On Privacy

October 25, 1994|By BARBARA MALLONEE

The last rose of summer is spent by September, and wildflowers shortly thereafter. Stems turn to stalks alongside state highways and in the many median strips now left to run wild.

For long stretches, land that parts the traffic rolls toward the horizon like ribbons of prairie. Chicory, a haze of blue dust at a distance, bobs beside a speeding car as though scraps of sky had caught in a whistle of air. Deeper in the median meadows grow thistles, clover, goldenrod. Were a traveler to pull over to pick a last autumn armful of flowers, the plants would pale as soon as their stems were cut.

In fact, travelers do not pull onto the median strips. Driving six-lane highways, one sees cars parked on the right shoulder of the road, children watching their father change a tire, families picnicking on the edge of a wood, but between the broad bands of asphalt, the medians are deserted. Though they run forever in length, they widen only for rest stops. Medians make roads divisible. They leave nothing invisible. They are too narrow.

To want to feel unseen is a natural inclination. All creatures fear exposure. Through the synchronized tumble of the four seasons, space and time so mesh that living things, like the Cheshire Cat, both appear and disappear.

In winter, the land affords no place to hide. Snow falls, and the world turns stark white. Skeletal trees and animal tracks are black against the snow. In winter, the darkness that conceals comes early; daybreak comes blessedly late.

All winter, the wary eye must command the earth. In summer, the wide eye commends the earth. Daylight lasts longer, but the land grows lush. Dense and deep, noisy, rich in hue, the gorgeous earth in summer and through the golden fall sweeps her camouflaged creatures up.

The loss of land to development breaks the seasonal cycle of shelter. Space, range, territory -- all are issues made more urgent by the terror that overtakes each living thing when the landscape thins. There are no animals resident on median strips. Fewer and fewer animal species are resident on the earth. Paths, roads, fences have carved up unlimited land and bound it into pieces of private property that are not private.

The need for privacy is as old as the blue of a summer sky. To be private is to slip into the vast interiors the body houses. Without privacy, creatures collapse. Adam and Eve, cowering in sin, went forth, clothed in skins, to till the open fields. Over the centuries in this country, security of person has gained political sanction. The world grows smaller, the outcry louder that privacy is passe. Cities, never dark, are more dense, our culture more intrusive. Even in parks and wildlife preserves, the sense of distance has diminished.

What is lost is rarely fully regained, but nature ebbs and flows in cycles of endless renewal; she flourishes again in the unmowed median strips where a veil of grasses and wildflowers grows bTC anew. Our highways cut far and wide in all directions, but in our median strips mandate for recovery resides. Should we seek to restore respect for private lives, we might well begin by restoring land -- on a scale that in nature once made privacy possible. Even on a crowded planet, we must reserve sufficient public space that private space feels possible. Too little thrives in narrow middle ground.

Barbara Mallonee chairs the Writing and Media Department at Loyola College.

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