Monday, January 27, 2014

What Pulitzer-winner Wallace Stegner said

I read Wallace Stegner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Angle of Repose” way back in high school lit class. Other assigned readings then included Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” and works by Samuel Clemons, a k a Mark Twain.
Stegner’s works came to mind at lunch today upon reading Essex, Vt., resident’s Bruce Post’s letter to the editor in Seven Days, a thick (and free) news weekly in the Burlington, Vt., area.
Post writes that Stegner “once wrote: “Namely, ‘that America’s whole history can be read as one continuous real estate transaction.’”
Post goes on: “Stegner, a defender of wild places, conservation and public lands, autopsied the West’s destruction by alliances of crony politicians and what he called land grabbers, boomers and busters. Later, he turned his attention to Vermont from his second home in Greensboro . . . Were he still living, I suspect Stegner would, on the one hand, nod approvingly about Vermont’s attempts to control development, but on the other, shake his head mournfully over much of what is happening as a de facto real estate syndicate devours our mountaintops and hillsides, neighborhoods and cityscapes. Of course, Stegner is gone, but fortunately his words linger on.
“We can learn a lot from one memorable phrase he used to color those intent on gobbling up our precious heritage for pecuniary gain. They were men with ‘itching fingers.’”
The target of Post’s ramble was Burlington Mayor Miro Wenberger and friends.
Stegner’s words, though, are more than appropriate when considering much of today’s development juggernaut.
A war story: My career as an Air Force Reserve officer first took me down Pennsylvania Route 100 through Lehigh County in 1992. That’s when I first journeyed to Langley Air Force Base, Hampton, Va., the U.S. having won the Cold War not too many months before.
Route 100 then, and now, runs through Macungie. On that first trip south I was pleased to see a downtown that was still full of life: Pedestrians, not cars, moving about, many of them coming and going from local eateries, shops, a jewelry store, a storefront for people with hobbies and crafts, a barber shop, etc.
Not too many more years ahead, though, that Norman Rockwell-like picture was long gone, replaced by a chain pharmacy and grocery, a collection of Big Box retailers, and sprawl streets of look-alike town houses. And there was lots of gas station-convenience stores to fuel the now car centric town.
Like much of Pennsylvania from the northern fringe of Philadelphia up to and past Allentown, the tale holds. I saw much the same in the Tidewater and Hampton Roads parts of coastal Virginia in October.
I’m not picking on Macungie; hundreds of other municipalities seem intent on growing into a look-a-like of the next town over and the one just beyond that and so on.
Pennsylvania, like Vermont and other states, has a strong land trust movement; non-profits that heroically save key natural areas. But just as Stegner lamented the land grabbers, the loss of America’s Wild Nature lurches on – pavers, graders, dozers, shovels, chainsaws and all the other assorted tools of developers chopping up our natural heritage; wet weather barely slowing the pace.
I wonder again, just as I have for decades, what the salamanders, snakes, birds and the native plant friends think about it all as humankind swoops in to convert more natural landscape into parking lots, streets, and turf farms.
From the Clemson University Cooperative Extension comes this nice summation: “Every wildlife species requires a general environment in which to live. To properly manage land for the benefit of wildlife, landowners must be aware of those things in the environment that wildlife need to survive and reproduce. The environment or natural home where a wild animal lives is called its habitat.
“Just like humans, wild animals have specific requirements that they get at home. Habitat for any wild animal must provide: cover (shelter) from weather and predators; food and water for nourishment; and space to obtain food, water, and to attract a mate.”
Us two-legged competitors get along best in places with lots of green space, urban forests, unpolluted streams, and the hundreds of native plant species that Wild Nature put there.
The reasons are many, but one thing is for sure: This is not a good time to be logging trees and converting our natural heritage to deserts of “development.”
Let’s save more of it before it really is too late.

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