Canto Della Terra
(Song of the Earth)
First came the men with the trucks, V8 engines and tires so big you needed a stepladder to get into the cab, walking around like they belonged here. From our perch on the hill we can see the farm that slopes away from our property, 100 acres of prime, tillable land, spreading out like a giant gaping yawn, the perimeter ringed with oaks, ash, poplar, locust. When we bought our house we thought we were in heaven, surrounded by acres of woodland and a great open space beyond. Our neighbors, all four of them, have similar lots. It was a child’s playground and our kids thrived. In the winter, we pulled snow saucers with the 4-wheeler on moonlit nights, laughing until we couldn’t breathe, my husband driving, the kids and I squealing with delight. We cross-country skied and walked the dog when the crops weren’t in the ground. He ran with delight like a thoroughbred, chasing geese and squirrels and his own doggy bliss. We had picnics and parties, a tree fort and a zipline, and always privacy. Watching developments shoot up like mushrooms around the county, we never took a minute of it for granted.
My neighbor called. “What are those trucks doing out back?” My neighbor’s a pilot who, among other things, flies body parts to hospitals slated for transplants. He’s not easily rattled, but his call meant he thought the trucks meant bad news for us. I hadn’t see the trucks at first. Tucked back at the top of a horseshoe opening in the field with trees on either side, our view is straight ahead until we actually walk out into the field. We love it because we’re mostly hidden, but clear-cut the place and put up a development with 250 houses on half-acre lots and what have you got but an ugly view and decimation of a lifestyle.
After an hour or so, the trucks left. I was not naive enough to think they were retreating, just regrouping. I breathed a sigh and started dinner. The next day while I was at work, the farmer came and talked to my husband. His son who had been farming the land for the last decade and renting the property from a trust had bought the farm. It was going to stay in the family and they were going to continue to farm it. Yay! No development! Ah, but life is not static and change it’s only constant. The farmer wanted a more productive farm, and the trees, some of them a hundred years old if they were a day, encroached on that productivity. And then there was the value of logging them. Let the breath-holding begin.
Six a.m. a couple of days later; headlights flooded our bedroom. Because we live in the woods, we don’t bother much with closing the blinds, another luxury. An hour or so later, the sound of chainsaws permeated the air, taking up all the space in my lungs, followed by creaking, groaning and a sound like thunder as 80, 90, 100 foot trees toppled over and died, over and over the pattern repeated. With each crash I ducked, flinched, choked back a sob, another life snuffed, another owl habitat dismantled, another deer bed destroyed. More productive meant critter habitats decimated as was soon to be the buffer between us and the road a hundred acres away, between us and the world. What is the saying: One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. But how could such natural world diversity be relegated to the trash heap without so much as a second look, a backward glance, a prayer of thanks or acknowledgement.
Winds of change, eh? Because of the open horseshoe configuration that funnels right to our house, there was always wind here, lots of it. The trees acted as a buffer. About ten years ago, we had a big storm and lost eight of our biggest trees. The oldest was 154 years old (we counted the rings). I cried then when we woke to a 75-foot treetop shoved up against our window — the blinds were closed that night and we had slept through the storm — and I cried now that they’d cut down more than eight trees in half a day. They’d been going at it for two days, the endless buzzing, groaning and crashing. I watch them fall and each time my heart felt a little heavier.
Where’s the Lorax when you need him, although he seemed to fair no better with the Truffula trees. Like the Lorax, I will speak for the trees, but these are not my woods, not in the economic sense. Doesn’t it matter that I looked at them every day, listened to the Great Horned owls nesting in their branches as they called for a mate, watched in wonder as the snow coated the hemlocks and marveled again as the sun tickled the icy crystals and danced against a backdrop of blazing white. I know these woods belong to the farmer and I know it could be so much worse: a housing development or a strip mall. I know how lucky we’ve been to live in the middle of such a private paradise, hidden away from civilization, yet with the kids’ schools, the grocery store, civilization all within a mile or two in any direction. Yes, we’ve been lucky, but it’s not just for me that I grieve.
The hedgerow that divided this farm from the next one over has been taken out at the knees. The birds who inhabited it by the hundreds were fluttering around the downed trunks and branches, looking for friends and loved ones like survivors of an earthquake.
“We can always plant more trees,” my neighbor said. He’s right, of course, and the woods still exist. The farmer only took the bigger trees and left the rest to grow, but the boundary has been pushed back and there’s simply less of everything. It’s not been the first and probably won’t be the last time the hill has been logged, but these trees were my friends, like members of my family, sentinels standing tall and silent, giving us shade and music when the wind blew, and a place for the fox and the deer and the hawks to live, creatures who also needed a home and who we relished seeing. Where will the birds go now? Will the owls come back? Will we still see the family of deer walking past our backyard at dusk, or the red fox at night, looking for a meal? What about the baby raccoon that sometimes came up on our back porch to drink from the cats’ water bowl or sample their food. Was their habitat destroyed as well?
As farmland and its attendant woods gets more regularly eaten up by development across the county, where the critters go now will be anyone’s guess. A diverse habitat needs room to grow just as humans need room to grow. What does such a culling do to the ecosystem, to diversity, to the balance of life? Once and done and the earth can absorb it, but over and over across the county, the nation, the world, one micro-system after another destroyed, at some point, you hit a tipping point and there’s no coming back. Is anyone even watching to see what that point is?
It’s funny how quickly you get used to a changed landscape. From our kitchen, it doesn’t look all that different, just less dense. Then I walk the dog and see the stumps and logs and the ruts where the truck tires ran again and again, the abandoned hideaways of animals that used to live there, the bits that remain.
I must remember to count my blessings. The dog can still run. I can still ski. We can still run the 4-wheeler. There won’t be a 250 cars parking in 250 garages behind my house. Still, the woods will be quieter, and so will our home once the sound of crashing and splitting and dragging is over, when the rustling of leaves in the wind has lessened and the critters have all moved away to places where the trees still stand, that is, until there are none left standing.