I live on land that used to be a vast expanse of pine barrens. That vast expanse is now broken up by urban sprawl and totals only a few hundred acres of fragmented pieces of native habitat. Most of that land is zoned for commercial development and will disappear someday, when the economy recovers.
Driving down the main road in my part of town this evening, en route to cast my vote in the New Hampshire primary, I flashed back to the same road more than thirty years ago, before it was developed. I recall it as wide, open scraggly land, rather harsh, really. The road cutting through it was dotted with little camp-type houses and a few mom and pop businesses.
A pine barrens has its own peculiar kind of beauty. The kind you need to get up close to and understand. I know that now, after years of exploring what’s left from time to time, finding birds, looking for the elusive karner blue butterfly and, sometimes, picking wild blueberries.
My little development, surrounded on a couple of sides by woods, was rich with native pitch pines, a few towering white pines, white oaks and scrub oaks thirty years ago when it was built back in the early 1980s.In fact, the development itself has one of those back-to-nature sounding names hinting of wild things, all in the comfort of a modern cluster development. It’s a cluster development, so all the homes are on very small lots and, together, the homeowners own a park and community green space that surrounds the neighborhood. As development designs go, this is a smart and efficient one. Children in this neighborhood get to enjoy a bit of woods adventure, trails and all.
I’ve lived here for 17 years and watched, year after year, my neighbors cut those pine trees down. Their reasons for reshaping these woods into lawns, funny little gardens and lots of asphalt (double wide driveways are a big thing) would be kind of funny, if it all just wasn’t so sad. “I hate pine needles.” “Pine sap gets on my cars.” “Pine trees are ugly.” “It’s impossible to grow a lawn here.” “I’m tired of raking.” And, of course, “We need more sun!”
I succumbed three years ago, when my tiny vegetable garden was getting so much shade that it became clear that one tree had to go. It was a painful decision, and an expensive one. When the tree removal men arrived, ready to pluck that tree out of my yard, I struggled with the news that one more of my pines was dying and needed to come down. (I later understood that it would have, most likely, recovered quite nicely from its temporary stress.) I was not happy.
But, it didn’t stop there. When a tree removal truck rolls into a neighborhood of rabid pine tree haters, people come out of their houses with checkbooks in hand and a glimmer in their eyes. The tree removal man, standing high and proud on the platform of his monstrous crane, was ready to oblige with special “while I’m in the neighborhood” pricing. My neighbor to the left removed a mature white pine, at least 20 inches in diameter—I couldn’t guess how tall. To the right, my seriously anti-pine neighbor had seven trees removed from her front yard. The next house over went all out and removed twenty trees. The buzzing of chainsaws and the hum of the chipper rang in my ears for two days straight, and my heart was heavy with guilt. It was hard not to feel that I had caused this clearcut.
My neighborhood of 90 homes has seen several such tragedies. Aside from the few common areas of community green space, it’s slowly been transformed into a neighborhood of little sun-baked lawns, still not green, except for the few that receive regular chemical services from the little tanker truck that comes through every few weeks. (Once called ChemLawn, but now going under the name of “TruGreen.”) Pine barrens species thrive on dry, sandy soil, with very little organic matter. Lawns don’t.
The community green spaces, along with the neighborhood park, are hot topics every year at our annual neighborhood meeting, as all the tree-haters (having cut their own trees down) argue in favor of cutting down trees in the only remaining untamed spaces. They argue that the trees pose a threat to children, fences and their houses. After all, they could fall at any time. I am often the lone voice saying, “We all chose to move to a pine forest, remember? Let’s keep some pine trees here!” Ultimately, the budget dictates the choice and the trees remain.
I’ve been giving a lot of thought lately to making another overland migration, this time to a less developed, more rural place. I dream of living in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom someday. Practicalities and real life aside, I often find myself thinking about what it is that I’m looking for. Is it wide, open space? More green? A vibrant agrarian landscape? Neighbors with common values? Trees? Less traffic?
Yes, to all of those things.
But, I’m also clear that I’m not looking to be part of changing yet another environment for the worse. Even on the back roads of beautiful Craftsbury, Vermont, are houses that look like suburbia in the making. We move, and we take our taste preferences with us, pink flamingos, gas barbeques and all. It seems inevitable that, as we settle in, we either create our image of an ideal home and yard, or we actually recreate what we moved from. We forget what attracted us in the first place. I think it takes a special person to settle onto a new landscape, making a conscious commitment to live with it, rather than strip it of its natural character.
I don’t think most people think about this at all. The changes to a landscape like my native pine barrens are incremental—10 acres here, 30 acres there. A mall, a movie theatre, the office building where I work, a few big box stores, all popping up one at a time, in accordance with the City’s master plan to concentrate commercial development in this area.
Most people probably don’t know that field biologists prowl the remaining pine barrens here routinely, in search of those karner blue butterflies, common nighthawks and other species that are disappearing from these parts. Most people don’t know that foxes den up less than a half mile from this neighborhood, between our homes and the interstate, trapped in a little island of green. Many people might not notice that wild turkeys still, occasionally, make their way behind our houses, connecting the dots of remaining woodlands as they forage right here in the city. I saw a moose behind my house about 10 years ago.
Although I’m nowhere close to a decision about making a move, I struggle with the question of what is right. Staying put, I might be able to continue to work toward positive change, right here. I could continue to be the rational voice at those annual meetings, arguing in favor of keeping the trees. I could continue to grow a few vegetables in my front yard and share perennials with my neighbors. If I were lucky enough to someday move to the Northeast Kingdom, what impact would I have on it? Would I play a part in changing that landscape for the worse, just by changing a small piece of it into something that it isn’t now? By putting my signature on it?
I don’t believe there are easy answers to these questions. It’s human nature to move around, to seek out places that feel more nurturing and positive, however we each define those qualities. At this time, here in New Hampshire, most of that movement is still outward, into the rural landscape. New Hampshire cities have yet to catch up with the more progressive trends of residential urban redevelopment (green spaces and all); developers are still clamoring to buy up those open fields and build single family homes on small lots, for maximum profit.
I don’t know where my path will lead, and there’s plenty of time to consider the choices ahead. I do know that today, I am saddened by the vestiges of the once unbroken pine barrens where I live.
I like pine trees, and I miss the hundreds in my neighborhood that have been sacrificed for such frivolous, selfish reasons.
What impact are you making on the landscape you call home?