By Richard Telford
Early in my first year of teaching in northeastern Connecticut, more than two decades ago, I heard a colleague refer to her husband as a “typical Swamp Yankee.” He had acquired numerous lawnmowers in various states of disrepair and was slowly pirating parts from one or another to produce a working machine. It was the first time I had heard the term Swamp Yankee, but it would not be the last. Though it has historically been used largely as a pejorative, albeit a tempered one, I have come to see it as complimentary. In fact, I believe that a Swamp Yankee ethic, as I will try to frame it here, is a potent tool in the fight to mitigate the effects of the environmental crisis with which we are presently beset and likely always will be.
Ruth Schell, in the May 1963 issue of American Speech, published by Duke University, wrote what may be the only scholarly treatise on the term Swamp Yankee. Schell noted that the term appeared to have a limited geographic range in terms of popular use, largely confined to southeastern Massachusetts, northeastern Connecticut, and northwestern Rhode Island, the junction of the three states. In that region she found that a Swamp Yankee was seen as “a rural dweller–one of stubborn, old-fashioned, frugal, English-speaking Yankee stock, of good standing in the rural community, but usually possessing minimal formal education and little desire to augment it.” In communities where the term was most commonly used, she found that the colloquialism “refers very simply to a rural resident of Yankee descent and inclinations, who is of long and, generally, good standing in the area.” The more localized the term, the less focused it seems on education or the lack thereof, and this, for me, is a distinction that matters.
Having lived in northeastern Connecticut for the last 22 years, 14 of which have been spent rehabilitating our 1770 farmhouse, I have come to see myself as a full-fledged Swamp Yankee, a term which, for me, has no pejorative quality. For me, the Swamp Yankee ethic boils down to the practice of fully and wisely using all resources, both material and intellectual, and this, I think, becomes more critical each day as we continue to assess and understand more fully the deleterious effect our societal wastefulness has on the natural world and, ultimately, on ourselves. For my family, the Swamp Yankee ethic manifests itself in living frugally in economic terms so that we can live more fully in terms of living close to the land and to each other. We live only on my teaching salary, which allows for our kids to grow up in their own home. Our frugality manifests itself in buying nearly everything secondhand, doing nearly all home repairs ourselves (learned mostly through books), and, perhaps most significantly, in rehabilitating our 1770 farmhouse, which was being considered for demolition before I bought it. In simple terms, we have worked hard to distinguish between what we might want and what we truly need, and we have modeled that way of life for our children. As I note above, the benefits of our Swamp Yankee ethic extend far beyond the economics. Such an ethic rejects the disposability that defines our society, reducing our environmental impact significantly. For us, it is a kind of living governed both by necessity and by the desire to give to our children, and subsequent generations, a more sustained and sustainable natural world.
Tom Brokaw, in 1998, invoked the term “The Greatest Generation” to recognize the generation of Americans who had lived through the deprivation of The Great Depression and rallied to fight the rising Axis Powers both on the battlefield and through solidarity on the home front. Americans ran scrap metal drives, planted Victory Gardens, rationed basic staples such as sugar and gasoline, and halted commercial automotive production in deference to wartime production; they forewent luxuries in all forms to contribute to a cause on which the survival of civil society as they knew it hinged. In short, they provided an example of sustainable living in a world of limited resources, though their greatest concerns, understandably, did not center on the loss of biodiversity or the changing climate. They demonstrated a selflessness that is largely absent from American culture these days.
Those who challenge the validity of anthropogenic climate change, and even many who acknowledge it, might argue that the present environmental crisis is not comparable to a global war that precipitated the estimated loss of 70 to 80 million combatants and civilians worldwide. I disagree. At present, we are at war with ourselves, pitting consumption-driven self-interest against long-term sustainability. The evidence of this war is all around us, and the casualties are real, though not so easily quantified. According to the World Food Programme, for example, “Some 795 million people in the world do not have enough food to lead a healthy active life.” To what degree is this number directly related to unsustainable agriculture, or to ecosystem changes rooted in anthropogenic climate change, or to government corruption that values self-interest over the environment? Consider, too, the long-term effects of the recent drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan; or the cascading effects of the loss of polar sea ice due to rising ocean temperatures; or the plastics that comprise the vast majority of oceanic litter; or the widespread, global loss of biodiversity; or the poisoning of groundwater caused by the extraction of natural gas through hydraulic fracturing. How can we quantify the loss of health and life that will occur for generations as a result of these and other manifestations of the environmental crisis we have wrought? How can we fail to see that this is a crisis of unprecedented urgency?
Seven decades after the end of the Second World War, though we lull ourselves daily into thinking otherwise, we stand at precisely such a crossroads faced by Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation.” In fact, the long-term stakes are higher. Climate change is not a brutal dictator whose rise to power can be abruptly halted. Nor can accelerated resource depletion, habitat fragmentation, biodiversity loss, or other dynamics of our present environmental crisis be cast in simple terms. Our assault on the environment, whether conscious or unconscious, is omnipresent. Yet it is also largely invisible to those who cannot or choose not to see it, rendering the threat even more potent. It is not just civil human society at stake, as it was in 1939; it is our long-term survival as a species, and the threat will continue for decades, perhaps centuries, or even millennia. It is easy to decry such a statement as alarmist, of course, but doing so ignores the staggering speed with which we are depleting resources and degrading the environment in ways that neither we nor the Earth itself can reverse.
In her 1940 book The Wave of the Future: A Confession of Faith, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, facing the rise of Nazism, Communism, and Fascism in Europe, wrote the following: “In fact, on the average citizen, even more than on the expert, falls the responsibility of decision, in present issues, and the burden of its consequences.” Seventy-five years later, it would be hard to sum up more eloquently the dynamic of our present environmental crisis; we, as “average citizen[s],” cannot ignore the critical role we can and must play in solving complex environmental problems rather than exacerbating them. There is, though, a darker dimension to Lindbergh’s treatise, one that is especially pertinent now. In the closing pages, she writes, “Because of this tradition and this heritage, many of us hoped that in America, if nowhere else in the world, it should be possible to meet the wave of the future in comparative harmony and peace. It should be possible to change an old life to a new without such terrible bloodshed as we see today in Europe. We have been a nation who looked forward to new ideas, not back to old legends.” Though she seems reticent to state it outright in the 41-page text, it is clear by the end of her Confession that she advocates for an isolationist course. This is not surprising, given that her husband, American aviator Charles Lindbergh, headed one of the most potent isolationist groups in the country, the America First Committee. In the closing pages of her treatise, Anne Morrow Lindbergh argues that, by remaining aloof of the conflict in Europe and by “giving up part of the ease of living and the high material standard we have been noted for […],” i.e. the loss of European luxury imports, America “might gain in spirit, vigor, and in self-reliance.” The hindsight of history bears out the flaws her argument, and the application of that history in the present leads to one inevitable conclusion: such aloofness cannot save us now, just as it could not have done so 75 years ago. We cannot, in our comparative affluence as a society, isolate ourselves from the effects of the present environmental crisis. If we do not face it openly and act on all scales to change course, we are ignorant or willful conspirators in our own demise.
Our affluence as a society allows us in the short-term to keep at a distance many of the direct effects of anthropogenic climate change that others now face head on—desertification, increased vulnerability to catastrophic weather events, and famine, to name only a few—much as geography allowed America, for a time, to isolate itself from the upheaval fomented in Europe by the Axis Powers. But in both cases, the “distance” from the respective problems was and is illusory. We can only buy our way out of the problems of anthropogenic climate change—and of many other manifestations of the present environmental crisis—for a finite time. The sooner we stop trying to do so, the better. On the individual scale, an ethic forged along the lines of the southern New England Swamp Yankee offers a good starting point. On the societal scale, we must look to Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation” and work to emulate their capacity to look away from themselves and toward the greater good. My father was born in 1926 and later served as a Staff Sergeant in the Pacific Theater of the Second World War, so I grew up surrounded by his contemporaries. I think Brokaw got it right. But for us to emulate that generation and to face the environmental crisis with like selflessness and resolve, we must first see the crisis as a crisis. To do so, we must come to terms with a complex and oft-hidden enemy—ourselves.