I lived in southwestern Maine in the late ’40s. We had a well near the house. One summer it went dry. Dad said it was because it was dug down only to a ledge. So we carted glass, gallon cider jugs to fill at the spring that was just down the road, swam in the lake, having taken a bar of soap that floated with us, and used the three-holer that was still part of the carriage shed nearby.
Our plight didn’t make the news, but when the Pine Tree State’s forests started to burn, wiping out a nearby town, and kept burning all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, now that was something. My dad was a volunteer firefighter by virtue of being an able-boded male living in the town. Mom took my brother and me to watch Dad on the fire line. I had never seen a western-style forest fire when all the trees burn, and I never have since, even though I was a summer firefighter once myself in the Connecticut state forests. I can still picture the lingering flames in that blackened, smoky scene, so unlike the pleasure of climbing the welcoming, sticky limbs of these same trees. I still have the ax he used that summer. It sure was great when the well-drilling guys got our water flowing again.
That experience of using up all of something has stayed with me as I have encountered other instances when Americans have used up almost all of something. Whaling is a good example for New England, because our ancestors kept harpooning whales for their oil until there were hardly any left, expanding their voyages into both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, an international industry.
The next chapter in the story is familiar, from how we first extracted coal and oil on land in the United States, then from the sea bottom and even the frozen North, as part of what has become a new international industry, supporting the Industrial Revolution with all this ancient sunlight.