Thursday, September 11, 2008

Missing the Target

Saturday, August 23, 2008

With a string of cool, dry, fall-like days recently, I overcame my lingering fear of deer ticks and gave in to my desire to get back to Moose Hill. I slept in a little in the wonderful sleeping weather so I didn’t leave home until nearly 9:00 AM. I made my usual PBJ and brewed a pot of Green Mountain coffee, a fresh souvenir from our recent trip to Vermont. I pulled the single speed out of the shed and headed to Moose Hill for the first time in many weeks.

Instead of my usual plunge down the hill toward the train station, I headed down South Main Street to South Walpole Street. I wanted to witness the destruction perpetrated in the name of our proposed so-called “lifestyle” mall. Maybe it’s me, but I just can’t quite grasp the idea that one can buy a lifestyle. Our town has given the green light to the developers to strip away scores of acres of forest in a desperate bid to buy a break from high residential property taxes. This town has little commercial tax base, so the ever-increasing burden of taxes for ever-decreasing services falls heavily on the homeowner. Like all good Americans, we can’t live within our means and we don’t mind throwing a little of our natural heritage into the furnace of greed in a futile attempt to make up the difference.

The future home of our mall butts up against South Walpole Street right across from some Audubon land and right near some brand new mini-mansions. Something tells me the owners of these houses feel differently about the destruction caused by the mall than they did about the carving of their own lots from the woods.

At this time, the construction site looked like a large clearcut with an orange plastic fence around the entire perimeter. Unlike a silvicultural clearcut, no forest trees will ever grow here again. Developers just love to hop on their machines and strip a site bare to create a self-fulfilling prophesy. Potential mall tenants will not sign up unless they can see progress on the future mall, and they can’t giddily visualize the flat-topped big-box stores and acres of hot black petroleum sludge asphalt parking lots with all those damn trees in the way. So, they denude a site as quickly as possible – stripping it absolutely bare - to attract tenants and to get it done as quickly as possible before the locals realize the magnitude of what they’ve done and raise a cry of protest.

I’m sure there are places - and I’m sure there will be many more – where the rape went ahead and no tenants signed on or they backed out, and a community was left with a vast, empty wasteland. I continue to believe this will happen here. The developers recently proudly announced the commitment by a major national big box retailer, but this same company already has a new store just a few miles to the south and will soon be opening another a few miles to the east. Not only is the local market already saturated, but the economy and the future of gasoline prices can’t bode well for retailing.

And for what? Do we really need more places to buy cheap, disposable plastic crap from China? How much are we willing to sacrifice in the name of more shopping? Will one teenager buying the latest sweat-shop fashions ever mourn the loss of yet another woodland? Did the heavy machinery operator say a prayer as he drove his behemoth over the spot where generations of oven birds made their nests? As they ripped the oaks and pines from the earth and pushed them into massive heaps, did anyone ponder how no trees would ever grow there again?

The loss of this forest is not the only thing that saddens me. Sure, as a homeowner, I’d like a break from taxes. Our governments take more and more of our wealth and squander it in so many wasteful and destructive ways. What depresses me is the unimaginative, formulaic ways that we develop places. When it’s built, this mall will look just like every other lifestyle mall that has popped up across America in the last few years. Another mall – lifestyle or otherwise – with its shoddy goods, tawdry entertainment and minimum-wage jobs will do little to enrich the quality of our lives. All we build anymore are places designed to suck the last bit of dwindling wealth from us by amusing us and distracting us and making us feel temporarily good by selling us more unneeded junk.

Imagine what could be done if the same amount of money and energy went into revitalizing an existing downtown area with modern mixed-use development with restaurants, affordable housing, small shops for local merchants and craftspeople, offices for professionals, markets for local produce, banks, post offices and local schools. Nearby could be small factories where people actually make things and have real jobs. Much of it could be powered by renewable energy. After all, New England was largely built with water power. All of it could be connected by a network of walkways and bike paths.

But no, we get more of the same. Cheap, soulless buildings surrounded by impermeable parking lots, gluttonous energy consumption and car-only access. I guess what it comes down to is that we don’t produce anything anymore, we only consume. I looked out over the vast emptiness and wondered if this was the only future we can hope for. Are we destined to live our lives according to the vision of guys that see the world over the blade of a bulldozer?

I was ready for breakfast and some scenery that hadn’t been sculpted with a Caterpillar D-9, so I walked my bike down an unfamiliar dirt trace that disappeared into the woods across the street from the devastation. This soon opened onto a power line right-of-way that I followed to a familiar back road that I knew would lead me toward Moose Hill. I followed it to Walpole Street and I took this to the trail that leads to Allens ledge where I pushed my bike into the woods, out of sight from the street.

I walked up the path to Allens Ledge. This is a nice rock outcrop surrounded by oak-pine forest. A little further up the trail is the bigger and more popular Bluff Head, but I didn’t want to gaze out at Gillette Stadium and the surrounding new Patriot Place mall. This is another prime example of the sort of consumption/entertainment complex that passes for progress in early 21st-century America, and I just didn’t want to look at any more of that.

From Allens Ledge in August, I can gaze out at the oaks, pines and sky and see no roads, no malls, not even houses. With all the hard rock around me with little bits of moss and grass growing from the cracks I could almost imagine I was back on Camel’s Hump in Vermont or even the Sierra of California. A few small bonsai-like pines cling to the rocks and blue stem grasses grow in small patches of thin soil. There are a few red-cedar trees that are typical of these rocky ledges and a small patch of scrub oak. The rocks themselves are scored with striations in many directions and I can’t help but think some of them must have been left by the continental ice sheets that once covered these hills. The old stone chimney reminded me that people have been enjoying this spot for a very long time.

I sat on the stone, enjoying my sandwich, cantaloupe and coffee. I gazed at the infinite blue sky with a white half moon overhead. There was barely a puff of breeze in the warm, dry air. I was so alone I felt it would be okay to pull off my tee shirt to feel the sun on my skin. No birds sang and the few that flew over seemed to have distant locales on their minds. Big dragonflies patrolled lazily in the soft air above the rock.

The September-like air reminded me that yet another summer season will be drawing to a close and the remainder of my life will be one season shorter. I hoped for a better world in the years ahead but I felt as if we faced years of desolation and darkness before we find the peaceful valleys of our dreams.

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At 11:24 AM, Blogger bullthorn said...

Nice essay. I share your feeling that our planet is being raped. I couldn't get that image out of my head as I watched the Republican Convention as the crowd in funny hats chanted "drill baby drill". Who are these people who gather round to cheer an encourage the assault on. Its criminal in the same sense that an actual rape is, except that in our society the forest isn't granted an identity. I appreciate your image from Snyder at the end of your piece. He's someone who speaks out about how even the rocks and trees deserve a voice.

At 9:20 PM, Blogger Larry said...

I agree with much of what you have t say here.-I hope we get a chance to at least see some positive changes before our time is up.

At 4:08 PM, Blogger wtgelfman said...

It would be great if our downtown were revitalized. Much better than the lifestyle malls. - Sue G.

At 8:11 PM, Blogger SimplyTim said...

...the furnace of greed...

yes, I can see so much being shoveled into the furnace...all for more....more...stuff and money.


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