The High Price of Progress

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Major changes are happening in our neighborhood, changes that will affect the landscape for some time to come.

My house, my entire street in fact, is built on land once lined with Christmas trees. Blue spruce and white pines once grew rank and file on every property. Lone sentinels remain here and there, guarding lawns throughout the neighborhood. A few lots remain filled with trees, though most of them now grow neglected and thicketed, returning to the Earth.

Our property abutted one of these lots, the spruce lot, for the last two decades. We’ve enjoyed the benefits of these now-overgrown evergreens and the ash, mulberries and black walnuts filling in between them. They blocked the afternoon sun, bringing welcome relief on dog day evenings; and blocked the wind, sheltering us from dead-of-winter blizzards. Our favorite benefit, however, was the privacy those trees afforded us, hiding our entire backyard, and even the side of the house, from the road.

Those were the obvious benefits. Less obvious were the joys of the residents making their homes in the deep undergrowth: chickadees and cardinals, finches, wrens and juncos, woodpeckers, flickers and creepers, even blue jays and grackles would jockey and hustle for a meal at our birdfeeders. In the spring, when the grackle rookery was in full swing, the parent birds could empty the suet feeder in a day. Before long, the birdfeeders would occasionally earn their names in a more gruesome fashion, providing the hawks, both red-tailed and Cooper’s, with a quick meal, evidenced by clusters of small feathers here and there in the yard. And every summer, a hummingbird would grace our butterfly bushes; I think she makes her home in a nearby Mimosa tree.

Speaking of butterfly bushes, they would often be filled with swallowtails and fritillaries, hummingbird moths and skippers, even honeybees and bumblebees. Most striking, however, were the fireflies, decorating those spruces never selected for Christmas, covering them in a glittering, flashing, breathtaking display of Christmas in July.

Occasionally, deer and even a fox would pass through, the yard on their way to wherever they were headed. Turkeys moved in two years ago, threatening cars and traumatizing our dogs as they deliberately strutted by the front door. Squirrels and the random chipmunk staged birdfeeder raids, performing gymnastics straight out of Mission Impossible. Rabbits grazed in the backyard, and groundhogs grazed in the garden when I had one, locked in a never-ending war I always seemed to lose.

By now, I’m sure you’ve noticed I’ve been writing all this in the past tense. That’s because seven of the remaining tree lots have been sold for development this spring, including the three between our house and the end of the street. The one on the corner was cleared and built first, and the new neighbors are moving in as I write this. The other two remained untouched and unmolested – until this week. Every thing I told you about, the spruce and pines, black walnuts, ash, and even an English walnut grafted to five different varieties, has been uprooted and destroyed, grubbed out to make way for construction. Nothing remains save for a few stumps and root snags, and bedraggled goldenrods at the back edge, coated in dust and scorched by the now-intense sun and winds.

Bewildered robins hop from spot to spot while grief-stricken cardinals search for nests they’ll never find. Dusty, the resident not-quite-feral cat, seems insulted by the barren state of his former jungle haunt. Most depressing are the mourning doves, flying back and forth over these new badlands, trying to take stock of this new reality.

I must be fair; we always knew this day would come. At one time we did consider buying that vacant lot next door, to use it as a privacy shield and a private picnic grove, keeping it in a more-or-less natural state. The realities of finances, workload and life in general proved that to be nothing more than a pipe dream.

I can’t even be mad at the previous owner for selling the lots, or the developer for clearing the land, or even the buyers for wanting a shining new home. After all, everyone needs a place to live, don’t they? Honestly, I’m no better. My house is built on the exact same stretch of tree farm, isn’t it? Songbirds and skunks were evicted to make way for construction vehicles, deer found less shelter, lightning bugs fewer trees to garland. By buying my house, I took responsibility and ownership in a continuing reshaping and domesticating of formerly wild rural countryside. I have no right to be scandalized now that the realities of that ‘progress’ are impacting me.

The thing that breaks my heart the most is not that I’m inconvenienced. For me, it’s an unpleasant shock. That will pass. I’ll adapt, replant, replace. For the birds, beasts and everything that once found sanctuary among those sheltering branches, it is a holocaust. They will not so simply adapt. They cannot.

Where will they go? And how many will stay behind?