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Retired publishing executive ecstatic with the idea of spending most of his time on the coast of Maine

Monday, January 9, 2012

Conquering nature

Another house is going up on Ash Point Drive, once again in the modern style of construction: buy big lot, knock down all trees, build large house (of course, large - when was the last time you saw a small house being built?). I'm at a point in my life where almost any new construction pains me. Less and less do I understand the urge for the new. There are so many existing structures that could be rehabbed, or even knocked down and begun again, and one more acre would be saved for the trees. Even the bare timbers and planks and studs of a new building seem to plead in some agony. Perhaps that's why the builders cover them up as quickly as possible with Tyvek and clapboards and shingles, to stop the screaming.

After the house will follow the manicured grass, the scalloped edges around ornamental bushes, the tarred driveway, the mulched flower beds, the three-car garage, all the impervious surfaces and domesticated plants that keep nature at bay. The need to dominate and tame and control must be a recent human evolutionary development, going far beyond using nature for food and shelter. Now people must conquer it. Their terror must be extreme, even if they won't acknowledge it. Their answer to terror is apparently to barricade oneself in with stuff; construct huge living spaces that one can control; install floodlights against the woods. Everyone gets, or desires to have, a separate bedroom and bathroom and screen. Families stay inside, passing by each other in the halls, perhaps meeting to snack at the Sub-Zero. They don't go outdoors: a coyote or a neighbor, a gnat or a terrorist, might attack.

If I were to be honest, most human works, not just new houses, pale in comparison to nature. Something utilitarian doesn't bother me. But useful items these days so quickly degenerate into prestige and greed and ostentation. Only something made to be quite useless, ie, a piece of art, can come close to satisfying what nature does so easily. That little bit of wetland that I walk by most days, for example, is especially beautiful this winter. A transparent skin of ice on the standing water produces a blue sheen like a tropical ocean. This rainy mild winter has given moss a big green boost, and it covers the mounds of rock and stump like thatched huts on a shore. Somewhere in the mud peeper eggs lie housed, waiting for spring. They have no need to conquer nature, or preen. Our life cycle is as short as theirs, considering infinity: would that ours were as glorious.

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