RECLAIMING THE COMMONS
By David Warsh
The time is long gone when New England exported such natural resources as it possessed – granite blocks hewn by novel methods and pond ice carried in fast ships to the West Indies and beyond. “The supreme proof of New England ingenuity was her ability to turn her rocky soil and heavy winters to profit,” the historian Daniel Boorstin has written.
Certainly, New Englanders have been remarkably successful in replacing one industry with another: textiles with textbooks, shoe machinery with software, Bibles with mutual funds. Among the latest in the series of inventive exports has been a certain tough-minded environmentalism. As early as 1831, Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge was set aside as an extensive suburban garden park. (It is still home to owls.) A few years later, Henry David Thoreau became the environmental movement’s prophet.
Westerners visiting New England today for the first time are generally surprised by just how empty and thoroughly forested it is. A couple of recent books show just how thoroughly the environmental perspective has become embedded in local culture.
“Thoreau’s Country: Journey Through a Transformed Landscape,” by David R. Foster, makes clear how intimately linked have been the human and natural transformations of the landscape. As director of the Harvard University Forest at Petersham, Foster offers an intimate guide to the changing sights and smells of the countryside west and north of Boston. Much of it is miraculously preserved, thanks to New England’s system of surveying contiguous towns first, and only then filling them with settlers. (In the South and West, they did the opposite.)
“Reflections in Bullough’s Pond: Economy and Ecosystem in New England,” by Diana Muir, is a much wider-ranging economic and ecological history of New England from earliest times. It is rooted in her acute observation of the tranquil country pond near her house in suburban Newton – across the street from Newton’s city hall and seven miles down Commonwealth Avenue from the State House on Beacon Hill.
The towns mattered much to preservation in New England. And the inventions that perhaps are of the greatest interest to those in other parts of the country today are, like the free library, which was more or less invented in Boston, also institutions. I have in mind two in particular – one global, the other local.
I spent last week in Seattle, surely as conservation-minded a city as any in the country. It was a shock to discover that there, too, nearly everyone I met is worried about some form of willy-nilly development.
At Lake Wenatchee, 50 miles or so northeast of the city, lying just below the Pacific Crest Trail in the Cascade Mountains, the US Forest Service has marked up to market rates the rents on the land it leases to individuals. These prices are determined by trophy houses being built along the lake shore by newly wealthy entrepreneurs. So primitive old cabins, hand-built in the 1920s and cared for over generations by the families of those who built them, may be knocked down to make way for more plywood monsters. How does $17,000 sound for the forest land beneath your family cottage – per year?
Vashon, an island about the size of Martha’s Vineyard, is nestled in Puget Sound just a half-hour ferry ride from downtown Seattle. For most of the century it was given over mainly to truck farms, fruit orchards, lumber yards, and fishing villages. Eagles nest on its western cliffs; whales circumnavigate it.
Now a quarry company wants to tear up a huge gravel bank on its eastern portion (known as Maury Island) to supply stone for another runway at Seattle-Tacoma Airport – complete with a conveyor belt from the quarry to the mainland to permit the project to proceed with minimum delay.
Meanwhile, magnates have begun commuting to the mainland by helicopter from their front lawns instead of slogging it out by boat. (Islanders have strenuously resisted the building of a bridge.)
Vashon is worth preserving from the fate of Nantucket if anyplace is. Not surprisingly, the population of old-timers and youngsters who migrated to the island during the local industrial depression of the 1970s have been trying to do just that. To them, the institution of the greatest interest that is designed to prevent sprawl and create agricultural jobs may be the community farm.
In “Reclaiming the Commons: Community Farms and Forests in a New England Town,” Brian Donahue describes the laborious process by which Land’s Sake, a 25-acre organic fruit, flower and vegetable farm was brought into existence in 1980 in the heart of suburban Weston. It’s a veritable how-to guide for those who feel a need to improve the landscape beyond their front yard.
“We need not search for some postcard village, with its face timelessly pastoral and its back to pristine wilderness. That place no longer exists, if it ever did,” he writes. “We need instead to dig in wherever we are.” Conservation land protected from developers is only part of the answer; the next step is to look after the agricultural economy – the foodshed (as opposed to the watershed,) as it is known on Vashon.
The other potentially valuable New England institution is the Conservation Law Foundation, which next year will celebrate its 35th anniversary. Patterned after a California environmental group that no longer exists, the CLF is a tight-knit team of lawyers and scientists supported by charitable giving, which relies mainly on the courts for its leverage – that and its willingness to look at matters through the eyes of busi nessfolk as well.
Its victories are well known. It sued to prevent off-shore oil and gas drilling in the fishing grounds of Georges Bank. It sued to stop the construction of the Seabrook 2 nuclear power plant. It sued to force the cleanup of Boston Harbor. At least as important are the myriad little victories it has won through a policy of constructive engagment: on behalf of the family farm as a bulwark against sprawl; for “green” enterprise in forestry and fishing; and in favor of the preservation of healthy town centers through good transportation planning. The CLF hasn’t been cloned yet in other parts of the country. But surely the recipe deserves to be tried.
The market is a wonderful thing. But the history of New England shows that people are served best if it is opposed at every turn by a sophisticated system of local governance. It’s hard to imagine that these two new institutions concerned with the sensible use of land – the community farm, the Conservation Law Foundation – won’t be of immense value during the next hundred years.
This article appeared on Page G1 of The Boston Globe on August 20, 2000.