They tore down the trees today. I stood in the muddy street and stared in horror at the carnage before me. The pine trees lay in a disgraced heap, stripped of their bark and their dignity. Young saplings had been uprooted and tossed aside casually. The ground now held nothing more than a sea of torn clay. A trickle of water ran from the ditch down the road, carrying bits of leaves and debris along with it. My mother suggested that a water pipe had accidentally been opened. I rather think that the land was crying.
All right, I admit, I knew this day had been a long time in coming. Lot number #88 had never been ours, as much as I liked to pretend otherwise. We were lucky to live these six years undisturbed by development on our neighboring lots. But this knowledge doesn’t make it any easier to bear. On this cold winter day, while I was out living my now whirlwind life, bulldozers came and uprooted a piece of my childhood.
No one owned Lot #88 when my family moved into this house, in the summer of 1999. It was less than an acre of scrubby pines and dogwood, with few desirable locations for a house, but I cherished it immediately – it was a hedge between our house and the road. During a midsummer day, when all the trees were in full foliage, I could totally forget that there was a county road below me, full of busy people who drove much too fast.
Every now and then, Dad would mention buying the lot, just to prevent the possibility of a house springing up next to us. It never happened. The developers were asking too much for it, and we never had the money to spare. So the piece of land remained on the market, and it became my private sanctuary.
I was the first to discover the path that ran from the edge of our yard into the heart of Lot #88. My brother and I considered this a signed and sealed invitation for exploration, and soon discovered that we were not the only ones to have used the path recently. The remnants of toys were strewn alongside, half-buried in leaves. It grew to be a game. What strange object would we unearth along the path today? Silverware, a baby bottle, an old computerized game, and a rubber ducky were among our favorite loot. Evan lost interest in the land after it had been cleared of interesting treasure. I returned, time and time again.
The cats and I would walk in the woods together, every chance we got. I would travel a few paces and then sit and wait while Bree and Simba caught up with me. Sometimes they could come straight for me, touch their noses to my hand, and purr loudly with the security of companionship. Sometimes they would have their own agendas. A leaf would flutter and Simba would take action, sprinting to the nearest tree and climbing until her momentum wore out. Bree was more studious, sharpening his claws on fallen logs. We were never in any hurry. Sometimes we would sit on a bed of pine needles and just watch the cars go by. I never liked to be seen by travelers on the road – not because I thought that I would be in trouble, but because it pulled me out of my own private world. Sometimes the cats and I would make a game of it, and dive behind bushes or run to the bank whenever we heard a car coming. Sometimes we would try to figure out new ways to travel across the lot; these involved careful, and sometimes painful, navigation through the underbrush. Brer Rabbit’s briar patch just might have been on the corner of lot #88.
I marked the changing of the seasons from within the woods. Spring brought a flush of neon green, a delicate budding of dogwood trees. Their blossoms stood out like white lace in April. Summer was a rich canopy of oak leaves, rhododendron, and poison ivy. In the fall, I watched the leaves turn gold each afternoon with the last of the dying light, and gathered the tiny pinecones from the ground, trying to preserve them before they fell into pieces. In the winter, the cats and I gathered kindling. We knew just where to go for the best hardwood branches.
Yet as much time as I spent trespassing this land, I could never call it mine in any sense. I knew, deep down inside, that it belonged to the wildlife. The squirrels and birds lived a hostile coexistence within the upper branches of the elder trees. A piece of a bird’s nest fell on my cousin’s head one day. We also found robin’s eggs in one of the dogwood trees along the edge. I regret to say that one of those eggs fell and cracked, but as far as I know, the other hatched and began life on that three-quarter acre. Every once in a blue moon, a rabbit would pop out of the briars and startle us both, but best of all were the deer. Their path of daily travel ran along the edge of our back yard and through the heart of lot #88, and we grew so used to seeing each other that we were almost on a first-name basis. I got challenged by a doe once – it was an interesting experience. She eventually decided that I was doing no harm by leaning up against my tree, and laid off with the whistling and stomping, but she had me worried there for a few moments. Once a nursery paraded by, two does and seven wobbly-legged fawns. One of them couldn’t have been more than a week old.
None of that is there now. Those birds have lost their homes. Those squirrels must find other tree-tops to swing on. The microscopic life teaming below the leaves has just ended. The dogwoods have been slaughtered, and a house will now be built where the deer used to cross.
How can this be justifiable? Why do humans have more of a right to live than any other creature on earth? Why must we be doomed to steadily eat away at all that is green and good? For profit… for profit. The steady driving force that brings us success, oh yes… and economic power, we must have that… and brings food to our table, we mustn’t forget! And yet in our single-minded pursuit of profit, so much is destroyed and wasted. I know a place in town, twenty-two acres of land that used to be so beautiful… an oasis among the railroad tracks, the rusted trailer houses, the overgrazed cow pastures. Once it was a world of lush green grass, daffodils, a clear running stream, and the sweetest blackberries I’ve ever tasted. Now it is a barren stretch of mud and debris, and the creek is always full of suds from some chemical waste that runs off upstream. It is being sold for half a million dollars, to some developer who will pay it in order to bury it under commercial businesses, for profit.
Several years ago, the town of East Ellijay decided that it had to have a Super Wal-Mart. Never mind that we had a Wal-Mart already, and that people who really needed a Super Wal-Mart could always drive forty minutes south to Canton. It was determined that the economy could support it, so a Super Wal-Mart we got. There once was a mountain along Highway 515. It was so beautiful, driving up over the hill and seeing the small town nestled in under the edge. That mountain is gone now. They bulldozed it for the Wal-Mart. For the strip center that followed. And the strip center after that, and the strip center after that… for the sea of access roads and badly designed parking lots. There is no end. Every time I drive that road, another chunk of the mountain is missing. My mind has trouble with the concept that if a landform is in your way, you can simply pick it up and get rid of it.
It’s okay, though, the natives cry. We needed that Wal-Mart! We needed the Chevy dealer to have a bigger space and we needed better restaurants. We needed another bank (because Lord knows the 10+ this town already had wasn’t enough) and we needed this Goodys and this Lowes. This is going to be the best thing that ever happened to Ellijay! Business is booming!
Business is booming. And traffic is getting worse, and tempers are getting shorter. Where once there was a mountain teeming with life, there is now asphalt. Where once the median was filled with wildflowers, there are now turn lanes and intersections. Unfortunately, those turn lanes and intersections are built on a mountain highway, where visibility is poor no matter how much you bulldoze, so dozens of people have died in car crashes there. There’s that pesky topography getting in the way again!
This has happened in six years. It terrifies me to think of what the next ten may bring. I know that people have to make a living. I know that sometimes there is no alternative, and that land must be sacrificed. But never before in my life have I seen the earth treated so carelessly as I have today, and I pray with all my heart that I will live to see an end to this thoughtless consumption. We must find it in ourselves to look past our personal gain and focus on the bigger picture. Even if God meant for all the world’s splendor to be created solely for our purposes, I refuse to believe that this is what he had in mind.
My new neighbors want to have a home here. I understand. They have every right to build their house where a child and her cat used to play. But today as the leaking water ran down the road, so the tears ran down my face, for all that was lost, and for all they will never know.