Freud, beauty, and so-called progress

Not long ago I found myself reading a book titled Going to Pieces without Falling Apart, A Buddhist Perspective on Wholeness. That I was reading the book surprised me. I'm not Buddhist. I don't meditate (not often anyway). And to me the notion of self-help psychotherapy can be more depressing than uplifting. Yet something I read rang true.

The author wrote, "As Freud discovered in his writings about the countryside, beauty carries with it the seed of mourning over its eventual demise." I read that line several times. And, quite frankly, I had to admit that I'd been in a mild state of mourning for several months. I was bemoaning the loss of something intangible, something conceptual.

In 1991, my wife and I bought a farmor what was left of one. It was the last of a 180-acre parcel, cradled in a small valley between Mount Vernon and Gambier, owned by the same family for half a century. All that remained was the home place: the farmhouse, outbuildings, and twenty-three acres. Even this was more than we bargained for. A house in the country on an acre or two: That's all we wanted.

Yet all it took was to drive back the long gravel lane, walk around the house in the shade of towering maples, sit on the screened-in porch that overlooked the pond, and, most assuredly, gaze out across the water to the rolling hills and fields and woods beyond. Serenity set in. That and an affordable price was enough. This would bethis washome.

But like the migrating geese that soon built their nests at the pond's edge, it wasn't long before human interlopers arrived to set up house. The L-shaped land around us became a developer's playground. Bulldozers and backhoes transformed pastureland into paved streets, mushroom patches into cul-de-sacs. Like poisonous fungi, houses popped up overnight. One. Two. Then another. And still more. Soon a dozen were full grown, others sprouting. Quarter-million-dollar and up contemporary, two stories, with walkout basements, presto lawns, in-ground swimming pools, and beaming security lights at every conceivable corner, door, and possible place a shadow could fall. No sir, no need to worry about that bothersome moonlight or starry sky when you have All-Night Every-Night Security Lighting to keep away those would-be burglars who prey on nouveau country folk. Seems some people are afraid to live in the country where, of all things, it actually gets dark at night.

Okay, so I'm a bit cynical. All of this would have been irritating enough had I not remembered an earlier, albeit prophetic, experience.

Twenty years ago I took a graduate-level course in college that required us students to assess a watershed and the natural resources within it. All the quantifiable measuresflora, fauna, water reserves, recreational factors, economic benefits, and so onwere quickly snapped up by fellow students. An emerging field of study known as conceptual resources was just finding its way into the literature and, at the professor's suggestion, another student and I took up the challenge. We drove the roads throughout the watershed. We identified business districts, populated areas, low-density areas, transition zones in-between. We studied the topography. We surveyed where city became country, suburban turned rural, and back again. In short, we did our utmost to quantify what features, natural and man-made, gave the area its distinctiveness, its unique cultural and physical character. We identified, as best we could, the watershed's aesthetic attributesits conceptual resources. When we finished, the class report was given high marks and turned over to local officials to be used in regional planning efforts.

So, years later, opposing the development that threatened the rural character of our Knox County neighborhood was, well, the natural thing to do. Consider, too, that the developer planned for each house to have its own septic system, that many of the underlying soils were known to be porous, that much of the land sloped toward our pond and spring-fed drinking water supply, that the local health department intended to rubber-stamp the project, that virtually every neighbor up and down the street opposed the development for very good reasons: none of this seemed to matter. This was progress, proponents claimed. From the health department to the Chamber of Commerce to the planning commission to the city administrators, no one, apparently, was in favor of slow, controlled, well-planned-for growth. Instead, it was full steam ahead, do whatever other burgeoning cities across the country were doing and wait for the consequences. Follow the default approach: act now, react later.

Fortunately, neighbors joined in as we hired a hydrogeologist and consulted with several state agencies, including specialists from the Soil and Water Conservation District. The scientists concluded, in no uncertain terms, that "your spring and perhaps local wells are at high risk of contamination when leach-type septic systems are installed upstream."

The developer (not coincidentally, a local attorney) reluctantly conceded. He would extend the city's sewer service to the housing tract and bring in city water. Unfortunately, to offset the cost he recon-figured the development from the planned twenty-four homes to thirty-five homes on smaller lots. Downsize to increase profits. Imagine that. Advocates proclaim that's the beauty of free enterprise. I prefer a different concept of beauty.

But then I'm the one who has been mourning.

Tom Bigelow, managing editor of the Kenyon Review, is a member of the Bulletin's Contributing Writers Group.

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