We stood and talked for a bit one afternoon, me standing next to her sitting on her lawnmower, chatting about the old farmhouse and the adjacent hayfield and railroad tracks. The land had been in her family several generations.
A drug store and a couple of fast food restaurants have replaced the hayfield. Invasive species is a relative term.
As a kid, I had a 500-acre lake for fishing and several thousand acres of woodland outside my door for wandering. A path through the bushes led kids from town to an inviting place to swim and dive off a few boulders.
Then I joined the Navy, and 20 years later returned to find much of my old wandering woods marked off by No Trespassing signs. Wooded shorelines had been replaced by lawns and cottages, some converted for year-round dwelling by people who had retired from metropolises a few hundred miles away.
To be fair, some of the “new” residents were former schoolmates who, like me, had moved elsewhere to earn their retirement, and returned when they could afford to buy the lakefront property, the price of which escalated with each new purchase.
Early in my Navy career, I spent many evenings with my future wife on the Ponte Vedra beaches south of Jacksonville, Florida. Huge sand dunes separated the beach from the road; we returned one evening to my ’54 Ford Ranch Wagon with a tail gate that didn’t lock and found someone had made off with a few hundred dollars worth of salt water fishing gear.
Then a multi-lane bridge was constructed to provide easy access to the dunes and within a few years the land had been sold for mansions fenced in by No Trespassing signs blocking beach access to the latest generation of young folks wanting to get away from the crowds and restricted hotel parking lots of Jax Beach.
Home now is the suburbs of Gettysburg, where I have flipped more calendars than any period since graduating from high school. Unlike my constantly itinerant Navy days, my time is spent at anchor in a place I’ve come to love while watching it disappear.
I have read there was once a place on Marsh Creek that served as a public swimming hole for area kids. The public access area has become private property.
One traffic light on Route 30 has become six and what remains of Camp Letterman, one of the largest field hospitals of the American Civil War, has become an abandoned weed-field between two shopping centers.
It happens slowly, like children growing up, invisibly, until one day they are going to the prom and have drivers licenses and you suddenly realize the fields where you played and hiked as a child have become a Walmart or new homes.
“We’re in a dangerous moment for the country, and for the environment, John,” was the message in a fundraiser email I received this week.
We can start by recognizing our country is our environment and we are part of it. It cannot be found at a sporting goods store, at the base of a make-believe mountain populated by stuffed dead animals.
We have separated ourselves from this place where we live, then exploited it until, finally, it has turned against us. It’s been here longer than we have, and it will be here long after we are gone.
We are part of each other, we humans, apes, foxes, Monarch butterflies, Red-tailed hawks, and the planet we mutually inhabit. If we are serious about protecting our environment, we must allow coming generations to experience it.
In the end, it’s the only thing we have to leave behind.