Road to Ruin

Nothing devastates nature as efficiently as an interstate.

My family and I spend a portion of our year on a farm south of Paoli that has been in my wife’s family since the middle 1800’s. The house was built in fits and starts between 1913 and 1945, as funds and circumstances allowed. We renovated it last year and amidst the moving-day hubbub, I moved a table to the back porch, beside the porch swing and washing machine. We writers are in constant search of Nirvana, and though it took 20 years, I have finally found it next to a jug of Tide and a box of Bounce. I spend my mornings there, looking, in between paragraphs, across the field to the creek, then up the hill and into the woods. It is a pleasant arrangement, writing-wise, except on Mondays, laundry-day, when the erratic thump of the dryer upsets my rhythm. But the dryer was here first and has been grandfathered in, so I defer to it one day a week.

Not far from here, a new interstate is being built. It’s actually 40 miles away, but interstates are like war fronts—40 miles is close enough. The interstate permits no grandfathering, nor does it defer to ancient trees and harried wildlife. The road provides no gentle curve to spare the widow’s home, allows no valley to go unfilled, no stream to run free, no hill to reach for heaven. A governor who ran on family values and small government sent forth buyers armed with checkbooks to purchase family homes and family farms, as if there were a fair market price for one’s heritage, then ordered legions of bulldozers to wipe them from the land with no allowance for longevity, history, or need.

This road will cleave in two an Amish community, whose members will now be severed from their kin by a Berlin Wall of freeway. I would never in a million years ask a man to surrender his family farm to save me a handful of minutes on my journey from Indianapolis to Evansville, but collectively we have demanded it. There are few things so dangerous to humankind, few things so dismissive of our rights and property, as a perceived public good. I would happily have left home 20 minutes earlier to go the long way around through Terre Haute. I already stop every hour to use the restroom, so the extra time would have meant nothing.

The lane through our farm valley began as a dirt path, skirting hills, jumping the creek time and again like a child skipping rope, dodging forests and homesteads. This confirms my suspicion that the best roads evolve. They don’t barge in, shoving everyone and everything to the side. In Parke County, on Greencastle Road, is an ancient oak tree that a hundred years ago stood smack in the middle of their way. The county highway department, in a rare display of wisdom, built the road around it. East-bound travelers pass on one side of the tree, west-bound on the other. As long as that tree stands unmolested there is hope for humanity.

I prefer bowing to nature instead of forcing it into submission, so nature is always hovering nearby, waiting us out, ready to reclaim the fences, barns, and houses the moment our backs are turned. Across the creek and atop the hill is the stone foundation of my wife’s great-grandfather’s house. He built for the view, forgetting water’s fondness for the low spot, and had to vacate the place in the early 1900’s when the well ran dry. Nature can be ignored only so long, then she insists on having her word and it is often the last one. Some believe it is God who brings the flood and drought and wind and blizzard, but I believe the unprecedented weather events buffeting us these days are hand delivered by an aggrieved Mother who has finally found her voice.

When I was a child, there was a winding creek in a patch of woods where I camped with my friends. We hiked there one day to discover the bend of creek had been straightened, piped, and buried, the trees knocked down, and the earth scraped raw because an engineer had decreed, probably without ever seeing our Shangri-La, that a power line could not deviate from its course. My friends and I stood before the carnage like mourners at a grave, then left and never returned. The birds and rabbits must feel the same way whenever I clean my fence rows.

Nature can be ignored only so long before she insists on having her word, and it is often the last one.

I am not sure how and when the noun “grandfather” became a verb, but I approve of its expansion and the principal behind it, this pardon to buildings and nature whose only sin was persisting long enough to get in our inevitable way. There is no end to this takeover. Once government has whetted its appetite on one house, no home is safe. When the scrub mulberry is torn from the earth to make way for the road, the cathedral forests of oak, cherry, and walnut are sure to follow, and all for a mode of transportation, the gasoline powered automobile, most scientists tell us cannot long be sustained.  

A portion of the new interstate will run upon a state highway that connects our home in Danville to our farm in Paoli, so for 20 miles, unless we find another route, I will have to abandon my principles and drive a road I have preached against. This is the sad fate of us moral purists, we are often found in bed with the very evil we denounce.  

This past April, the Indiana bat managed to do what leagues of protesters and attorneys have failed to do─stop the bulldozers and chain saws temporarily by birthing its federally-protected young under the loose bark of trees in the federal highway’s path. The right hand of government, it turns out, did not know what its left hand was doing, thus have the labors of man been stopped dead in their tracks by bats in labor, a delicious irony.

The Kentucky sage, Wendell Berry, said, “We can best serve civilization by being against what usually passes for it.” I am against this highway, and with other weeping prophets have been lamenting the government’s effort to bring “civilization” to every wooded corner of our state. We have been jilted by progress one too many times to believe its pitch. And haven’t our efforts to civilize a place or a people invariably led to their demise? First, we civilized nature, then we civilized Native Americans, and now have significantly less of both. I once dated a young lady bent on civilizing me, but escaped just in time. Now we’re going to civilize a corner of our state populated by folks who moved there to escape civilization, or what passes for it.  Some days, there just aren’t enough bats to go around.

Illustration by Ryan Snook.

This column originally appeared in the August 2012 issue.