Parting with family land can be like losing a child. I have seen time-hardened men blink back tears at the memory of the day they finally sold the dairy herd and tore down Grandfather's barn. Even the most conservation-minded landowners routinely experience wrenching emotions - regret, remorse, grief above all- when choosing to protect property that has been theirs by birthright.
It is important that we value and find ways to quantify the sense of place that is so deeply ingrained with our sense of self. Those key factors that make this landscape so ecologically rich should be part of that equation, but equally important are those essential qualities of our communities that are required to sustain their unique character when confronting transformative and unprecedented challenges.
Across the Taconics in Ancram, NY, a recent court case broke new ground in this area during hearings over a proposed 79-acre gravel mine in the heart of the Oblong Valley. For the first time in New York State history, a judge ruled that the impacts of a mine on “community character” should be a point of adjudication.
I grew up just down the road from the Oblong Valley, that corridor of Rte 22 that one old Dutchess County history charmingly calls “a howling wilderness full of rattlesnakes.” The snakes are still there, although shy and fewer in number as the regrettable consequence of human fear and ignorance. Although I followed the court case closely, I was just as surprised by the community's strong opposition to the proposed mine as by the court's recognition that community character has value.
Ancram is not particularly noted for its progressive politics or embracing regional planning. Yet even in that working landscape the sheer size of the proposed gravel mine represented something truly out of line with what the majority of its citizens valued about their home.
Determining what constitutes a community's character reminds me of the old philosophical question that asks; “When is a chair not a chair?” To answer the puzzle, one has to determine which of a chair's qualities are essential to its character and, as these are eliminated, at what point it ceases to be a chair.
“Is an armchair a chair?”, the inquiry goes. “What if it has red upholstery?” “How about if it has a broken leg?” “What if I chop it up into kindling?” Somewhere in this progression, the thing we know as a chair becomes something else: an emergency source of fuel, perhaps, but no longer a chair as we understand it to be.
We have a lot of these metaphorical broken chairs in our landscape and in our communities. They can be reclaimed, they can helped to a fuller expression of their biological or social potentials, but this cannot be done unless we start to value those essential qualities that define them, and also ourselves.