Development Comes at a Cost
Ah, for clean air, open space, and beauty
by Valerie Blaine
One summer evening in 1963 I pedalled my JC Higgins bike as far west as I could go. The journey took me past the old section of my town in suburban Cook County, past a new subdivision, past a soon-to-be subdivision, and finally to the edge of a farm. Dismounting my two-wheeled steed, I looked beyond the fence and saw nothing but fields. The sun was sinking behind a sea of cornstalks, and the expanse of field and sky stirred my 9-year old soul. I imagined this landscape rolling on forever. As far as I knew, I was standing at the edge of the frontier.
By 1994, a Honda had replaced my JC Higgins and I had moved to Kane County. The edge of the frontier had moved, too. Randall Road had become the boundary between the seamless spread of suburbia to the east and the vast verdant fields to the west. Traffic signals were still few and far between, though, and I actually liked getting a red light at the intersection of Randall and Route 38. Waiting at the light I could linger long enough to watch the sun melt into the horizon while a red-tailed hawk made its last lazy circles in the sky for the day.
In short order, that all changed. The sun sets behind Meijer now. Red lights along Randall are an incessant curse. The fields grow strip malls instead of soybeans. Prairies produce Paneras instead of pasqueflowers. Marshes are home to mattress stores instead of muskrats. Every moraine has been made low, crooked creeks have been made straight, and rough places have been made plain. If there is a frontier anymore, it sure isn’t Randall Road.
The farmland of my youthful dreams was, of course, a faux frontier. The true frontier was conquered by 19th century Americans who hupped to the marching orders of Manifest Destiny. In the short span of 150 years the eastern forests were logged, the prairies were plowed, and the plains were grazed from sea to shining sea. Just to be thorough, Americans-on-a-mission also dammed great rivers, drained wetlands and irrigated the deserts.
What have we lost?
Here we are in the new millennium, scratching our heads. We seem to have lost something in the process of fighting the frontier. As singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell mused in her 1970 song, “Big Yellow Taxi,” “Don’t it always seem to go, you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone? They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” Indeed, lots of parking lots.
Now we’re missing something that we quashed under concrete. Having corralled and conquered the wilderness, we are left with the dysfunctional dialectic of our love-hate-subdue-and-conquer relationship with nature. The binary divide between developed and undeveloped land has rived our hearts and spirits. We compromised the health of the land and in so doing, we lost part of our own well-being.
What is it that we’ve lost? Paradise, as Joni suggests? For starters, beauty. The landscape of my youth has been transmogrified into something that actually hurts to look at. (Does anyone think Randall Road is pretty?) Valerie Martin, author of “The Great Divorce,” wrote “How ironic that the only animal capable of appreciating natural beauty is the one bent on destroying it, the only one capable of actually creating ugliness.”
And more …
Besides beauty, we have lost key elements that together contribute to quality of life: Quiet, clean air, and stars in the night sky, to name a few. The 27.5 percent growth in Kane County’s population in the past 10 years reflects the quest for this quality of life. Paradoxically, the burgeoning population has brought the rampant growth of roads, rooftops and rush hours that compromise the very factors of quality of life that drew people here.
This is quickly justified as progress. The partner of progress, habitat destruction, is brushed aside euphemistically as “development.” Both are part and parcel of a healthy economy. Who, in these hard times, doesn’t want a healthy economy? We need lots of pet stores to employ lots of people selling lots of pet supplies. We need lots of home improvement stores to employ lots of people selling lots of shower doors. And, of course, we need pharmacies on every corner.
Unbridled growth may be couched as development, but it is what it is: A cancer. Suburbia, like the “Blob” of sci-fi fame, has engulfed everything in the path of its amoebic advance.
There is chemotherapy. Air fresheners, for example, are specially formulated with chemicals that pretend to mask polluted air. Synthetic drugs are administered for asthma and allergies. Anti-depressants and appetite suppressors tinker with the brain’s chemistry to alleviate the ailments of modernity.
There is electronics therapy, too. Electronics can be purchased online or at any big box store, allowing you to escape to virtual wild places in high definition on a flat-screen TV with the click of a remote. In your climate-controlled car, you can plug in your iPod for the soothing sounds of frogs in a rain forest, the calls of birds at dawn, the muted susurrations of surf, the cries of an eagle, the wind in the pines, a thunderstorm rolling across a prairie, all overdubbed with somnolent New Age music.
Oddly enough, outside the McMansion, outside the big box store and outside the car, there is no rain forest, no prairie, no birds nor gurgling streams. There are strip malls instead of streams, freeways instead of forests, pharmacies instead of farms, and traffic signals instead of trees.
Keep it real
As I rue the loss of the frontier, faux or not, I wonder at the attempts to fill the hole in our hearts. We want all the trappings of modernity yet somehow we know we need some good old-fashioned nature. Twentieth century ecologist Aldo Leopold wrote of “things natural, wild and free.” These are tough to find on eBay, cable and Netflix. Tougher still to find on Randall Road.
Perhaps what we need are not virtual, but real places where the wind rustles in the trees, where otters cruise in creeks and where wildflowers carpet the forest floor. Real sunsets over real prairies that come in the original high definition, and real songbirds at dawn that provide the ultimate surround sound experience. These are precious places, invaluable experiences, and the source of strength and healing. Now’s the time to save these treasures.
May we, the intelligent species of the planet, recognize the “Big Yellow Taxi” dialectic: We don’t know what we’ve got ‘til it’s gone. May we save the remnants, restore what we can and savor the natural, wild and free — for our own sake, for our children’s sake, and for goodness sake.
• Valerie Blaine is a naturalist with the Forest Preserve District of Kane County. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A few comments of my own:
Otter Creek Shopping Center
Otter Creek Shopping Center is located on the west side of Randall Road, which once was the western edge of the town I live in.
According to arial photos taken in 1939, Otter Creek in this area was no more than a wet swale. The farmer ditched it to drain the field for crops, probably in the 40‘s. It is highly unlikely that otters used to frolic in this section of the creek. This information came to me from Rob Linke, a Water Resources Engineer, in an e-mail to me yesterday.
So the shopping center didn’t really displace a wetland–that had been done by a farmer many years ago. But the massive, black-topped parking lot (which I have never seen full even on Christmas time weekends) is impervious. All of the rain water that was once at least partially absorbed by the agricultural field is now drained into the large drainage diich–what’s wrong with that?
The excessive amounts of rain water that enters the ditch is tearing up the creek downstream, south and west of here, where otters most likely did frolic. What happens in one small area impacts the whole watershed. This is, of course, happening all up and down Randall Road, not just here. Even though the market seems over-saturated, a new Supe-duper Walmart is being constructed on Randall Road a few miles south of Otter Creek Shopping Center.
Naming a shopping center for a creek that it is destroying would be ironic, if it weren’t so tragic.
“Take what you will and pay for it,” says the Spanish proverb.