I live in the same place where I have lived most of my life. Some things remain the same. Dawn on my horizon looks the same as it did when I was a child. Other things change more drastically, like the traffic on this road. When I was in junior high, the school bus came up the road this half mile, and turned around in our driveway. My siblings and I, and whatever children might be living next-door in the house where my grandmother grew up, got on the bus and headed off to school. By the time my own children began their education, the bus went right past us, returning a while later half full of children. Now, on this holiday weekend, the traffic speeds by like a busy highway, despite the deplorable state of the pavement, as seasonal neighbours travel to and from cottages on the lake.
My husband and I went for a ride in the woods behind our house. In my mind, that journey should be the same as it was 50 years ago, when I took solitary walks down the same woods road. I still expect it to be overhung with maples, but that has not been the case since the tail end of Hurricane Arthur blew through in 2014, toppling a quarter of the sugar maples, and many other trees. Instead of the deep magic forest of my childhood, now the skies are open over the Little Mactaquac Maples sugar camp, which itself is a more recent addition to our landscape. But the stream still flows, and in spring the falls still roar down the rocks from the fields above. Yet the contrast between my childhood memories and the current reality is so stark that I grieve every time I make the trip. I miss the magic in the ancient trees.
I am thinking about these things, because of the change this pandemic brings. We still don’t know what the longterm changes might be, as we wait in an extended pause between what was and what is coming. But we have survived change before. I think the biggest upheaval this extended community has experienced in my lifetime was the construction of Mactaquac Hydro Dam. I was 10 years old when the water rose in the St. John River Valley. Farms that my father worked were inundated. Mactaquac Stream, into which our Little Mactaquac Stream flows, could once be crossed on stepping stones in summer. Now it is part of the deep headpond above the dam. I remember the Snowshoe Islands, but since they weren’t part of my daily landscape, I don’t miss them like some do. I do miss the darkness of a starry night, something that disappeared forever when they turned on the lights on the “damn dam,” as it is affectionately called around here.
I was small when this all came about, listening on the edges to adult conversations, and hearing the anger, sadness, and fear in their voices. I imagine what it might have been like for them. Perhaps the years of change and the uncertain pause between what was and what was coming is similar to what we are experiencing now – knowing that things were changing, seeing the survey stakes go up, hearing news of neighbours’ land expropriated, watching swaths of trees cut and piled, denuding steep hillsides that would soon be under water – unable to imagine what the river valley would be like in the future.
That future came and we got used to it. Some still grieve what was, while others fought tooth and nail to save their beautiful river, waterfront houses, and tourist industry, when, in recent years, a decision needed to be made either to refurbish the dam or remove it. Some envisioned the removal of the dam as a return to what was, while others pointed out that what is under the water will never again be the river of our memory.
We got through that massive change, somehow surviving and becoming a different community, a truly beautiful community up and down our river, with new people, new activity, and a new way of life. That history of loss and rebirth in our lives can encourage us as we face the changes of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our future will again be different. We don’t know how different, and we will naturally grieve what was, but we will also rejoice. I hold onto my faith, believing that those things that need changed, that we didn’t know how to change, will be changed, through this pandemic, for the good of all.