Thursday, April 27, 2006

From Nothing

People make nests of all sorts. It's still possible to choose a wide array of living situations in the United States, and make yourself as happy as we imperfect beasts can be.

I don't know exactly how to describe our place, and the place it's in. Some would call our town a suburb. The word "exurb" came into favor while we were living here, and fits better, but not quite. Others would have called it rural a half century ago. It's just a cottage in the woods to us.

Sprawl. McMansion. Development. These are epithets thrown at one another in permitting authority meetings nowadays. It's getting harder to do what you want with your property. There is a very elaborate set of hoops that must be navigated if you want to build what we built here, on a miserable patch of poison ivy, ten years ago. Most of the hoops have been added recently, and essentially make what we did impossible now. If you managed to lawyer and engineer your way through the labrynth of government now, a fee would be charged, part of which would go towards helping keep housing "affordable" in the town.

Every thing offered for sale in this town sells in five minutes. By definition, that's affordable -- someone can afford it, and thinks enough of the town to pay it to live here. By "affordable," they really mean there's gotta be cheap housing. Well, my house was cheap, when I built it. All the restrictions put on what can be done buildingwise in the intervening decade have made the land it sits on fabulously expensive to the point of unavailability. And no one in their right mind is going to pay a third of a million dollars for a building lot and build a hundred thousand dollar house on it. And no bank will lend you money to develop a lot unless the finished product is worth three times the raw lot, minimum. It's the law of unintended consequences-- that which you've made impossible you try to subsidize. A town is not a zoo. People should not be kept as exhibits.

It's not too long ago that most people were farmers. Subsistence farmers, at that. And a farm is not like what you see on Charlotte's Web. Subsistence farms take up a lot of room, require Hiroshima style land clearing, and are famously bad for anything that lives near them that walks on four legs. An interesting conundrum for vegetarians to consider is that many more animals are killed when a farmer runs a harvester over a field than when a cow is slaughtered. Are not moles and voles and woodchucks and all their furry brethren a beating heart in a fur sack, just like that surly leather bag full of bones, the steer? Avert your eyes from the cats all farms have too; Chip and Dale appear in their mouths with astonishing regularity.

No one subsistence farms any more. Almost no one farms in any fashion in the Northeast anymore, compared to just fifty years ago. And the houses of the people that big time agriculture elsewhere can support, that dot the landscape and annoy the NIMBYs, take up far less land than the few farms that used to make a treeless brown corduroy patchwork quilt of the map. I live on what used to be a five acre pasture, once completely denuded of trees for grazing livestock, just 75 years ago. Three quarters of it is covered with dense forest now, and will remain so.

I look at that luminous black and white photo of a little homestead in Texas seventy years ago, with the baby in the pram, and the neat white cottage -- nothing special, but an unbelievable luxury for the new occupants, no doubt -- and see myself and my family. That little wisp of a tree that they've planted, probably with a little ceremony, likely shades that house now, and reminds its current occupants that some take the long view, and plant a tree; others pass laws against cutting them down. They work for the same ends, though they do not know it.

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