“At present, in this vicinity, the best part of the land is not private property; the landscape is not owned, and the walker enjoys comparative freedom. But possibly the day will come when it will be partitioned off into so-called pleasure-grounds, in which a few will take a narrow and exclusive pleasure only – when fences shall be multiplied, and man-traps and other engines invented to confine men to the PUBLIC road, and walking over the surface of God’s earth shall be construed to mean trespassing on some gentleman’s grounds. To enjoy a thing exclusively is commonly to exclude yourself from the true enjoyment of it. Let us improve our opportunities, then, before the evil days come.” – Henry David Thoreau, Walking
When I moved into the house I’m living in twenty years ago, when this cul de sac was just being built, I watched a dozen deer run through the woods and diagonally through the backyard out to the front where the driveway is and then off to wherever they roamed from there. A few years after that I became annoyed with one of my neighbors central vacuum system which didn’t (and still doesn’t) have any form of muffler on it. I put up a six foot privacy fence on that side of the house to block out the noise a bit. Fences make good neighbors, they say.
A few years after that we got a very energetic one year old black lab and put him on a run, which was a cable strung tightly between two trees in the backyard with his chain hanging down, giving him some freedom of movement but not enough. Eventually we fenced in the backyard entirely, and he had room to roam without running away. Well, we thought so at the time. Snow pack and exceptional climbing skills proved the fence wasn’t always as high as it needed to be.
Then came the pool, and it justified the investment in the fence. And that fence continues to serve us well, in theory keeping the young neighborhood kids out of the pool while being compliant with the town’s codes which require a fenced-in pool. With a pool you have liability. Lawyers love pools. Insurance companies love fences.
The forest remains timeless. It’s just on the other side of that fence, and it’s largely as it was twenty years ago, and twenty years before that. It continues to invite itself back into the yard. After all the backyard was once part of the forest and perhaps one day it will be again. I see the deer sometimes just on the other side of the fence. But they don’t run through the yard anymore.
Thoreau would find his walking to be very different than it was when he wrote those words. Aside from conservation land and State Parks like Walden the landscape is completely different than it was for him. Roads are paved, land is subdivided, fences are put up to screen annoying neighbors or to protect pool owners from wandering toddlers. Thoreau might say that the evil days have indeed come. And looking at the building boom going on seemingly everywhere I can’t help but think that myself. Houses and residential communities popping up everywhere. Roads getting more and more congested. Mixed-use development projects all the rage.
I read a book recently that described the frustration that a family had at the development of Bedford, New Hampshire back in the 1960’s. I know the stretch of road they described as it is today, but never knew it as the quiet country road portrayed in the book. They ended up moving further north into Maine. And maybe moving further away is the answer. Or maybe it starts with taking care of your own backyard before it’s too late. Conservation and preservation, zoning restrictions, political will and public demand are the formula for open space. Developers rule most town halls nowadays. When people are indifferent to the land around them the void gets filled by people who build 55 plus housing developments. This isn’t developer bashing – developers do a lot of great things and I’ve directly benefited from development. It’s more a call to all of us to demand more for the environment we’re creating for ourselves and future generations. A little preservation goes a long way.