Development. For some, the word promises increased opportunity and convenience – jobs at the new factory, or a new grocery store half the distance of the old one. For others, it signifies loss and an unwelcome change to the landscape.
I grew up in a fairly rural area: a landscape of pastures, cropfields, and pine plantations. Great white oaks, red oaks, hickories and beeches mantled the hillsides and bottomlands where agriculture wasn’t practical. I know these forests were second-growth; most of the landscape was altered by land worked, paupered, and abandoned outside of living memory. Small communities vanished over time, leaving fields to lie fallow and return to forest. Aerial photos attests that the woods I wandered in the 70’s and 80’s were open agricultural lands just a handful of decades prior. Piles of bricks obscured by leaf mould, rusted wire curling off gnarled fenceposts, old wells capped by rotten boards, and fragments of barrels at forgotten still sites attest to homes and lives long vanished.
You may be familiar with the movie The Fox and the Hound. In typical Disney fashion, the film has very little in common with the source material. Written in the 1960s, the novel The Fox and the Hound illustrates the rise and eventual dominion of human development in a valley. At the beginning of the novel, the valley contains quiet, bear-haunted woods, small farms, and a lone, empty highway. As the story continues, the human population grows, fueling encroaching development in the story’s background. By novel’s end the forests are replaced by houses, motors have exiled the quiet, and the air is filled with the stench of factory smoke and diesel fumes. The transformation is subtle and largely in the background, but in the final chapter the message comes to the fore. The heartbreaking book ends with the words, “…and in this miserable, fouled land there was no longer any place for fox, hound, or human being.”
My own landscape’s change has been neither so rapid (the book encompasses the lifespan of an improbably venerable fox) nor so complete, but it is much altered from my childhood. As a teen sitting in the deepest part of our woods on a cold November Saturday, I could guess if the university was playing a home game by the volume of traffic noise on the highway 1.5 miles away. Traffic was barely audible most days, but pilgrims trekking to see the Bulldogs would raise the volume to a steady rumble. The two-lane is now a four-lane, and the noise is both clear and constant regardless of the day. Soybean fields that fattened our deer are now planted pines over-ripe for harvest. Pastures on the hill have sprouted dozens of homes on turfgrassed acre-lots, and the formerly-graveled road fronting our land is both paved and lined with houses on twelve-acre wooded tracts.
But the majority of people who live here now are “from somewhere else,” and neither know nor care about local history. They are looking for land that is pretty, or at least pretty cheap compared to properties closer into town. Their last names aren’t on the tombstones at the century-old Baptist church. My family only set down roots here in the 1960s, but with the county population quadrupling in that time, few could consider us newcomers.
I’ve never known bears on our land, but I remember where I saw my final covey of bobwhite quail on the farm. I remember the deer stand where I encountered our last fox squirrel. Both encounters were over three decades ago, and I have no expectation of these critters ever returning.
It is not without a sense of irony and perhaps a touch of shame that I have cleared a patch of forest and planted a house in the heart of the family property, land which reclaimed the last homestead over a century ago. But I carved out one acre for a house to guard many acres immediately surrounding it. This is where I’ve always wanted to be, and here I hope to protect this patch of woods for as long as I can.
In his world of Middle Earth, J.R.R. Tolkien referred to “The Long Defeat,” where the world is in a gradual but inevitable decline; the slide towards ruin may be slowed but never arrested or reversed by the small victories that the heroes strive for. To the ecologically-minded, it seems to be the path we chose as we struggle against the forces of hungry economies and burgeoning populations. To those who don’t want their corner of the world to alter from the memories of youth, every clearcut, new house site or NO TRESPASSING sign strikes a blow for the forces of progress as they march along the path of “The Long Defeat.”
Last month I saw a flash of movement beside the road — the first red fox I’ve seen on the farm in years. Encounters like this give me hope that we are not as far into decline as I feared. A fool’s hope maybe, but I’ll take the small victory.
The Fox and the Hound (Wikipedia)