When my father was a child, there was a remote spring in the mountains alongside a forest road traveled by horse and wagon or on foot. Travelers would sometimes water their horses at the spring, or take a drink and rest awhile in the shade of the tall chestnut trees. The spring was tiled with “pretty rocks” collected by a farmer who found them in the creek that ran nearby. My dad said that when the sun shined on the pool, it sparkled and cast dancing lights all about the shaded grove around the spring.
The “pretty rocks” were actually amethysts, which can still be found in Northeast Georgia, if you know where to look.
My father understood that the spring had been dug in his grandfather’s day, sometime in the late 1800’s, and lined with the amethysts soon after. He estimated that the spring had been there for at least 40 years by the time he first saw it, respected and maintained by the travelers who used it.
One day my uncle, who was a few years older than my dad, came home with some amethysts in his pocket and my grandfather asked him where he got them. “At the old spring,” was his answer, and sensing that he might be in trouble, my uncle added, “but everybody else is taking them.”
“You’ll put those right back where you found them,” said my grandfather, “and see that you do it quick if you want any supper.”
But the magic spell of the spring had been broken, and first by ones and twos, then by pocketful and at last by the bucket, it was not long before all the amethysts had disappeared. The valley was growing. What had once been frontier to the white settlers (it was home to many peoples before them) was becoming more civilized, and greed is often a side effect of civilization.
When I was a child I went with my grandmother to visit the old homestead where she grew up. There was a chimney still standing there, and some stone works around the site where the house once stood. I remember the deep shade of huge trees, and numerous flowers and herbs surviving from plantings made a half century before. Water still flowed over a stone watercourse made by hand. The summer sun was hot, but the old homestead was cool, quiet and peaceful.
Not a trace of it remains. As the property changed hands and subdivided, the trees were cut down, the stone works bulldozed under, the creek dammed, and the variety of plant life replaced by some kind of hybrid fescue over ground that cracks open during dry weather.
Another shaded grove I once knew disappeared in more recent times, during the big real estate boom that started here when the Olympics came to Atlanta. There was an avenue of giant maples and poplars that followed a meandering stream. Numerous springs fed the creek along the way. One spring was particularly intriguing, as it emerged directly from the roots beneath an ancient maple. The roots formed a grotto over a deep pool of water where mayflies danced in the summer. One might have fancied it as an entrance to the underworld guarded by fairies, though my nosy hound once found it guarded by yellow jackets instead.
The springs survived the first couple of attempts to develop the property, but then came a developer who was more aggressive than the others and decided to try and “recover” all that “wasted” land. Trees were cut. The springs were bulldozed, filled in, destroyed. Of course this was a violation of environmental regulations, and the property owner was fined a few hundred dollars. He eventually lost his land to the bank. What once was forest is now another field of fescue in a vacant lot that has been sold and resold. The mayflies are long gone, but the yellow jackets are still there.
We humans have always been greedy. We have always been prone to treating the natural world in a ham fisted manner. But as our negative impact on the earth has escalated, some of us have tried to seek comfort in the past, looking for that magical time and place and that special people possessed of a set of values that were kinder to the earth, and more sustainable.
Sadly, no such time, place or people ever truly existed. Perhaps the closest our species ever came was the First Peoples of North America, who cultivated and nurtured field and forest. It was not a wilderness that European settlers found here, but managed land, empty, but recently occupied by a million people or more who had died from the diseases brought here by the first European explorers.
But even among the indigenous tribes that we like to think of as being fundamentally purer in some way than we are today, we find those who were responsible for deforestation and the extinction of species. We have also seen a community of conservative Christians, (the same people who today are stereotyped for an eagerness to drill and mine and develop) who were able to leave a public spring full of semi-precious stones untouched for two generations. If respect for the land is not a function of culture, then what?
Such thoughts seem appropriate as we observe Earth Day, and consider that many of our current 7 billion inhabitants may live to see 10 billion. We are in the midst of a great extinction event that some fear may grow to rival the Permian, when three fourths of life on the Earth was extinguished. Meanwhile our tapeworm economists worry where we will get the extra population to pay the bills we have already run up.
So far the tapeworm view is the dominant paradigm, supported by the myopic impulse to reproduce that continues to plague those parts of the world least able to afford more mouths to feed. The economy must always be growing, and we seem to lack the imagination necessary to grow it without also growing the population. Population growth (by birth) has slowed in the developed world, but it will continue through immigration in order to sustain the current economic model that is dependent on borrowing from future generations.
When there are more people, there are less natural resources to go around, and as freedom requires a certain amount of elbow room, there must also be less freedom. There will be fewer shady groves and cool springs to enjoy. When we had a choice to value such things, we often sacrificed them for short term gain. Today, separated from the natural world by the virtual , we value Nature less. Who knows what we will value tomorrow.