“Happy those who with their hands
bring to harvest the fruits of earth.
Blessed are we to share this food
served with loving care and faithfulness.
May we strive to share with those
whose hunger knows no end.
With thanksgiving let us be as good as God
~ Monks of Weston Priory - table grace before meals.
Parallel to summer’s transition into autumn is the season of harvest. In northern New England, the liminal fall season is swift and bright. Successions of agricultural fairs happen throughout the region, remaining very popular with all ages. In the State of Maine, some of the largest country fairs occur as early as the first of August- such as the Skowhegan State Fair, which is nearly 200 years old. Though sharing many similarities, no two fairs are alike; they vary in dimension and in their emphases. For countless Mainers and visitors to Maine, the Common Ground Fair best represents the fruits of fall. Sponsored by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA), which is 40 years old this year, the fair’s popularity has much to do with its uniqueness.
Over the years, the Common Ground Fair has grown into its own 200-acre fairgrounds (near the town of Unity, Maine), continuing to draw exhibitors who cultivate organic farms, raise free-range farm animals, and produce energy-saving structures and household goods. Woven into these annual events are musical and educational events, instructional demonstrations of practical skills, and children’s festivities. Consistent with the fair’s ambience, there are no carnival rides and all the food is locally grown. Instead of cotton candy, there are maple-sugared peanuts- and honey-sweetened lemonade. One year, I had a chance to taste blueberry butter which was savory and memorable! Another year, I got to try my hand at an apple cider press. This year, realizing how many times I’ve gone to the Common Ground Fair, I decided to make some new photographs to go with some I’d made on my earliest visits. When we find that we’ve created traditions of our own, then we can connect personal historic reference points. Photographing a country fair, in its entirety, would take many dozens of pictures; there just isn’t enough space! As well, within so much visual interest, by making a place one’s “own,” the eye is drawn to what it most favors. Here are a few images:
At the heart of an agricultural fair, there is livestock and produce. Demonstrations include oxen-pulls, sheep-shearing, horse shows, and the very popular sheep dog events. In the photo immediately above, the sign near the potato baskets reads, “Raised in Atkinson Maine on land that has been free of all chemicals for 25 years.”
Portland's Big Sky Bakery was at the fair, with herbal spiced bread.
Having a ready notebook at the fair is exceedingly useful. A palm-sized Field Notes journal perfectly suits the occasion. There are recipes to record, quotations from discussions and speakers to note, addresses to copy down, and in between browsing there are fresh thoughts to harvest. Human countenances bright with autumn light. Among the old friends I see at the Common Ground Fair, there are always inspiring ideas that would be more elusive in the city. Briny, salty, and paved Portland is nicely balanced by pine, sweetgrass, and earthen Waldo County.
The following set of photos shows an aspect of great enjoyment at the fair: the sharing of skills. The original organizers of the fair saw the event as a way to compare notes about organic farming and gardening. Mentoring also finds its place by way of imparting time-honored ways of bread baking, stenciling, furniture and canoe building, producing yarn, and numerous additional skills. These are just a few. One year, while watching a blacksmith’s demonstration, I got the idea to do my own version of this type of delivery- with bookbinding- and have followed through at many conferences and book festivals.
Are you taking notes?
To go with the fair’s fascinating and informative demos, a major draw to Common Ground is the music. At the gates of the fairgrounds, the large signboards inform visitors of events and their respective locations. I look for the music performances and write down times and tents. Over the years, I’ve enjoyed great folk music by local acts, such as Ti-Acadie, the Gawler Family, Gordon Bok, Castlebay, and Crooked Stovepipe. Then there are the musicians who are not on the schedule- playing their instruments around the fairgrounds and adding to the sum of the day’s colors.
Photo above is from 1982; photo below is from last week.
Above, members of the Gawler Family;
below, a hymn-sing after a shape-note lesson.
Homemade wares for sale include soaps, crafts, tools, jewelry, art works, baskets, and furniture. A cottage business called Alder Stream custom-produces backpacks. I first saw these at last year’s Common Ground Fair- dutifully writing down the details in my notebook. This time, I decided to order one, and with Jane Barron’s patient assistance we looked over materials and took some measurements. By next month, my handmade backpack will be mailed to me- complete with side pockets for camera gear, and a vertical interior pocket made to the size of an A5 notebook. And a water-resistant liner. A writer’s special, Jane added, and a treasure for future journeys. Amidst cultivated crops, traditions are renewed, sources are sown, and more shall be written.