The view from below

I’ve never cut a tree to improve a view. I wonder at the hubris of those who believe a view can be improved by the absence of a tree. I wonder, too, about the one-sided thinking of those who would clear a view so they could look out on distant ridges unimpeded. These are the ones who cry out the loudest when their “viewshed” is spoiled. Don’t they realize that their act of clearing is also an act of exposure? Perhaps those who look back up or out upon the opened sore also desire a pure, unspoiled view.

I’ve never built a fence or put up a gate for any purpose other than keeping animals in or out. Gates and fences provide only a false sense of security. A man who feels safer behind a gate is a man whose heart is full of fear. I don’t want to be protected from my neighbors. I don’t want to create a separation that says some are my neighbors and some aren’t. I believe in belonging and attachment — to place, to land, to people. The connections we allow to flourish feed us and magnify our spirit; separations only diminish us.

I’ve never wanted to move a mountain; I’ve never wanted to have dominion over Creation or bend it to my will. I’ve built roads and cleared land. I’ve made pasture and graded out a house place. But as I did these things, I tried to approach them with humility. I may hold title to this land at the courthouse, but the land on which I live will not be owned. Before me, others held it; they are faded away. The old cabbage fields up in the cove are now replaced by poplar and locust, some big enough that two men could not join arms around them.

When I am gone, the land on which I live will still be here. If it’s raped and plundered and despoiled, if I have left monuments to my ego upon it, it will still be here. And I will still be gone.

I’ve never judged a man by the size of his bank account or his house. Value has less to do with money than with character. Abraham Lincoln said: “I like to see a man proud of the place in which he lives. I like to see a man live so that his place will be proud of him.” A hug, a kindness, a tender word is no less valuable because the giver lives in a trailer. The things a friend can give me don’t depend on what he owns.

I didn’t learn these lessons independently. I have watched and listened and tried to absorb and understand the teachings of people who have been sustained by the place where they live. The men I know who wear overalls without pretense are my sounding boards — the proverbial canaries in the coal mine. These men, with more wrinkles than teeth, tell me their stories and remembrances. There is sweetness and warmth in their memories, and a comfort in recalling a time when every driver and pedestrian waved as they went by, in acknowledgement and friendship.

There is sense and intelligence in their memories, accumulated wisdom that’s invaluable to those who wish to honor the past while understanding that time doesn’t end with our own passing. They have helped me comprehend that there’s great value in living so that past, present and future are a continuous thread, recognizable throughout. It’s a process of growth as much as change — of sustaining, rather than merely consuming and replacing.

I saw an advertisement in my local paper — a full-page, full-color spread. It must have been very expensive. The border was meant to look like a rock wall, and the company’s name was meant to suggest something special and superior. A third of the page was taken up by an inspiring view of mountain ridges lacing from foreground to background. It was clear that the photo was taken from a height, presumably where a big house would one day sit. A headline over it proclaimed, “We’re moving mountains this fall!”

Six smaller, oval pictures bore the names of the company’s various developments. Each name was meant to evoke a natural setting or feature, though it looked as if the feature in question had either been replaced by the development or re-created by man. At the bottom of the ad were pictures of people obviously enjoying the developments’ “amenities”: a mountain biker riding across a ridge; canoeists at sunset; young, well-appointed hikers. The text proclaimed the possibility of privacy, uniqueness, security — of privilege and perfection.

But will those looking down and out from on high even realize that someone is looking back? Or will there be no one left to look back? Will the privacy and security come at the expense of someone else’s community? Who will be safe? And when mountains are moved, will everything that came before be forgotten, cast aside? I’m afraid I already know the answer to these questions.

Tomorrow I will walk up in the cove where the old cabbage fields used to be, and I will remember the name of the family that farmed that field many years ago. I will remember it because an old man in overalls thought that if I knew a little something about the place where I lived, I might understand it better. I will be grateful for that received understanding and for the connections it creates.

[Mark Jamison lives on 67 acres in Jackson County’s Speedwell Community with his wife, Deb, and their five dogs. When not tending the land, he tends the mail and the people of Webster as postmaster.]

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