As many of us struggle to save natural spaces and historic places, I listen to the comments of those who feel otherwise — those who enjoy the easy access to commercial development near their homes, and the increased tax base of housing developments. As I read these comments, I wonder why I feel so strongly about protecting open space, old stands of trees, old farms and old buildings.
Looking back to my childhood many years ago, in a semi-rural area in upstate New York, I begin to see the patterns that formed my preservationist beliefs. I loved my home, modest as it was, with its backyard of fields bordered by ponds, and the tiny stream (most likely a drainage ditch) that ran alongside the yard. My favorite place to play was under the two large maple trees out front, which provided shade in summer and brightly colored autumn leaves to rake and jump into. We lived close to the dairy from which our milk came — we could walk in and pet the cows whenever we wanted. A hammock strung between two pine trees was my source of solitude and comfort during my tumultuous teen years. It was a life of simple pleasures and security. Unfortunately, when I was a teenager, the house was sold and the new owner cut down my beautiful maple trees and paved over the front yard for a parking lot — my first bitter taste of commercial development. How I mourned the loss of those trees, even though I didn’t live there anymore.
The destruction of the little village in which I grew up was slow but steady. Farms gave way to housing developments; open fields were filled with big box stores and shopping malls, and one by one, the historic buildings were sacrificed in the name of progress. My heart breaks each time I drive through my childhood neighborhood. So much has been lost. And, what a gain it has been for the commercial developers and those people who love the proximity to stores and restaurants.
I still live in the town in which I grew up, just a few miles from that once peaceful rural neighborhood. My home now is in a quaint little historic district, where much has remained the same through the years. Just outside the boundaries of the historic district, housing developments sprouted up wherever there was open space, and a vast area of woods and fields have been turned into commercial developments and large apartment complexes. Four roundabouts have been constructed in an effort to control traffic — their success is debatable.
As I have watched this development, I have been close to tears as I saw old stands of trees cut down, the fields which once were home to wildlife bulldozed and turned to paved parking lots, and old homes here and there destroyed in the name of progress. To compensate for the damage done, contractors plant new trees and dig retention ponds to offset the wetland destruction they have wrought. A new tree does not replace the value to the environment of an old tree. The wildlife that loses its habitat must find new sources of food and shelter. When we moved to this neighborhood in the early 1970’s, I saw deer occasionally in the fields that existed then. Today, my neighborhood is visited by hungry deer every night. In the summer, they munch on our flowers, and during the most frigid days of winter, I throw cracked corn out for them near my bird feeders. One night last week, there were nine deer in my front yard, competing for the small circle of corn. This breaks my heart.
I also treasure the old homes and buildings in our town. Recently, a beautiful old red barn which had stood proudly during my childhood, was quickly demolished for another “cookie-cutter” housing development. We are fortunate in my little historic district that people take pride in their old homes and are willing to fight to keep the history that exists here alive. There are other areas that feel the same. Some towns have strict zoning laws for their historic areas. Here we can still find the beautiful handiwork of long-ago builders. Many of today’s builders clear-cut property of all trees before construction begins, and then build as many houses per acre as allowed by the town. What results is not pretty to the eyes of this “tree-hugger.”
I have resigned myself to the fact that progress and the destruction of what once existed go hand in hand, and the demand for convenient stores and banks and restaurants is much stronger than the desire of some of us who want to preserve trees and open spaces and old homes and HISTORY. Sadly, I also realize that the children growing up today will not know the pleasures of the natural world around us. I learned the value of wilderness areas because I played in them; I remember the scorched smell when my grandfather burned off the field behind our house each year in anticipation of cultivating his garden. I remember playing in old farmhouses with their nooks and crannies and outbuildings that were perfect for playhouses. I remember trees that were so large we could hide behind them. I remember my mother each evening, sitting alone in her bedroom, watching dusk settle gently over the ponds behind our house — her meditation time .
And, as hopeless as it is in our world of competition, money and material success, I remember why I truly treasure the trees and fields and ponds and old barns. Sadly, saving them is a losing battle.