Toward The Sunbelt

The results of the latest census confirm what had long been suspected: there is in process a flight from the Northern sections of the country to what is now familiarly called the Sunbelt. Areas that for centuries have lain in relative quiet now see descending upon them crowds of settlers. Cities with names difficult to place precisely upon the map are suddenly numbered among the most populous. Meanwhile older communities sense life being drained away; they are left stranded in an environment that few seem to delight in anymore.

As usual, when such a prodigious trend occurs, people want to get busy and to do something. They are not sure precisely what -- but that some action ought to be taken they have not the slightest doubt. Some are in favor of applying remedial measures to the cities of the North; others claim it is the people who have been drawn southward who should have help. No one seems to suggest that perhaps the best solution would be urge everyone to stay more or less where he is!

This immense migration is, I believe, unique in the history of the world. Men and women have left their homes and hearths before this in search of food, in search of gold, in search of religious and political freedom. Never before have they pulled up their roots in such numbers in order to go where the climate is softer and the sun shines more brightly. They are moving, on the whole, not to find work, but to find happier ways of spending their leisure time. They are looking not for the fountain of youth but for the gentle airs that will enhance old age.

"Only in America," as the phrase is, could such a thing happen. Here the continental expanse is wide enough, the climates varied enough and political barriers sufficiently open so that men and women can wander where they choose in search of their particular Eden. Only in America, besides, could we reserve within a measurable historic time so many of the old standards. For in the earlier westward migrations it was the hardiest and the most adventurous who pulled up stakes and moved on. Now (if I may be permitted the slight prejudice of a Northeasterner) it is the least hardy who go South to the sun-belt; it is those who footloosely seek their ease in Zion.

Some, however, -- a sizable and perhaps a saving minority -- seem determined (as the New Englander has it) "to stay put." They even deplore the inference drawn from a few mild winters that the climate of the snow belt is growing any less frigid than it once was. At a New Hampshire school I recall the consternation among trustees when it was first suggested that in order to remain competitive the hockey team required a rink of artificialm ice.

Those middle-aged gentlemen, sitting in the warm rectory, recalled their youth amid Northern hills, when the pond froze early -- at the latest by Thanksgiving -- and remained solid into March. Was it to be suggested, they asked the rector, that the New Hampshire climate had so far deteriorated that ice created by mechanical and chemical devices was now required? Was it actually to be implied that these latter days were inferior in zest and challenge to those of an earlier time?

If the truth is to be told, the climate does appear to have moderated considerably over the past century -- though only last week the "Today Show" opened with a heartening declaration that the temperature was 16 below in Concord. The students nowadays do have their artificial rink. Yet there are mornings in New England that still take the breath away with their beauty. I have seen every object in that crystal air stand sharp and bold upon the landscape, essences carved from light, as vivid and self-complete as on the first day of Creation. No softness here, no blur. And I have known men and women who in their characters keep the same bold, simple ways, with no uncertainty about their duty, and no illusion that happiness lies in merely pursuing their interests.

The time may come when, driven by lack of energy to warm us, we too turn toward the seductions of the Sunbelt. It may indeed happen. But I shall be among the stragglers in that last march, among those who bring up the rear guard and often look back regretfully to the arctic civilization they are leaving behind.

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