The Desert of Maine, a 40-something-acre (160,000 m2) patch of sand and silt near the town of Freeport, is a geological oddity, a natural wonder, as well as a warning of what irresponsible land use can create.
The so-called “most famous natural phenomenon in Maine” is actually the result of poor land management over several generations. Although not technically a desert, as the state of Maine gets way too much rain for it to qualify as such, the rolling dunes of sand covering the over 40 acres of land certainly look the part.
The sand and silt have been there for at least tens of thousands of years, ever since the glaciers covering Maine, ground rocks into pebbles and pebbles into sand as they receded during the last ice age.
Toward the end of the last Ice Age, New England was completely covered by the Laurentide Ice Sheet, which was up to 3000 meters thick in the region at its maximum extent.
At this time, New England’s highest mountain peaks, including Mount Washington, Mount Katahdin and Mount Mansfield were all entombed beneath the ice.
With the retreat of the melting glacier (which reached the Freeport area around 16,000 years ago), the land of Maine began to rebound toward sea level.
By about 13,500 years ago, the rebounding of the land and the associated drop in sea level reached the point in the Freeport area where the location of the future Desert of Maine began to emerge from beneath the waves.
At some point after the Desert area emerged, it became a sink for wind-blown sand, probably around 12,500 years ago. Pathfinder plants would have begun to stabilize the open sand deposits fairly quickly, perhaps within just a few hundred years and, from those initial plants, grew a forest, stabilizing temporarily the sand deposit until something happened.
In fact, it was human activity that brought it back to the surface over 100 years ago.
The story of the current Desert of Maine dates back to 1797, when settler William Tuttle bought a 300-acre plot of land next to the town of Freeport.
He used the fertile land to build a produce farm for his family and also began raising cattle.
His descendants diversified the family business, bringing in sheep, and selling their wool to textile mills.
Like other Maine farmers of the era who were struggling to compete in an expanding agricultural market, the Tuttles’ methods of farming gradually depleted the soil of essential nutrients.
In fact the Tuttles didn’t rotate their crops properly, thus depleting the soil of its nutrients, and the grazing cattle and sheep pulled up the roots of plants holding the top layer of soil together. As things got progressively worse, they one day noticed a small patch of sand, about the size of a dinner plate, on their land.
And little did they know that this was the beginning of the end of their household.
Despite trying to fight the expansion of that little patch of sand, it kept growing, and before long, it swallowed their pasture as well as all the structures they had built.
Eventually they had no choice but to abandon the family home and seek their fortune elsewhere.
The capitulation of the Tuttle family was only the beginning for the Desert of Maine.
For years, it was known as “the sand farm” and it was a popular local feature.
The farmhouse burned down in 1919.
In 1926, a man by the name of Henry Goldrup purchased the land for $400, and converted it to a tourist attraction.
Either way, all attempts to fight against the desert have proven futile, and the house built there in 1935 now sits beneath 2.4 meters of sand. Some pine trees that managed to adapt to the area have only the tops exposed, as the rest of their trunks lie buried under 15.2 meters of sand and silt.
Today the Desert of Maine is one of the main tourist attractions of the state, and the site is preserved as a natural curiosity, hosting a gift shop, a sand museum, and a farm museum.
But it’s also a stark warning of what can happen if the land is mismanaged.
Overgrazing and poor crop rotation are serious issues that, along with climate change, threaten to accelerate the desertification of fertile areas.
Images from web – Google Research