Land and human trauma Environment: Experience suggests that degradation of the land disturbs the vital and sympathetic bond that exists between our species and the Earth.

On The Bay

June 26, 1998|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

I AM ONLY 22 years old, but I am sick and tired of seeing the places I loved as a child 'improved' in the name of progress and economic development," writes Helen Woods, a rural reader of this column.

Similarly, Robert L. Hatfield, longtime Baltimore Harbor fishermen and resident of Brooklyn Park, says his day-tripping around the Chesapeake region has become depressing:

"It seems that our greatest efforts against pollution and overfishing will be overwhelmed by expansion of human life in the bay drainage."

From Mount Washington, Pamela Tanton writes of the thrill of watching piping plovers, herons and other birds feeding around the Jones Falls.

But she is "terrified that they are going to do something to ruin it -- 'they' being whoever it is who decides to widen roads, pave waterways, wreck nature. I fear it's only a matter of time."

I get far more letters like these, reflecting a deep anguish at what we are doing to the land, than about water and air quality.

It recalls philosopher Paul Shepard's 1982 book "Nature and Madness," which suggested a link between ecological crises and psychic trauma in humans.

Psychopathic behavior

Psychoanalyst James Hillman subsequently conjectured that the environmental degradation we see around us might be profitably studied as symptoms of psychopathic behavior in the culture.

Indeed, a growing number of "eco-psychologists" holds that environmental destruction violates a deep, sympathetic bond between our species and the Earth itself.

As a reporter on the environment for 25 years, I have witnessed a marked shift of focus: from cleaning up the air and water toward confronting issues of the land.

In the first two arenas, there will always remain much to do, but there has been great progress. It didn't come easy, but it has been easier than learning peaceful coexistence with the land.

I think it's because air and water, from the first, were accepted as public trusts. Despoilers despoiled our air, our water. Even if we allowed this (as we do with government discharge and emissions permits), society had a right to dictate the terms.

By contrast, much of the land is not ours, but mine and theirs; also some farmer's retirement nest egg, and some developer's approved subdivision.

I suspect Maryland's largest enterprise, in both dollars and employment, is not the Johns Hopkins University or Bethlehem Steel or agriculture.

Rather, it is what might be called the land industry -- the development, resale, surveying, landscaping, homebuilding, subdivision, clearing, zoning and all else that relates to turning natural open space into where we live and work and feed ourselves.

Its feedstock is nothing mined, nor born of chemistry; but our forests and fields, our views and vistas and wildlife, and the communities where we were born.

These raw materials of the land industry might be privately held. But how they are processed and transformed affects all of us across a spectrum that is still being articulated.

Imperfect approach

Even obvious impacts of land use -- like the quality of rainfall's runoff from farming, agribusiness and development -- are dealt with most imperfectly.

We have no land equivalent of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, no clear sense of where private property rights end and responsibility toward the greater good begins.

Sprawl development trends are as wasteful of the natural landscape as Detroit at its 2-ton auto, 400-horsepower worst was of petroleum.

Such development, according to studies in Oregon, costs taxpayers about $20,000 in new infrastructure for each new home, a public subsidy to growth of more than $400 per year, per taxpayer.

(Growth, of course, creates more jobs. But a California study comparing fast- and slow-growing cities finds explosive growth doesn't translate to lower unemployment.)

Media coverage across the country is grappling with both the measurable and psychological impacts of the rapid transformation of our landscape.

The coverage, of issues ranging from protection of vanishing farmland to traffic congestion, might best be regarded as a new beat, like "quality of life."

It is beginning to dawn on Washingtonians and Baltimoreans that they can clean up the Potomac and Patapsco rivers, yet live their lives in increasingly congested traffic and recoil at seeing the last wooded sections of every suburb vanish at the rate (in the Washington region) of 28 acres every day.

Mindless growth

We can say no to pollution. But will we ever be able to say, !B "enough" to ugliness, to call for a rethinking of mindless growth?

We could learn something about landscape and quality of life from other cultures, such as the French. When their farmers violently protested proposed lowering of trade barriers a few years ago, it was usually reported here as a selfish attempt to remain small and inefficient.

But the French regard their small farms as part of an overall heritage and landscape, not wholly dedicated, as we, to pursuit of the cheapest soybean.

Perhaps it is why Kansas and Iowa never fostered a Van Gogh or a Monet.

We need desperately to acknowledge and understand the fullness of the human-land relationship, and not just to preserve nature.

I recently watched two fine films at the Lyndon B. Johnson visitors' center in Texas. One chronicled LBJ's love for his native countryside, the peace and strength he derived from walking the hills of his beloved Pedernales River country.

The second detailed the tragic series of miscalculations that drew the president and the nation into the Vietnam war.

Watching the films back to back made me wonder:

If LBJ could have spoken face to face, heart to heart, with North Vietnam's leaders, walked with them on their home soil, might he, of all Americans, grasped how hard a people will fight for the land that they love?

Pub Date: 6/26/98

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