(Contributed photo)

The other day, I decided to walk to the sea. There’s an elemental lure in such a walk; each time we go to the sea, it is a sort of return. But in many places, especially along the east coast, such a walk gets funneled onto thickly traveled ways, often roads, where we must contest with cars and the rest of wheeled life. Not to mention the rest of wired life. Along roads, walkers are shunted to the margin…and even there we run a risk. 

Not necessarily so in our town of Brunswick, where a walk to the sea can simply mean leaving my in-town house to turn right, then right again, the second turn bringing me to the boarding of a trail that runs south and seaward. For the next 2 miles, I can walk this trail and, for the final 2 miles, some lightly traveled Pennelville roads to where the land angles down and the water waits. “Welcome,” I say often as I take to the trail, “to this uncommon gift.” 

The core of that gift lies part way to the sea and not far south of Brunswick’s downtown; there, the trail enters our town’s other center. It’s 71 acres across, and its “citizens” live a minimalist life; it is also marbled with side-trails that invite all of us to explore this original “house,” where once, eons ago, we lived too. And where once, near our town’s inception, on May 19th, 1719, its leaders accepted the extraordinary gift of 1,000 acres of commonage. The givers were the Pejepscot Proprietors, wealthy Boston investors, who had bought up much of what is now the Brunswick-Topsham-Harpswell area. We are its ongoing receivers. 

This gift was unusual, in that most New England town commons were (and are) small, green spaces fashioned from already-public land in the middle of the village. Our 1,000 acres has represented, over time, the resources of a whole other land-presence in Brunswick. As with many large gifts, the giving and receiving didn’t always run smoothly — the town didn’t get legal deed to its Commons until 1781 — but the gift has given repeatedly, gives still. Two hundred of its acres, for example, first lured and then housed Bowdoin College. Without those Commons, Brunswick probably wouldn’t be a “college town,” with the all the vibrancy that implies. 

Over time, the use of some of these lands has reshaped our Commons. At times it has dwindled. But it has never been depleted entirely, and now its core 71 acres join with 113 acres in the Greater Commons and over 500 acres in the new Furbish Preserve on the old naval air base to keep the common spirit of this old land alive in its new iteration. 

But what was foremost in my mind as I ambled south over snow and foot-beaten ice, was an upcoming celebration. On May 19th, and on selected days around it, Brunswick will celebrate its Commons’ 300th birthday. While the Town Commons Committee and others are still developing plans, already that May Sunday is replete with Commons-events from dawn to dusk. A sample: at 7:00 a.m. Merrymeeting Audubon will offer a bird walk; 9:00 a.m. will bring quicker feet, as a 5K trail race courses south from Bowdoin College’s soccer pitch, through the Commons and back up to the school; noontime will see celebration and picnicking en plein air at the picnic area off Route 24; and in the afternoon, Commons Committee member Eben Baker will lead a flower and tree walk on the Commons trails. 

Add to these events the opening at the Pejepscot Historical Society of an extraordinary, town-sponsored set of historical panels researched and created by Brunswick resident Jym St. Pierre. Reading St. Pierre’s outline has already enriched my walkings and runnings in the Commons; seeing the full display, which will appear in a variety of town sites throughout this anniversary year, promises a learning of the layers of history that underlie our “commonage.” 

Just south of the Commons proper and part of the Greater Commons (also protected land with some public access), the trunk trail crosses the edge of a little meadow. Recently the town’s Parks and Recreation Department and the Conservation Commission combined to cut back encroaching white pines in favor of rampant grasses and milkweed. All the better to keep open this small space that serves as a breeding and fueling way-station for monarch butterflies, who, over generations, migrate between their northern summer lives and a Mexican overwintering.  

So, it is often with land we conserve and tend. Each act of land-caring links us with other acts and stories. I thought about this as I crossed the meadow’s northern fringe that day. Its commonage reminds us of the many connections local and far-flung that give space and wing to a hopeful future. Even in times of threat and division, we all, like our Town Commons original 1,000 acres, “Ly in General and Perpetual Comonage.” 

Sandy Stott is a Brunswick resident and chair of the towns Conservation Commission. He writes for a variety of publications. His recent book, Critical Hours — Search and Rescue in the White Mountains, was published by University Press of New England in April, 2018; Tantor Media released an audio version of the book in February, 2019. He may be reached at [email protected] .

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