Progress Hits Home

Photograph by Harry Zernike/REDUX, used with permission

I can’t help it if I want to live in the past — the time forty years ago when there was still some wide-open space into which to insert some dreaming, and still some darkness at night over it. There was quiet, the birthright of all us animals, and somehow there was more time in a day than there is now. The world belonged then to the people who lived in it.

We nostalgists are bravely marching into battle, eager to face the advancing tanks of human history. Our vernal tendencies to believe all endings are happy ever after prevented us from seeing the rotting carcass of truth right in front of us: “progress” is just another word for larceny. Now our hearts are filled with the strength of righteousness. Take up arms in readiness: our plastic cocktail swords glint green and red in the sun. The war correspondent’s reports to the home front make you laugh at our fatal narcissism. Don’t you know that you can’t win? And why would you even want to? We’re not like every other species that has inhabited the same ecological niche for hundreds of thousands of years without the need for an eight-bedroom house where three used to do. We alone do not emit those mysterious pheromones that slow procreation when the carrying capacity of the land has been reached.

Our neural pathways were formed by millions of years of existence in communities of our fellows where daily congregation and rituals and exercises made us what we became, and thus whole. Then a few years ago, give or take, they thought up the fetishization of personal property and the automobile and the installation of industry at the tippytop of the rights chain, and bingo: no more meeting places and no more walking and no more breathing of air and viewing of sky and mythmaking to explain the experience. Now you drive to a slushy parking lot and gingerly step into Walgreens for a newspaper and some Rolaids and quickly back the car out after assuring the concerned clerk (he asked, after all) that you’re fine today and equally concerned about his psychic well-being (you asked, after all). You then leave the site of what was formerly a heavily used sidewalk in front of a bank, a café, and a shoe store that your grandparents, lacking a car but living nearby, used to walk to. Invisible hands reached down and changed it all around like chess pieces, and you don’t know whom to bite. No one else seems to have noticed.

The area was known as Montrose. In 1973, I-77 chanced to be connected to Route 21, and the minds of men were turning, turning. “There was nothing there, it was empty,” explained one of these forward thinkers to the newspaper with pride. Empty — just space, grass, nothing that people could buy. Three hundred and sixty acres of uselessness. Then, in something like six days, the world was created. Between 1970 and 1990 the number of business square feet — planned, approved, built — in Montrose rose from one hundred thousand to about five and a half million. The forecast for the end of the first decade of this century is another three and a half million. (“Corporations have neither bodies to be punished, nor souls to be concerned, they therefore do as they like”: Edward Thurlow, Lord Chancellor, 1731-1806.) From clay, fully formed, there sprang into being West Market Plaza, Rosemont Commons — appropriate home for that perfect manifestation of the commons ideal, the community Wal-Mart — Shops of Fairlawn, Builders Square, and Market Square, shopping centers built behind shopping centers, Sam’s Club, Bed, Bath & Beyond, Super Kmart, Cost Plus World Market (indeed), Cellular One, Pier 1, Borders, T.J. Maxx, MC Sports, Old Navy, Pet Fair, Comp USA, Sears, The Home Depot, Taco Bell, Chipotles, Red Lobster, Romano’s Macaroni Grill, Cracker Barrel, Boston Market, Bob Evans, Ruby Tuesday, Friendly’s, Baja Fresh, more and more and more until you fall, sated, heart bleeping faintly, unconscious of the sky above or the ground below or whatever could matter except crawling back to the Camry and waiting for the bank of lights at Cleveland-Massillon Road to give you a left arrow so you can creep home, finally to transport the contents of two dozen plastic bags into the house which will, somehow, absorb it all.

My generation is weighed down by a sadness we do not know we feel. The promise was whispered melodiously in our ears sometime after the enjoyment of the great treasures beneath the TV dinner’s foil and before the deep velvet of sleep in our soft, footed pajamas. The delivery, we have discovered by now, is not as we were pledged. The disparity is so geologic that we risk our necks attempting to view the whole towering thing. The velocity of change has picked up a bit: no longer can we disregard it as some crumbling old history. What is lost was here just thirty or forty years ago, and thus it is written all over the pages of your life. But still you don’t know what can be done. Each announcement comes wrapped in its own fait accompli: this going, this coming, look out, look away, cry alone, it’s done. The golf course, the road, the stores, the cutting, drilling, stripping. Your village in England sitting next to the planned town that grows ever upward, ever out. Your center city losing another century house and gaining one more superfluous drugstore behind its Indian Ocean of parking lot. Those old farms bearing new billboards of what’s to come: forty huge houses of Frankensteinian architecture unmoored from any landscape to float just above its treelessness. Your ancient mountaintop a resort and vacation homes. That Beaux Arts post office a Popeyes Chicken and Biscuits. This revered battlefield fertilized with men’s blood a shopping center. The dirt road paved. The paved road once two lanes, now four; once four, now six. The crossroads with no light gets its signal. The march of time keeps marching, the army bigger every day.

Anything that was here at the Dawn of Time finally gets the heave-ho in favor of something people can turn into money. It has taken the form of an addiction: we just can’t help ourselves. Finally we fall backward, heads dully throbbing, with figures and incomprehensible trivia drooling down our chins: America has paved 3.9 million miles of road, equivalent to 157 times around the equator; every 5 new cars we make, a football-field-size bit of land gets covered with asphalt; 3 million, yes million, acres of open space are developed each year in this country; farmland is lost at the rate of 2 acres per minute; someone just entering middle age now who grew up in, say, Rockland County, New York, lived in a place with 17,360 acres of farmland — now there are 250, but check back in a few minutes. We can only compile the statistics and get out of the way, dumbfounded. No one knows what to do about it. There is nothing to do about it. The newspapers fill with stories containing incredible facts; apparently no one reads them. Occasionally there is an account of some monumental fight actually won, costing years of sweaty effort, and the prize is one development scaled back, one farm saved, a few acres that won’t be logged, a Civil War battlefield protected though with givebacks, a single Wal-Mart backburnered. Meanwhile, scores of houses, health clubs, hospitals, and convenience stores and 2,378 Wal-Marts went up elsewhere.

The big numbers only fit through the brain edgewise and so cannot in fact be processed. We are made for smaller stuff: what we see in the several yards around us, what it makes us feel. The emotional space to catch one’s breath, the vacant apartment that might be lent to someone who will do something artistically big in it, the quietly forgotten corners of town that are not overnight sold and flipped half a dozen times in the weeks before transformation into the next hot neighborhood for the rich — there is only a sense that these things are gone never to return, but our sadness does not look for the reason. What is it but a stare at the galaxies above, unable in any real way to comprehend their distance, to know that the planet is about to add 3 billion more people? Not much easier to try to think of what this country alone will be like with 120 million more people, even if you imagine all of them competing for your parking space at the post office. We won’t speak of the fact that you will never again be able to visit the lovely beach of your childhood, because you can’t get near it. (And no, no simpler to think of the 2 million more scurrying humans soon to be paving over their own little piece of Great Britain, either; or the 3 to 8 million added to Australia; nor, certainly, the 300 million destined for India.) Perhaps the only thing that can be grasped by any one of us is the sight of bulldozers just down the lane, grading the former hay meadow and giving rise to a dream vision of thirty-seven new taupe vinyl-sided “homes” with white trim and yawning bays for several cars. Then we might begin to see the future. It is composed of permanent mourning and unhappy accommodation.

Once upon a time, only the king could place his fortifications on the highest ridge; now any king who owns an SUV can do the same. It seems to go against nature, but then so much does, lately. I don’t think I will have the satisfaction of collaring one of the egos-on-a-stick who is planning to build his supersized mansion on the hill that was my solace, but if I did I would pummel him with a piece of Alan Devoe’s 1937 Phudd Hill:

So green are these hills, and so round and so many, that they suggest the massive tumuli of some gigantic and immemorially ancient race of man. I have walked upon them and extracted from their timeless earthiness the profoundest peace which it is possible to know.

I used to walk on them all the time, and tried again last night, as the darkness was settling in its ancient way on a hellishly cold winter evening. Up an old logging trail, no footprints on the snow but those belonging to rodents and the dog that was just ahead of me, but the sight of the ridge from which all trees have been ripped towered a little too insistently and I had a flash of memory from two years before. I had managed to climb, in better weather, all the way to the top of the ridge opposite my house, where it was much steeper than here, and when I got there and immediately wondered how I was going to get down without breaking an ankle, I found a dog’s collar. It was arresting evidence that another alien had breached this height, which seemed to belong solely to itself. Now in what I had thought was the safe twilight of frigid January, a car drove through my sightline as I gazed up. This was in a different class than an old collar. It shook me all the way through. It was the watchman, inspecting — against what incursions I could not even guess — the “property,” for that is what this majestically self-possessed place had become. There was nothing that needed protecting there yet, only scraped earth and boundary lines that had allowed successive buyers to flip forty-acre lots with views of two mountain ranges for increasingly outlandish amounts of money. As of last night, that’s another place I can never go again. When they start building, the age-old dark of the hillside’s night will be swept away in lights and noise and car exhaust. “Private property” trumps “the profoundest peace which it is possible to know.”

I do some futile kicking, just for show. The town building inspector informs me that there are no regulations concerning building on a slope, no requirement to do environmental-impact statements for a single-family dwelling. I have no clever retorts, and the only thing that comes out of me, dumb though it is, is, “Well, that’s America for you.” He is alarmed: “You wouldn’t want anyone to tell you what you can do with your own land, would you?” I suspect he would not appreciate my belief that actually I would, since it has occurred to me that there is no such thing as “your own land,” any more than there is one stitch in a sweater that can be removed without consequence. It is funny how the sound of the well digger foretells the final loss of a galaxy. We are some of the lucky ones, to still have our Milky Way when we step out on the back porch, but it is there only for a little while longer. Only a few more houses on our road, only a few more developments in the next town, and it will be gone, after billions of years. You can practically count the days.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson is the author of five books of nonfiction, most recently The Secret History of Kindness. She lives in the Catskill Mountains of New York.