Sunday, September 23, 2012

In the name of Progress?

I live in a suburb of Chicago far enough away from the city that there are still a few farms that have yet to be paved over, an abundance of green spaces, stretches of forest and a fairly unspoiled, picturesque river valley. Recently, in the name of progress, the city purchased several developed pieces of land, one containing an abandoned warehouse which was burned to the ground by vandals, in order to build a road bypass to improve traffic on a congested major artery. The only problem is about ten acres of land smack in the middle of the developed parcels that is covered in forest, is bordered by a popular bike path on one side, one of the oldest parks in the city on the other and split by a winding stream that feeds the nearby river.

This is a problem because in order to complete the bypass, every last tree, bush and blade of grass on the ten acres will have to be "removed" and several small hills up to twenty feet high will have to be leveled. I think most commuters stuck in the daily traffic jams on this major artery are willing to sacrifice a few trees to improve their commute time. For them and the city planners who approved this project I would like to offer a perspective on what we are giving up for our commuting convenience.

I ride my bike on the bike path passed this piece of land on a regular basis. During the hot summer months I appreciate the shade from the trees that provide a soft canopy dappled in sunlight, the cool breezes that filter down the hillside and the sight of any number of animals from deer to raccoons to hawks to squirrels and opossums, not to mention the dozens of song birds who make their home in this little patch of forest.

The bike path is built on an old railway line and there is a 100 year old stone bridge crossing the little creek in the woods. I stop occasionally to marvel at the large limestone blocks chipped out of a nearby quarry by men who have been dead longer than I have been alive. There is a dirt path that leads down from the height of the bridge to the stream bank and follows it through the wood until it emerges out into the park. I walked this path once and was amazed how after only a few twists and turns I felt like I was deep in a forest far from modern life. Although only a few hundred yards from the bike path, I could sit on a log by the stream bank, listen to the bird calls, the water gurgling over the round stones and at least pretend I was deep in the wilderness.

Yesterday I walked down the bike path knowing that my forest was gone. The bulldozers and road graders were parked on the black earth like giant, yellow insects waiting to devour their next meal. The bile rose in my throat as I walked closer. I was having a hard time recognizing where I was since all my familiar landmarks had been obliterated. The landscape reminded me of battlefield films and pictures. The trees had all been cut inches from the soil, their limbs and trunks gone, already hauled away. The churned up soil was littered with shredded plant debris, tree limbs broken into fibers as if separated by a bomb blast. I couldn't help but think of all the animals. I picture a moment like in the movie Avatar when the giant machines tear through the forest devastating everything in their path and the animals all running in the opposite direction to avoid annihilation.

But I want to get beyond the Bambi moment of denouncing the hunters who shoot his mother. The perspective I want all of us to consider is with what are we replacing these natural habits that we destroy in the name of progress? Steel and concrete? A sterile sheet of sod laid on top of a bulldozer sculpted landscape? The incredibly diverse forest ecosystem with all its plants and animals is lost. In this case it is only ten acres, but it is a microcosm of what we are doing all over the country, all over the world. We need to remember that we live in the natural systems around us, not outside of them. The more harm we continue to inflict on these systems, the more harm we ultimately are inflicting upon ourselves.