To signal the start of the 2nd Maine Militia’s final meeting, held recently in Parsonsfield, a small cannon was fired. As the report echoed across the hills, those attending settled in under haphazardly strung tarps, ready to hear to the militia’s valedictory address, to be delivered by Carolyn Chute, the novelist. Chute, who has long used her very political novels, and the acts of her public life, to speak for individuals locked in punishing cycles of institutional poverty, founded the 2nd Maine Militia with her husband Michael in 1995, so it was fitting that she would be the one to say goodbye.
Wearing shades, a camouflage jacket, ammunition belts that crisscrossed her chest Santa Anna-style, and a homemade button that said The Real Homeland Security, Chute started with an imagined news-show transcript. Questions like Should we regulate slavery? Should we regulate cannibalism? were debated. The media were not her only targets. She also decried the American educational system, stating that results would never change so long as “Education is synonymous with tournament . . . Do not grade children like meat: Grade A, Grade B, and Soupbone.” Finally, she addressed the raison d’être for the meeting, calling the day’s gathering “The final 2nd Maine Militia celebration, the end of the world party. This is it. We aren’t having any more 2nd Maine Militia stuff. We’re done.”
But Chute wasn’t done. Always a fiery speaker, she asked the crowd, “What is America? The Grand Canyon and the pine tree? OK. A flag? Freedom, or some other twisted, abstract word? Or is it a country? Nope, it isn’t even a country anymore. The WTO (World Trade Organization) has stolen our government, above the one we see on maps. The rulers are a cartel, they’re above national, mega-titans behind closed doors. They are like Caesar, pharaohs. TV, all mainstream media and schools have trained us well to believe that there is an America.” And yet, despite that, she still identifies as a kind of patriot: “I think the American flag is beautiful. I’m fond of it.” From childhood, she remembered the words, “‘Liberty and justice for all,’ which was a lie then, and it still is, but I feel it as a wish, and I feel it with tears. I would like to think of this flag as mine.” To Chute, the oligarchs who run the world “are not to be admired and given any more of our blood and labor. They are the enemy, and we should get off our knees. They are of another nation, another planet. They are from the most dangerous, evil place, which has no boundaries, no loyalties, no ethics, only growth, like cancer, eating and devouring.” She concluded with a plea for unity among the have-nots, and whoever else was disregarded or forgotten by “the system.”
It was heartfelt and memorable, but the crowd didn’t require much convincing. They were not Democrats or Republicans; they weren’t the militia stereotype of paranoid gun-nuts, either. Plenty of well-armed Second Amendment enthusiasts were in attendance (my band played later, and our payment included a single, symbolic bullet), but there were also hippies, union organizers, lefty politicos, fair-trade activists, farmers, and several representatives from the Vermont Secession Movement; the roughly 60-person crowd constituted a panoply of northern New England’s radical progressive leadership. After finishing her statement, Carolyn turned the meeting over to whomever wanted to speak. One by one people stood and discoursed on the evils of corporate bottled water, gun rights, how the dollar was bound to collapse, the proposed Plum Creek development, and how to submit testimony to legislative committees in Augusta. The Vermont Secessionists spoke about how, once the federal government crumbled (that this would happen was taken for granted), the Republic of Vermont would enjoy better relations with most nations than the US currently does. Several people thanked the Chutes for their work, and vowed to continue the 2nd Maine Militia’s progressive struggle.
Later, when the sun had set and less than a dozen people remained, Carolyn sat beside the fire and told me why she had called the final round-up. “It’s the last one because I think the price of gas is going to go so high that no one is going to be able to get here,” she said, a laugh in her voice. But then she admitted to other pressing concerns, like her work as a novelist, and the peace she needs to produce her art. “It’s such a struggle for me. I have poor concentration and I have to have total seclusion,” Carolyn said, while clutching a bouquet of roses that been another of the day’s presents. Her latest book, 2008’s The School on Heart’s Content Road (Atlantic Monthly Press), is the first installment of a five-novel cycle, and the subject of Chute retiring upon completing the project came up. In response to professed dismay at that prospect, she said, “The thing of it is, through the ’90s, I wrote this giant manuscript, and I broke it down into five books, which may be actually four books, I’m not sure. Four or five. That is the organizational part, the everything, practically, but I don’t know if I could begin a book again. I’m so fuzzy-headed now. It’ll take me a while to finish these, anyway.”
I didn’t argue too much, but it’s doubtful that anyone, even her critics, or those who don’t understand everything she does and stands for, would ever call Carolyn Chute “fuzzy-headed.” However, her husband did second the notion of her needing space to work. Michael Chute, himself an artist whose work was part of a 2007 show featuring contemporary, self-taught artists at USM called “Off The Grid: Maine Vernacular Environments” said, “She’s really a private woman, and she needs peace and quiet.” But when it was suggested that the 2nd Maine Militia might not be disbanding, and rather having its last meeting for the foreseeable future, he nodded and said, “That’s right. We’ll never die.”