The following is a guest article by J.D. Tarleton, reflecting on the ways in which we value (or don't value) different spaces.
American poet, essayist, cattle rancher, and lyricist for the Grateful Dead, John Perry Barlow, passed away on February 7th at the young age of 70. Barlow’s collaborations with band members Bob Weir and Brent Mydland gave us such Dead classics as “Cassidy”, “Mexicali Blues” and “We Can Run but We Can’t Hide,” the latter containing the ominous warning:
We don’t own this place, though we act as if we did, It’s a loan from the children of our children’s kids. The actual owners haven’t even been born yet. But we never tend the garden and rarely we pay the rent, some of it is broken and the rest of it is bent, put it all on plastic and I wonder where we’ll be when the bills hit.
Barlow’s poignant words about how we treat this planet remind me of a line from the Wendell Berry poem, "How to Be a Poet": “There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.” It is easy for us to assign the moniker of "sacred” to only those places that fit a tight and narrow description — usually accompanied by a religious overtone. But my definition, much like Mr. Berry’s, is much broader, maybe even more common.
My backyard is a sacred place, a space where the spirit joins me and old memories stir in my heart of children laughing, chasing dogs, and each other. Memories of games of H.O.R.S.E., crooked snowmen, and birthday parties. It’s quieter now, certainly less active, but no less sacred. And in a few years, when we decide that we can’t keep up with the demands of yard work, cleaning bathrooms, and mopping hardwood floors any longer it will become a sacred place for someone else as it was before me.
My wife and I ride our bicycles in the southern part of the county where we live, an area I have been pedaling in and around for the last ten years. From the parking lot where we start, to the time when we end, we will pedal past and through pastures and woodlands, filled with cows and goats, but this area is changing as many of our wild places and spaces are.
As our community has grown, the pressure of where to put all these new people has steadily increased. As we pedal down narrow farm and market roads, we pass land stripped of trees and grass, with cul-de-sacs cut-in, and slabs poured for new tract homes. What was once 50 acres of hardwoods and pines is now swaths of barren red clay contained within silt-fences. In my mind, a once sacred place now desecrated.
I try to avoid thinking about progress and development in this way. I remind myself of my own sacred places, like my backyard. I imagine young families hunting for Easter eggs and third birthday parties on fresh laid sod, around small ornamental trees with funny names planted to replace the red and white oaks that once stood tall and proud. I do try.
Consequently, as hard as I try to rationalize the desecration of once wild and untamed woodlands, I find myself recalling that the term “sacred” applies not just to humans but to all life in general — to birds, deer, turtles, and even earthworms. These creatures deserve their own sacred places, and unfortunately they have no control over the desecration of their space.
Having spent the better part of 25 years in the real estate development business myself, I have heard the occasional story of a rare plant, salamander, or bog derailing a new development, one to be occupied by a conglomerate like Target or Wal-Mart. Those cases, however, are rare and with the recent rollback of regulations, particularly environmental ones, I predict these instances will begin to fade even further into our past. Simply stated, what has taken hundreds or thousands of years to create, human beings can destroy in a matter of weeks and months with a bulldozer and enough diesel fuel.
There are only sacred places and desecrated places. I realize that perhaps I have fallen into my own trap of trying to narrow the definition of sacred places and spaces, asking it to fit neatly in a little box. Nonetheless, I do worry about how quickly we, as humans, are encroaching on the wild places and spaces on this earth. I see it when I pedal, but not only when passing lush green pastures but also along the side of the road, in the carcasses of raccoons, skunks, and other wildlife who have been forced to flee their sacred places. These once lively, free-roaming animals are now confined to a smaller and shrinking boundary.
I do not have any easy answers or solutions to offer. Unfortunately, the only people who can generate a solution are those who have instigated the problem and those are answers I don’t think we are going to want to hear.
“We have the world to live in on the condition that we will take good care of it. And to take good care of it, we have to know it. And to know it and to be willing to take care of it, we have to love it.” – Wendell Berry
About the Author
J.D. Tarleton is a son, a brother, a husband, and a father whose goal in life is to leave an imprint on the lives of the people he loves, not a footprint on the earth.