Why do you suppose it is that, for those of us who live around the midcoast town of Rockport - an area dubbed one of the most beautiful spots in North America by a pesky national publication that had no business poking its nose in here - our absolute favorite place to drag out-of-town visitors is a muddy old cow farm?
I mean no irreverence. Quite the contrary: In these parts, we have gotten our fill of sterile landscaping, paint-by-number gardens, pretty lanes with no children to play in them - the whole exurban Utopia trip. A lot of Maine towns receive (and deserve) the ambivalent praise of being likened to a postcard. We have moved beyond that. We live in the pages of a Realtor's catalog. So it is more than just aesthetic gratification that draws us to drive and jog and amble and dragoon our city friends out to Aldermere Farm.
The story of this special place has all the ingredients of contemporary Maine mythology: beauty, mortality, procreation, property taxes. Comprising some 136 acres of saltwater farmland, it is roughly the sort of place where E.B. White, in his guise of gentleman farmer, took up residence in the late 1930s and thereupon devoted himself to such things as penning essays and raising pigs. In the case of Rockport's Aldermere Farm, the gentleman farmer in question was named Albert H. Chatfield, Jr., and the livestock of choice was cows. Not just any old cows. And not just any old farmer.
The Chatfield clan, hailing from Cincinnati, were among the early "rusticators" who established summer homes in Maine toward the end of the nineteenth century. They bought the property that was to become Aldermere in 1899. Young Albert, Jr., was born the very next year. Even in those days the town of Rockport, though tiny and somewhat remote, was not exactly off the map. One of the Chatfields' first visitors was William H. Taft, then President of the United States, who dropped in during a cruise up the coast aboard the presidential yacht.
Viewing their Maine residence chiefly as a summer retreat, the Chatfields made little ado about actual farming. The fields lay fallow and the trees grew tall for half a century. Then in 1950, ownership passed to Albert, Jr., who set about reclaiming the farm as a going concern. He employed chiefly organic methods, which were still quite far off the popular radar. At the same time he began looking into the whys and wherefores of cattle rearing, hoping to find a breed well matched to the Maine climate and to a family-run operation like Aldermere. In 1953, he settled upon an old Scottish breed called Belted Galloways.
The name is apt. Around the middle of each animal, wrapping neatly from belly to spine, with edges as clean as if they were painted on, a white stripe contrasts strikingly with the otherwise black fur. Some of my friends have taken to calling these creatures "designer cows," the designers being, in this case, generations of cattlemen in the Scottish Highlands.
Chatfield reckoned the Galloways' Highland blood would equip them to handle Maine winters, and so it does. By a genetic quirk, it also makes their meat naturally low in fat. In recent years Galloways have been growing in popularity in North America, owing in some measure to the success of the herd at Aldermere, which does a brisk little business selling breeding stock to other farms.
None of which yet quite explains why we drag our relatives out there.
That the place is beautiful goes without saying. Most of Maine is beautiful, in one way or another, and Aldermere Farm is beautiful in several ways at once. The classic photograph of the place - I would guess tens of thousands of these must be snapped every summer - features the Galloways in the foreground, grazing placidly in a broad, sloping meadow. In the middle ground, enclosed by woodland, is a pleasant oval body of water known as Lily Pond, while in the backdrop rises one of the smallish, weathered mountains in what is known as the Camden Hills. The scene is so irresistible that a five-year-old with a plastic camera can take a snapshot here (and trust me, they do) that comes out good enough to slap in a frame. But that's not the whole story, either.
How about this one: About a year after we moved to Maine, some friends of ours, Steve and Jo, came to visit. It was October and sunny, with the autumn leaves at their peak of color. Steve and Jo were one of those long-settled couples who had sort of vaguely intended to get married for years now, but never gotten around to it. We took them out to see Aldermere Farm - a paved town road runs right through the middle of the place - and they posed at the edge of the meadow, arm-in-arm, for the classic photo.
Suddenly Jo turned to Steve, a look of illumination on her face, as though she had just been visited by an epiphany. "Let's get married," she said. "Let's get married right here."
In short order, legal niceties having been observed, a civil ceremony was conducted by the cheerfully accommodating town clerk, who apparently was used to this sort of thing. Afterward we rang up our local friends, and phoned in a blanket request for old hippie-wedding-reception music to the then-new community radio station, WERU. It turned into one of those only-in-Maine affairs. I suppose in some way we owe it all to the designer cows.
More particularly, we owe it all to Albert Chatfield. There is a lively Maine tradition of preservation via private philanthropy, going back at least as far as George Dorr's and the Rockefeller family's astonishing gift to the United States of much of what is now Acadia National Park. Most of the public treasures along this stretch of the coast, including many of the remaining open spaces in Rockport itself, have their origins in such acts of personal generosity. Chatfield took the first steps toward placing his land in conservation status, and ensuring its continuity as a working farm, way back in 1974. The bequest was not finalized until a quarter century later, when the gentleman farmer had reached the towering age of ninety-nine.
Today the title to Aldermere is held by the Maine Coast Heritage Trust. The old place now leads a double life: as an educational resource, open to schoolchildren and to the community at large, and as a traditional working cattle farm, with all the gritty reality this implies. (An informative brochure published by the Trust contains a section titled "Semen, Hay, and Compost," all of which are on offer here.) The farm manager is a local man named Ron Howard, who lives right on the property, and whose father managed the farm for the Chatfields. There is a small office and a full-time program coordinator who directs a series of public activities - almost fifty last year - that range all over the map, from maple syrup-making to a "dragonfly walk," ski tours under the full moon, and an annual New Calf Unveiling that draws a crowd of several hundred, mostly locals.
It is scant surprise that folks around here love Aldermere Farm. But what we love goes deeper than the picture-perfect views. We love, I think, the integrity of this place, the honesty of the labor and dedication it represents, the sense of collective ownership and responsibility that it arouses in us. Aldermere Farm makes us feel connected to a Maine that, in many respects, seems to exist mostly in grainy, black-and-white documentary footage: the land of the Lupine Lady and Charlotte's Web. There is nothing imaginary, nothing childish or sentimentalized, about a muddy farm selling bull semen. We have a lot to be thankful for around here, but Aldermere Farm, in all its beauty and authenticity, ranks way up there.
Aldermere Farm, 70 Russell Avenue, Rockport 04856. 207-236-2739. www.aldermere.org