A Winter Elegy

Just as most progress is incremental, so too are our losses. We rarely see what we’re losing until it’s gone. We may see a dying butternut tree without knowing of their widespread demise in the Northeast. A fallow hayfield steadily loses its perimeter to prickly ash and buckthorn. We’re surprised to look up and see an evening summer sky devoid of circling bats and purple martins feeding on mosquitoes. We may notice that a favorite fishing hole no longer shelters the elusive wild brookies we remembered as a child. We note the occasional loss, but then we’re taken aback by the resounding absence.

As it is in nature, so too is it in our communities. We see a once working sawmill no longer in production. We’re annoyed that there’s no longer a nearby slaughterhouse to butcher our pigs. Our daily newspaper gets thinner. A bridge is deemed unsafe. A bookstore closes. An iconic barn collapses quietly in winter. The country store gives way to a chain grocery store, and the gas station that repaired our car is now a convenience store that sells gas and junk food but offers no service.

Some changes are more subtle. Our enthusiasm for the Web erodes our privacy. A diminishing press corps emboldens politicians to take legislative shortcuts, diminishing transparency. Our town meetings slowly lose purview over social and economic decision-making. Our local impact on school quality and cost erodes with new federal and state mandates and relentlessly rising non-discretionary costs.

The rare but heinous crime gives birth to broad-brush new retributive laws that fill our prisons and divert investment from our communities and our children. Our salary goes up but our buying power goes down. A downtown slowly boards up its vacant storefronts. A skill disappears, a dialect is gone. There’s no longer a place in town to dance, hear music or share a meal. Our children get high marks but can’t write a simple declarative sentence. Our clothes feel tighter. Fruit and vegetables lose their taste. Families don’t meet over an evening meal. There’s no longer any silence. The night sky is lit, not by moon and stars, but by sodium lights. We tolerate our elders rather than seeking their wisdom. The list goes on.

Good things happen as well. But how is it that we have such a hard time foreseeing our communal losses and stemming them? Is it the accelerated pace of our lives or our notion that all progress is good, regardless of its impact on our past?

This is precisely why deliberation and reasoned dialogue are so vital to a civil society. Balancing the value of or our past with the promise and opportunity of our future requires us to listen to one another more carefully. The loud, ignorant voices that rail at one another in our places of lawmaking and our media do nothing to make a better world for us or our children.

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