Prologue to Saving the Places we Love
The man who is angered by nothing cares about nothing.
— Edward Abbey
Good Endeavor Farm, 1962 — I woke up to rumbling; the walls were shaking. I jumped up and peered through the old, wavy, single-pane glass windows and stared wide-eyed at the woods behind our house. Giant yellow and green mammoths were coming out of the woods eating tall trees in their path. I shook my head to clear my vision and grabbed my horn-rimmed glasses. The wild beasts morphed into yellow metal earth movers that pushed over anything and everything in their path. They churned their way through the trees into the field, my field, into my backyard. We were being invaded, and I ran around the house shouting that the enemy was coming.
They kept coming, more and more of these loud machines relentlessly treating beautiful oak and hickory trees as if they were worthless. They scraped away the topsoil that grew the crops that fed us and our livestock. Massive piles of downed trees, shrubs, and topsoil were pushed out of the way. All the life of the forest was left in windrows of trash, discarded as progress tore through our once peaceful farm.
Men in yellow hard hats followed behind the Caterpillars, setting fire to the piles of downed trees and reducing an important piece of my life, our woodlot, to ashes. Smoke from the fires and fumes from the massive diesel engines blew through the windows of our farmhouse. For weeks, the smoke scented our sheets, clothes, and lives with the terrible smell of destruction.
It was not a good year to be on the farm. Our family life was shrouded with a sense of helplessness. Our world was changing, and there was nothing we could do about it. Dad had tried to fight this particular path for interstate 95 for several years. He had not known or even suspected that this might happen in 1951 when he bought the land. He had lost his battle of eminent domain with the government, and now we had to deal with a monumental intrusion into our lives. Our woods, our fields, and our pastoral view to the north and west were gone. A 40-acre chunk out of a 110-acre farm was a serious wound.
The rumble of the machines went on for weeks as they dug deeper and deeper down into the earth, and stopped only when they reached the steep banks of the historic Little Gunpowder River. I didn’t know what to do. I felt violated, and my gut told me I had to fight back. It was the timeless anger of the disenfranchised. If my parents weren’t going to do anything, I was. So I applied as many guerilla tactics as a twelve-year-old boy could invent to push back at them and slow their progress. I felt a deep need to do what I could.
I slalomed around their orange and white barrel barricades on my bike, kicking them over as I went and watching them roll down steep dirt embankments. That was my meager attempt at throwing down the gauntlet, my challenge to this great evil. Come out and fight “like a man” I yelled. One day I was careless during my pre-slaloming surveillance, and a policeman caught sight of me during my rampage and chased me down in his cruiser, complete with flashing lights. I took off across the construction site onto the main road and then took a quick detour down an old farm road, all to no avail. The cop apprehended me when the farm road ended at a farmhouse. I wasn’t about to abandon my bike, so I stood straddling it as he reprimanded me, trying to scare me enough to discourage me from doing it again.
I might have been scared by this encounter with the law, but my anger did not subside. I considered my options. As long as I felt I was on the side of good versus evil, I was going to fight.
One day while crossing the newly constructed bridge across the Gunpowder River, I started unbolting the hand rails that lined the sides of the bridge. My dog, Bert, was running along the river below me. One of the workmen started throwing rocks at him for no good reason. Who was he to do that? He was the intruder, this had been my backyard. i immediately reacted. I threw my recently pocketed, unbolted handrail nuts back at him. He yelled and started after me. I took off for the woods. I felt him gaining on me, so I headed for the cliffs that I knew so well. I knew my way through these woods and soon lost the man, but I had made an enemy. Now he and the policeman were on the lookout for the local problem.
Late one afternoon I approached six very large Euclid and Caterpillar earthmovers the workmen had lined up, front to back, in a row before they’d left for the day. These were big vehicles, the biggest machines I’d ever seen, larger than the tractors I’d driven. They had six-foot-high tires, a foot taller than me. I climbed up on them to see how it felt to be in command of so much destructive force and discovered that the operators had left the keys in the ignition of an earthmover in the middle of the line. I turned the key, pushed a button, and heard this gurgling sound way down in the belly of the beast. It rumbled to life, shaking every bone in my body. I almost fell out of the seat. I played with the gears and somehow figured out how to engage them. Then I drove the thing into the one in front of me and backed it into the vehicle behind me. I had mastered the beast! But after a few more collisions, I turned the key to off, the engine rumble stopped, and I sat there wondering what I was really trying to do. Why was I so angry? I climbed down and slowly walked home.
One day I broke open a large box that I found on the construction site. It contained hundreds of sticks of dynamite. I sat there looking at the huge destructive power in that box. I had seen my father set off charges before and knew firsthand the explosive force of this many sticks. I realized that I had much more power at my fingertips than ever before. I could create a much higher level of violence than any of my previous escapades. With dynamite I could slow them down, and I could slow down the nation’s progress toward having a vast interstate network of superhighways. But it also dawned upon me that my actions would only amount to a minor skirmish. There was no way to win the war. The road was going through no matter what I did. Eisenhower’s military and commercial plan to tie the country together was going to happen. It was time for this warrior to retreat and learn other ways to fight to preserve the things that I loved. My uncontrolled anger may have finally dissipated, but an important seed had also been planted.
i often wonder about those feelings of anger that were so intense in the twelve-year-old me. It seemed so clear who the bad guys were—the government and its contractors. Or maybe it was the special interests who pursued growth at any cost and who probably controlled the government. Even Eisenhower had spoken out, warning the nation about the power of the military-industrial complex and its controlling hand on government. Either way I felt like a powerless victim, and as a result I reacted like a victim. That is why so many who are disenfranchised, who are left out of the process, react with anger and often in violent ways.
My father never acted that way. He talked about due process. He had diligently pursued the opportunity, going through the proper channels, to appeal the decision to locate the road on our property. He was certainly not pleased, but he got on with his life and his goal to be a good steward of the farm, albeit a smaller one, but a place he still loved. He created a vision of how he could fix the damage. He got on with his life.
Dad loved his farm, so soon as the work on i-95 was completed he focused on healing the wounds and working with what was left of our way of life. The first thing we did was start a reforestation effort along the sixty-foot-wide right-of-way adjacent to the highway. This was his attempt to block the sounds, the smells, and the sight of millions of cars and trucks that would eventually invade our country life. The state forester provided us with some of the twelve-inch saplings that we planted. Over the years my father, mother, sister, and I planted more than 30,000 trees. Although this process took time to be effective, many of those trees are now sixty feet tall. Dad spent the next forty years working on improving the topsoil of the farm by rotating crops and letting some fields go fallow. He also spent time improving the water quality, reducing runoff problems, and putting in native buffers around fields, hedgerows, and streams. What he inherited when he bought the land was a spent dirt farm. Through his affection for the farm, he became a dedicated steward of the land and improved it during his ownership. I still have an emotional connection with that period in my life. There is something powerful about a childhood loss—it stays with you. Whether it is the loss of a place, an opportunity, or a family member, it becomes part of who you are. It shapes you. I went on to study science, build an environmental services business, and volunteer time to the preservation of historical, agricultural, and natural places in the community where I live.
With time I have also come to appreciate our interstate highway system. There are now 46,876 miles of roadway in the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of interstate Highways that began way back in 1956. I have driven on it many times and have been on i-95 from Maine to Florida. It allows me to visit my family and friends and those special places that I love much more often than if it did not exist.
I have also come to realize that as long as our population grows, we will have to learn how to live closer together. We will have to change our behaviors to accommodate one another. We will have to make room for transportation corridors. At the same time, it will be even more important to take steps to preserve farms and natural habitats along these busy corridors. Our best minds will have to figure out our options and keep refining the process so that we make the best decisions for the present and the future.
Unfortunately, we cannot preserve everything. Until we learn how to stabilize our population we will have to meet the needs of more and more people. We also have to realize that the environmental laws and regulations on the books today don’t stop commerce; they are not designed to. They are intended to provide a path for commerce to proceed in a more orderly and sustainable way than in the past. This isn’t easy. There are many unintended and costly consequences to continued growth and development.
Ironically, I was recently asked to speak to a meeting of the Interstate 95 Corridor Commission. They were meeting at the Belmont Conference Center in Elkridge, Maryland, and the conveners thought the members would like to know more about the natural history of their corridor. I was happy to speak, believing that the more they knew about the wonders of nature, the more they would want to protect it. Based on their level of interest and their questions, I think that is indeed the case. They are thoughtful and knowledgeable people trying to manage a complex system in a sustainable manner. I did not tell them about my youthful escapades as a terrorist.
I wonder how many other twelve-year-old boys or girls have experienced similar things. Dramatic events often plant the seeds of defiance and action. Fortunately our democratic system provides us the opportunity to respond to what we perceive as injustices without resorting to violence. Over the past fifty years Americans have done a great deal to respond to the unsustainable exploitation practices of the past. We have made progress, we have changed our society’s relationship with nature, and we also have learned that we have a long way to go.
Congressman Elijah Cummings once told me, “Your pain becomes your passion which leads to finding your purpose in life.” I do believe my childhood experiences have driven me to fight for a healthy balance between growth and preservation. I have found my purpose. I want to inspire others to go outside and enjoy all that nature has to offer, and then dedicate themselves to restoring and sustaining the places that they have come to love.