Common Ground Fair: more than just food

The Common Ground Fair was in full swing in Unity, Maine this weekend. The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association’s 43rd annual Common Ground Country Fair was exactly as advertised: “an event like no other, that brings together so many people from so many walks of life, all in the spirit of celebrating the rural and agricultural traditions of Maine.” 

Though many Mainers jokingly refer to the fair as the “hippie fair,” it was much more than a gathering of back-to-the-earth farmers and organic foodies.

On Sunday afternoon, Primo Cubano, a five-piece band playing traditional “Son” Cuban dance music, got dozens of fair-goers up and moving their bodies. The Maine-based band, which played at the College’s 202nd Convocation, were a departure from the usual Maine bluegrass and folk music, but that didn’t stop their soulful Caribbean sounds from gathering up a crowd of dancing, happy people. 

Paul D’Alessio, the Primo Cubano guitarist, said, “that’s the thing about this music. When I heard it in Cuba, it’s like, how come we don’t know about this in Maine?”

While this was Primo Cubano’s first performance at the fair, D’Alessio said he has been coming to the fair “since it started in Litchfield.” The first Common Ground Fair was in 1977, in Litchfield, Maine. His message to fairgoers was obeyed universally: “Just enjoy!”

Not only did the fair celebrate organic food grown by farmers in Maine, it also paid homage to the people who cultivated the land thousands of years before them. 

“It’s really nice to be able to also educate people. I feel like [at] this venue people really appreciate being able to take a tree and turn it into some functional piece of art,” Gabriel Frey said, a Passamaquoddy basketmaker from Orono Maine

Frey has several pieces in the college Art Museum’s exhibit: Wiw∂nikan. . . the beauty we carry. In one exhibit, a video is shown of him pounding a stick of ash to turn into basket material. 

Frey spoke to the Echo about this process, which begins in the Maine forests. Black ash, the type of tree used for this type of basket, comprises 2% of Maine’s trees, and only 10% of black ash trees are basket quality. A log of black ash is harvested, the bark of the tree is removed, and then every square inch of the log must be pounded with the blunt end of an axe. This separates the growth rings of the tree from one another, making them into thin, straight, individual rings that must then be cut into strips using a gauge, which are then woven into a basket.

Frey was accompanied by collaborator Nisa Smiley, and their joint basket was on display at their booth: a beautifully woven basket with a leather lid and two locally collected mussel shells set in the top. 

Smiley, a jeweler, said she was “very moved by his [Frey’s] baskets, so we collaborated [on this basket.]” She said, “there’s a lot of curious people here who really appreciate handcraft, and that as a maker is so rewarding.”

Both vendors have been coming to the fair for decades. 

“When I was a little kid and I was on the other fairgrounds, my mother. . . had a blueberry pancake stand, so I’ve been coming here most of my life,” Frey said. 

David Lonebear Sanipass and his wife Jacqueline also spoke to the Echo about David’s Mi’kmaq handcrafts. He grew up traditionally in Northern Maine and learned to make wooden tools from his uncle. Growing up, his elders imparted a wealth of wisdom onto Sanipass.

“If you want to make a canoe, you’re going to learn about the tree first,” Sanipass recounted of the elders’ advice. 

His stand featured a myriad of crafts, including decorative gauges, the kind used to strip black ash to make baskets.  Hundreds of years ago, the Mi’kmaq traded with European settlers for silver spoons and forks. Rather than using them traditionally, the Mi’kmaq would create beautiful rings and bracelets from the silverware, repurposing them into artwork. “It’s what the elders taught him to do,” Jacqueline said.

Sanipass also had several leather hunting slings on display. He has been clocked at over 300 mph throwing stones with a sling. However, his wife said, laughing, “We usually use marshmallows.” David Sanipass has several Northern Blockflutes on display in the Colby Museum.

These native artists, and many more, were featured at the fair. Though it lacks dizzying rides and cotton candy, it is a place to dance to the sound of the Caribbean, to be amazed by the beauty of Maine’s ancestors, and to eat your way into an organic coma. As the basketmaker Frey said, “It’s a kickass fair.”

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