, who has a new Maine-set mystery in stores now. Welcome, Liz.

Thank you to Maine Crime Writers for including me as a guest! Although I now live in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, my new cozy mystery series is set in fictional Blueberry Cove, Maine. I also grew up in Maine, after moving to Readfield at age seven.

As might be expected, the Apron Shop Series includes well-known aspects of life in Maine: lobster, lighthouses, and a charming coastal village. But those of us who have lived in the state know that Maine is so much more than a tourist destination. It’s a place of many stark contrasts, with an often quirky history and reputation for eccentricity. Maine’s remoteness and sparse settlement has long been a lure to those who want to forge their own paths.

Hems and Homicide, book one in the series, includes two murders. One is a cold case, a young woman who disappeared in the 1970s. Iris Buckley, my sleuth, tracks the young woman’s footsteps to a former commune in Liberty, Maine. My family still lives near Liberty, and when I learned there used to be several communes in the area, I invented one for my story.

In the 1970s, Maine experienced an influx of new residents seeking to “get back to the land,” a movement inspired by Helen and Scott Nearing’s book, The Good Life. They dreamed of self-sufficiency, growing their own food and heating with wood while rejecting the so-called “rat race.” Many settled on old farms, abandoned when agricultural production boomed in the Midwest. Farming was never easy in Maine, with its short growing season and rocky soil.

In my younger days, I spent quite a bit of time with homesteaders, as they were also called. My friends built their own houses (mostly with hand tools) and lived without electricity or running water. One of them built a big dome, which looked cool but always had problems with leaks. They planted gardens—some illicit—and raised chickens and livestock. One homesteader even used a horse to cut hay and skid logs out of the woods.

I loved visiting those hand-hewn homes. Nothing is more peaceful than the absence of electrical hum or warmer than wood heat, which seems to penetrate the bones. The lifestyle itself forces a slower pace, a savoring of everyday tasks. Like washing dishes, for example, which requires heating water on the stove first. There’s something about this simplicity that beckons, as if life is stripped to the beautiful and essential.

Photo by Victor Biagiotti

Now, decades later, Maine is seeing a second wave of small-scale farming, with Downeast Magazine calling the trend, Back to the Land 2.0. The demand for fresh and local food has created opportunities for farmers and entrepreneurs in Maine and elsewhere. Unfortunately, new laws—like the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act—often burden small producers. But in a characteristic move, Maine has struck a blow for independence. Over forty towns have now adopted food sovereignty ordinances, which means residents don’t need state licenses or inspections to sell their products from home or farm. Communities have the power to create local rules regulating locally produced food.

I love Maine. And writing about Maine too.

To learn more about Maine’s original back to the land movement, I recommend The Good Life, a Bangor Daily News feature.

Elizabeth Penney lives in New Hampshire’s frozen north where she pens mysteries and tries to grow things. She’s the author of the Apron Shop Series, with book one, Hems and Homicide, available now, as well as numerous titles for Annie’s Fiction and Guideposts.

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9 Responses to Back to the Land in Maine

  1. So nice to read your post about Maine’s wonderful qualities and mysteries. I am a transplant who moved to Caribou in 1972. I was born in Philadelphia and ended up in Maine via the Bronx, NYC. It was a culture shock, but I soon learned to love it here, and now at 75, living on a lake near the little town of Stockholm, I am resistant to move south. I recall a back-to-the-lander’s invasion back in the mid 70s. Aroostook represented wild and free ifestyle, but it was too much work to many, and most of them moved on. Some stayed and raised families here. And now the Amish and Mennonites have bought up land throughout the County and are settling in very well. I set my work in progress, “Sugar Pie and Moonbeams,” in a small city like Caribou, and find with the rich culture of history and tradition, ritual and diversity, Maine is a wonderful setting to stage a murder!

    • Elizabeth Penney says:

      My father (who did the photo illustrating this article) was also from New York City, Queens to be exact. He loved the peace, quiet, and beauty of Maine, where he also launched a small communications business. He had quite the independent streak too! Interesting to hear about the new wave of settlers. And your book sounds great! Best of luck with it.

  2. matthewcost says:

    I grew up in one of those homemade homesteads in Madison, ME. Long way from the coast of Brunswick where I live today.

  3. I grew up in the suburbs North of Chicago, We went North to Wisconsin to farms to visit by when I was young. It was very
    Different to really notice the sound, sky, and darkness at night.
    We did NOT live in the city we vary lived surrounded by forest,
    So it was kind of odd. They called us the ‘city folk’ . They did Not have running water or indoor toilet 🙁 2big really big cook bond held water in a stove/heater all the time in the dining room. They used the water to wash dishes in another room, to bathe- the tub in another room. They had a phone on the wall that was a party line -someone was always talking on it. They didn’t go to the post office they had a little cup in the mail box which was at the end of a very long dirt drive and they would leave change in it for postage on their outgoing mail. There was nothing around but farms so nearest neighbor was miles between farmland.
    Love reading your books.

  4. Nicely written. The part of Maine away from the coast begs to be written about, especially in dark fiction.

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