When I ask my students to write about landscapes that they know best, almost always they write about places where they played as children — ditches, vacant lots, field edges, “waste” places.
When I ask them to write about landscapes they’ve lost, almost always they write about the same places.
Perhaps the most precious landscapes are the local ones, where our children play. The loss of these places, not just of scenic landscapes, is grievous to our spirits, to our sense of home. If we can’t touch cattails over and over, can’t smell eucalyptus or pawpaws, can’t know how dampness dries underfoot in different soils, how can we comprehend our place in the world?
We all recognize the problems of sprawl, especially suburban development — the encroachment on open space. But we don’t often notice how other practices — farming, mining, roadwork, stream dredging — also eliminate the wild edges: the slopes children climb, the ravines they descend.
In places like my home in southern Michigan, a landscape ironed out by geology, then deforested in the 19th century, clearing is still manic. Any knoll or upright vegetation is deemed an interference. To people with this leveling eye, a fence line of wild grapevines, a solitary oak — anything that offers shade or shadow — is a target. They take it out.
Road commissioners order removal of all trees from the right of way. Brush, they say, obscures visibility. When a big agriculture operation buys land, machines hit the fields with military force. Tractors have tank treads; bulldozers and backhoes cut away slopes and stream banks. They knock down hedgerows and hummocks.
This is flatland fanaticism. Even more stunning are the mining operations of Appalachia. If coal lies under a mountain, machines decapitate it. They scrape and push away the peak into valleys, destroying headwater streams.
To these levelers of landscape, the winding streams, road edges and mountain ridges have nothing to do with us. They’re dirt and water and brush, in the way (of dollars) — disposable.
But the price we pay is tremendous. Such obsessive clearing, even of the most ordinary landscapes, leaves a deadly absence — for us, for all living things. There’s nothing to stop us, nothing to slow us down. We can’t contemplate, we can’t meander.
Landscapes, like families, define us and shape us. But rather than value our local landscapes as sacred in their complexity and richness, we wipe them out. With backhoes, graders and bulldozers, we have the power to move the earth. But should we? Why do we, without considering the loss?
And why don’t we ask these questions? Why don’t we levy a tax on earth-moving? Why don’t we have landscape-protection laws — like water and air laws — for our children’s sake?
Let’s look down the road. It’s time to meander, to stop clearing.
At my farm, it plays out like this: When a tree falls across the path, we let it lie. The path used to be a straight line, but now it’s full of S curves. Native shrubs have come back; a tangle of carrion flower blooms on hornbeam. Cedar waxwings hang out in the locusts. We can wander, look around — be awestruck, at every turn.
If we stop leveling landscapes, it’s not just beauty we’ll save, not just habitats and innumerable species, but also our children’s past and future, our local ridgelines and raptors, prairies and winding paths.
(Janet Kauffman, an English professor at Eastern Michigan University, wrote this for the Land Institute’s Prairie Writers Circle, of Salinas, Kan.)