On the Right Side of Progress–Or the Left

by Jason Peters on August 14, 2013 · 12 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low,Region & Place

Tree 1

Ingham County, MI

Being an installment on a work in progress tentatively titled Dispatches from Dumb-Ass Acres, by a Dumb Ass

Rumor has it that this is a project initiated, aided, abetted, and urged on by cyclists who don’t live on this road but who want a wider road to ride their bicycles on.

They’re God-Knows-What on weekdays—programmers, dentists, accountants—but on Saturdays and Sundays in the summer they’re cyclists. They strap expensive bicycles on the backs or tops of their Subarus and Volvos, drive them out here where us yokels live, and then peddle their way down country roads so they can earn their breakfasts in the small diners that our charming little town affords.

Don’t get me wrong. We appreciate it when rich people spend their money here.

But it turns out that my road isn’t wide enough for people who don’t live on it, and so the county road commission has agreed to redo the whole thing—about a four-mile stretch that includes a bridge over untroubled water.

Redo as in widen. Anything currently within thirty feet of the center of the right-of-way must go. East or west, left or right—makes no difference. It’s gone.

I smell, in addition to programmers, dentists, and accountants, trial lawyers, those shameless ambulance-chasers, those unconscionable defenders of people too stupid to drive sensibly down country roads where the odd doe or fawn may make you swerve a bit and maybe hit a tree or a fence.

These snakes ruin everything, and they do it under the name of clean recreation or public safety or any number of things in which they would otherwise take no real interest except that the things smell like money.

I’m a localist. I like a road made for local traffic. I like it narrow and scary enough to make folks slow down. I don’t want my road to be wider. And I sure as hell don’t want it populated by a superfluity of men in tight black spandex shorts.

But this project began long before I hung “Dumb-Ass Acres, Est. 2013” above the barn door. My neighbors didn’t fight, or didn’t fight hard enough, against those whose interests are distant, and I came on the scene too late to do anything other than watch the desecration.

In a sense I’m one of the lucky ones: I stand to lose only one good tree, a shag-bark hickory that’s probably about eighty or ninety years old. But in another sense I’m unlucky, because I will no longer get to see the canopy over the road provided by my neighbors’ oaks—six of them, all beautiful, all healthy, and all well over a hundred years old.

To make us feel better about being asked to grab our ankles without so much as the promise of a cigarette afterwards, the project manager has offered to let us keep our trees. They won’t be standing, but we’ll be allowed to keep a dead version of what was once alive and ours to begin with.

This is generous, compensatory, altruistic. It also saves whatever company has won the bid to do the cutting from having to dispense of lots of timber.

I return from a brief absence to find the hickory laid out in ten- or twelve-foot sections at the end of my driveway. The red oak at the north corner, which I thought belonged to my neighbor, is likewise laid out. Supine and forsaken, its meaty mass at least converts easily in the imagination, if not in the flesh, to firewood, which helps me manage my grief. But what I should really do is mill it all and make coffins for the county officers, the absentee cyclists, and especially the whoreson bull’s-pizzle trial lawyers, who make cowards of every municipality and every governing body and every administrator from here to Gretna Green.

Except oak’s too noble a wood to use for the carcasses of trial lawyers.

Three of the six oaks remain standing on a quiet Sunday. A skid-loader is in the ditch across the road, its left track almost completely detached. The air, the wind, the sky—everything’s apocalyptic. It feels as if tomorrow is the world’s last day.

Best light a cigar and shoot a little bourbon. Or a lot.

Then Monday comes and I’m talking to the flagman out front. He’ll stand in the road for nine hours regulating what little traffic there is. (We need a wider road to handle it all.) There’s a guy at the other end, radio and flag poised for his lonely nine-hour vigil, who “ain’t three feet tall in high heels,” my flagman says. Later I’ll take a stroll and talk to him and find that it’s true. He’ll look me straight in the navel and tell me that a lot of people are unhappy but that “you can’t stand in the way of progress.”

My view is that you can’t stand in the way of evil or stupidity. Or, rather, you can, but you’ll lose your ass trying.

Case in point: earlier I ducked into the post office and asked the postmistress behind the counter what the plan is for mail delivery on my road. She told me and then said, “I feel sorry for all you out there. I’m a tree-hugger.”

I believe her. She’s about sixty and wears her iron-gray hair long and straight. She needs a look that says granola, NPR, and Birkenstocks a bit less earnestly.

“Well I am too,” I said to her, “but I wouldn’t advise hugging the trees on my road. You’ll lose your … you’re probably going to lose that battle.”

And now I stand in the road and watch the progress. These tree guys are pretty amazing, the climbers especially, though there isn’t any climbing on this job. Two of the remaining three oaks are on the ground. Two guys go to work cutting them up. Another in a bobcat-style loader, at present equipped with a claw, feeds branches that must be five or six inches in diameter into a chipper, sometimes two or three branches at a time. The chipper barely bats an eye. The sheer power before me astonishes. I, at least, am astonished.

Behind me, about a hundred yards to the south, a man stands in the road. The pose he strikes is of a guy taking a leak, but in fact he’s handling a remote-control device that commands an otherwise unmanned stump remover. “Apocalyptic” is no longer the word. I’m in a horror film. I’m in Killdozer. This stumper stalks the side of the road as if it knows where every stump is and yet cannot reach the point of satiety.

And from the south the truck that carried away the wood chips returns. We’re ready for the last—and, it turns out, the biggest—oak. It wasn’t there when Washington crossed the Delaware, but I’ll wager it was there when Pickett made his charge.

A young man whom I would certainly agree to call “sir” has removed his wedge from the base of the oak. From the southeast side he’s now using a saw with about a 37” bar to cut toward the wedged-out spot. This stately giant, this sylvan historian, is about to fall. The wind is from the west, and the oak leaves catch it like a sail, so there’s a rope stretched from the tree to the loader, taught, just in case the tree has ideas of falling anywhere but across the road that’s too narrow for non-residents. I’m trying to weep, but it’s only progress I’m witnessing, so the tear ducts are dry.

What I think is: it takes a hundred and fifty years to make that magnificent oak and fifteen minutes to drop it.

And, as planned by the planners, the oak falls. And that is death. Impossible to feign.

The guys go to work sawing, loading, chipping. I’ve sawn up some of the massive logs at the end of my driveway with a 20” Stihl I bought off a guy last week. In less time than I’ve done that small task these guys dispense of a century and a half of nature’s economy doing its slow deliberate careful work.

When it’s done the guy operating the bobcat-style trunk grabber steps out. I walk up to him to see if I can get his story. “I thought you were going to roll that thing for sure. I’d've rolled it fifty times.”

“Once in twenty-five years,” he says, except with rather more expletives than can actually fit in so short a sentence fragment. And he commences to tell the story, which is a good one—and very colorful. I didn’t think there was much more for me to learn about the mother tongue, but this guy gives me an impressive tutorial.

At length I ask how many cases of beer he’d need to drop a load of woodchips out behind my barn (“Dumb-Ass Acres, Est. 2013”). He says, “I’ll give you a load if I can get back there.”

We take a walk, during which my enlightening tutorial continues. I love learning new things. Plus it turns out he can get the truck in here. I’m going to have wood chips for the compost, the garden, and my trail through the woods. Free. God bless progress.

Though as I think about it later in the evening, when I’m trying to finish off with a pump-action pellet gun a groundhog that the kill-trap merely got by the hind legs and lower abdomen (I don’t have the .22 here), it does seem to me that progress, more often than not, is merely brutish and noisy and usually devoid of intelligence. What has been undone today cannot be known, and its undoing has been accomplished by what is easily, and in short order, entirely knowable. Mystery cancelled out by cold dull fact.

“Sorry, Mr. Trial Lawyer,” I say, and pull the trigger. The groundhog turns and looks at me as if I just hit him with a spitwad. I don’t have the ordnance I need to mercy the fat bastard, and I apologize to him for it.

And, of course, it is amazing how the character of a country road can change in so short a time. Over long time it changes, true enough. But it changes quietly. The shorter the time of change, the greater the noise–and the greater the expenditure. All that exhaust, and not a single tree left to manure the ground that gave it life. In this I’m complicit: I’ll convert the “natural resource” to firewood, which in my opinion is okay, because heat, like food, shelter, and clothing, is one of the things we actually need.

But it’s not the same as letting nature reclaim its own by the slow smokeless burning of decay, which actually is progress.

(Thanks to Philomel and his progressive hand-held device for the photos)

Tree 2

Tree 3

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Benjamin P. Glaser August 14, 2013 at 8:09 am

Everything that is wrong with modern America is encapsulated in these words.

avatar Dave d August 14, 2013 at 8:45 am

Well, what would you have done if you arrived on the scene earlier? The highway my driveway joins will be expanded to four lanes in a few years. The new access road will cut my property in half and put my driveway through the usable part of my yard.

avatar John Barnes August 14, 2013 at 8:55 am

Excellent piece! Spent my undergrad years not too far from your area, so I well understand what it means to lose majestic trees lining a quiet country road. I’ve also destroyed more than a few trees while working for a county road department, so I know what it’s like to be on the other side, too. No one offered us beer in exchange for our woodchips, though in a time prior to my own, rumor had it that a case of good scotch got your driveway paved.

avatar Tim August 14, 2013 at 12:53 pm

Appreciate this — especially your humor which leavens a dismal event. Having read William Bryant Logan’s _Oak: The Frame of Civilization_, reading about the careless felling of an oak resounds with the terrible noise of more than one chain saw.

Ruskin’s description of the reliefs on Giotto’s Tower in Florence includes the one depicting…
“Creation of Man.

“Scarcely disengaged from the clods of the earth, he opens his eyes to the face of Christ. Like all the rest of the Sculptures, it is less the representation of a past fact than of a constant one. It is the continual state of man, ‘of the earth,’ yet seeing God.

“Christ holds the book of His Law the ‘Law of life’ in His left hand.

“The trees of the garden above are, central above Christ, palm (immortal life); ABOVE ADAM, OAK (HUMAN LIFE). Pear, and fig, and a large-leaved ground fruit (what?) complete the myth of the Food of life.”

We’ve forgotten this centrality of oaks, and had we not we could not so carelessly and pointlessly kill them.

Last thought:
Cyclists might advocate for slowing down, for the sake of the real wealth in it. But by advocating for widening the road, they’re enabling not only the death of that which they might slow down to enjoy but the further acceleration of the rest of the world.

In all, an exceedingly misguided effort.

avatar Mathematician August 14, 2013 at 1:17 pm

Your bar is bigger than my bar. (Bar envy.) I will remedy–my Stihl will accept a 20″.

Save some of that hickory for the smoker.

avatar Duncan August 14, 2013 at 8:23 pm

Here’s hoping enough roadside vegetation remains to cover a good man with a pellet gun to reap a just toll on those ridiculous spandex arses. I have a 24″ bar….

avatar John Gorentz August 16, 2013 at 12:43 am

I’ve been involved in one of these battles in Michigan near my workplace, and observed another from a distance of about one county-width.

In the one case, we were told that to get federal funding to re-do the road, it had to be made into a Class A road. And in order to be a Class A road, trees had to be removed from the right-of-way. A compromise was eventually reached, though, by which most of the trees were cut down and a few close to the edge of the right-of-way were kept.

Once again, there is no such thing as federal aid without federal control. And centralized control, if done honestly, means uniformity and conformity. If you want to give the feds discretionary powers to make exceptions, you have to give them powers to abuse.

And safety is more important than anything else, we are taught. If it saves only one life, it’s worth cutting down the trees and sterilizing the roads. Who among us is going to argue against that?

avatar Siarlys Jenkins August 18, 2013 at 8:44 pm

If those guys want to ride bikes in the country, it would have been cheaper and better to pave them a nice windy bike path wending and meandering its way out in the middle of nowhere up hill and down dale out to the middle of hellengawn.

avatar John Gorentz August 18, 2013 at 9:05 pm

How do you know it would be cheaper and better. Did you ask any bicyclers if it would be better? Did you ask the local road commission if it would be cheaper?

Keep in mind that Dr Peters said it was a RUMOR that bicyclists were behind the widening of the road. We don’t know if that’s actually the case. Bicyclists I know don’t always know what they are asking for, but are usually disappointed when the beauty of a road is destroyed.

And there are those of us who use bicycles for transportation. How are you going to make sure those special bike trails go every place we want to go?

Here in SW Michigan there are so many alternate routes to take that it’s hard to imagine bicyclers asking for one particular road to be widened. It could happen, I suppose, but as an occasional member of the League of Michigan Bicyclists, I’ve not noticed that as the sort of thing they get all activist about. Rumble strips on the roads contrary to federal guidelines (aka vandalism) is what they (we) tend to get worked up about.

avatar David Smith August 19, 2013 at 7:10 am

“My road isn’t wide enough for people who don’t live on it.”

And so much of what the central planners, from the local zoning boards, to the chambers of commerce, all the way up to DC care nothing about the actual people who call a place home; their planning and restructuring is all about making sure strangers are comfortable and like OUR home so they can increase their power and profit margins.

avatar Dianne August 20, 2013 at 1:32 pm

I have to agree with John Gorentz that it makes sense to question the rumor that the cyclists are the main instigators here. In addition to all he said, recall that many of the Powers That Be that are much more powerful than cyclists are devoted to multiplying road-building projects. Perhaps it’s a political bonus for them in some cases if “selfish cyclists,” who are often cast as villains by drivers, get blamed for wrecking rural roads. Having said that, I’ll allow that some cyclists may bear some of the blame. But I doubt that the rumor explains everything.

Anyway, I don’t know how the funding for the project here in question is structured, but let’s remember that Dr. Peters’s property lies in the state governed by Rick Snyder, among whose inner circle of high priests of “progress” are road builders and all their interests. If Ingham County got state funding for this project, no surprise if it had to maximize the tree-felling and pavement-widening. Just saying.

In more encouraging news, see this confession by a “recovering engineer,” who has repented of his former crimes in road design. For the bountiful increase of his tribe, let us pray:

http://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2010/11/22/confessions-of-a-recovering-engineer.html

avatar Katy August 20, 2013 at 4:37 pm

Around here, whenever a road is widened, it means substantial “development” is 10 years away. Often there are 20-50-year plans for such “growth,” much of which is decided years and years before local homeowners and business owners can organize and have a say in the matter.

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