The landscape of Northwest Connecticut is peppered with biblical references. There is a community called Sodom, about whose namesake even the impious have heard. We have the lovely Town of Sharon, but no Rose of Sharon, alas, to compete with the ubiquitous multiflora. There is also Goshen, where "...Israel dwelt in the land of Egypt, in the country of Goshen; and they had possessions therein, and grew, and multiplied exceedingly." (Genesis 47:27).
I live in North Canaan, named for "a land that floweth with milk and honey" but also "a land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof" (Numbers. 13:27, 32). The frontier of the Hebrew Exodus and the frontier of colonial Connecticut had more in common, it seems, than the promise of opportunity for God's chosen in a howling wilderness. The land could be bountiful but it could also devour. A classic interpretation of this biblical paradox, and one that finds expression in frontier societies and where frontier attitudes remain, is that only the strong of will and body can tame the land and make it yield its riches.
I was pondering the more modern expression of this duality in my community when I came across an essay by Alon Ben-Meir, professor of International Relations at New York University. Professor Ben-Meir was speaking specifically to the tragic and prolonged conflict in the Middle East, but he also offers a deeper insight into the relationship between humanity and nature in the Land of Canaan allegory.
"The eleventh-century scholar Shlomo Ben-Yitzhak (Rashi) who studied and worked in France, and is considered the foremost Jewish interpreter of the Old Testament, advanced a more compelling explanation. In his view, the land of Canaan can either be the land of milk and honey or a land that consumes those who dwell there. God intended it to be that way: The choice of whether it would be a land of abundance or devastation was left to the inhabitants themselves. Should the governors be just and caring, the people compassionate, abiding by the highest morality in their day-to-day conduct and respecting each other's rights, then they should live in peace. If they made this choice, then the land would indeed exude milk and honey. But if they decide to live in opposition to these standards, then violence, cruelty, and hatred, greed, venom, revenge, and retribution will be the result, and they will eventually perish through their own misdeeds."
This reading of the Canaan paradox would tend to argue toward a society that valued stewardship over resource exploitation, that protected the rights of the individual without diminishing that same right in others or depleting the common store. It would also seem to run counter to prevailing attitudes today in some quarters, both nearby and farther afield, regarding private landowner rights, natural resource management, and the role of government in safeguarding the common wealth. Jared Diamond has much to say on this subject in his recent book, Collapse, and others have made similar observations. Where Garrett Hardin identified a Tragedy of the Commons, there could just as easily be said to be a Tragedy of the Private, for private ownership has degraded more habitat and destroyed more natural resources than all ther world's communal area pastoralists. Private ownership, for all its flaws, has also protected vast acreages, yet the pace of land conversion from open space to built environments far outstrips the capacity of private efforts to conserve it.
For Canaan, and communities like it, to sustain the flow of milk and honey, we will need to value our rural character, our affordable quality of life, and our ecological wealth. Although it goes against our independent Yankee grain, we may need to set limits on ourselves so that these may endure. When the gravel mine down the road is tapped out, houses and not farmland will replace it. When Wal-Mart comes looking to plant a huge box store in the Litchfield Hills, it is unlikely to take root in the communities with up-to-date zoning and comprehensive open space and development plans. We need not follow the path that will make of this place "a land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof."