The Other Reasons—Land&People

Early last June, the Trust for Public Land brought more than 20 writers, professors, and land savers from all over the country to New York for a couple of days to talk about how, or whether, or why protecting a piece of land affects the lives of people who live nearby. Are communities strengthened? Are minds changed? Do people feel liberated, reanchored to something, better protected themselves?

The conversation, convened by TPL's recently established Center for Land and People, was a kind of starting point, we were told, and would be resumed several times over the next year or two. TPL, almost by definition, has been asking itself these kinds of questions for more than 30 years. The Nature Conservancy, with science as a guideline, saves land to protect biodiversity and all natural systems. Whereas TPL tries to save land for "the other reasons." More generally, for humanity's sake.

The "whys" of that process can be even harder to pin down than the laws of conservation biology, because they're about what's inside us as well as what's around us. There are various "other reasons" for not building on land: keeping working farms and forests alive; maintaining land for "re-creation"–as places for reviving the body and sharpening the senses; and treasuring the places that let us listen to, and learn from, nature. Land preservation has well-defined social values, too–we set aside places where people from all backgrounds can come together as members of the same local community, or global fellowship.

More recently, we've seen that land also has a deep cultural value. Certain places can awaken us to a sense of time passing; protecting them allows us to stay present to what we've been through in our own lives, as communities and as a species that long ago learned to walk upright.

Some places also have a forward-looking or evolutionary value–they prompt us to reach out to human tasks and purposes we haven't yet acknowledged; they help us reconnect to other creatures. Nights at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, I've found, can summon–or impose–this kind of stretch, sometimes called "conscious evolution." A 13th-century poem, Rumi's "Spiritual Couplets," speaks of it as the increasing of necessity: "Because only of necessity does mankind acquire new organs of perception. Therefore, O necessitous one, increase thy need."

Our Center for Land and People hosts posed a couple of specific questions: "Why is the connection between land and people so important?" and "How can the practice of land conservation more directly influence how people live and act?" One question was about defining human nature, the other about changing human behavior. They wanted to know if TPL was always rescuing the most useful pieces of land.

The talking was energetic, engaged, buoyant, and yet a bit leisurely. We were bathed in the calm of a special piece of Lower Manhattan, a block that seems to have threaded its way through almost five centuries and held on to the best of each. We sat in high-ceilinged, century-old rooms that look out onto a 200-year-old church, the 350-year-old driveway to a long-lost country estate, and a churchyard where lies the last Dutch governor general of Nieuw Amsterdam.

Everyone there had spent lifetimes working with and caring for some of North America's most memorable landscapes. We were quite clear in our conversations that a connection with the land benefits people. "They gain resilience, information, and understanding through direct experiences with other species and other places," as we put it. Human bonds are reinforced by joining in the process of "saving" a piece of land. And there was general agreement that, given population projections and the pace of development, the current generation of Americans may be the last that gets to choose whether or not to build on a piece of open land. After our time, those decisions–built on or saved–will already have been made, at least in large metropolitan areas.

These thoughts lent undertones of urgency to what was said, but, surrounded as we were by bright sun, swaying leaves, and birdsong, there was still a sense that an amplitude of time stretched ahead of our deliberations. Catastrophes loomed but seemed to be approaching in an orderly, linear, predictable fashion. Most of us would have said that our task was to plan ahead for an emergency, rather than improvise our way through an existing one.

The idea was that we'd pick up our conversation in January of this year, in California. Unexpectedly, that first conversation never stopped, won't stop, can't stop–rather, it continues and broadens day by day.

Many Americans have thought deeply about the connections between land and people since September 11. It's been a fall, a winter, and then a spring marked by the death of assumptions, consumed by revisiting the sources of our strength–looking again and again at the values that define us. The terrible loss of life that morning, the wrenching, insanely violent changes to pieces of America–a field in Pennsylvania, the Pentagon, and the World Trade Center towers–have raised searching questions that couldn't have come up in our discussions last June. The acts of September 11, for most Americans, require new language–they were both "inhuman" (working against humanity) and "un-earthly" (working against the health of the planet). A new imperative has been imposed on us to use our time well: our necessity has been increased.

I was the only one at last June's meeting who commuted there on foot: the old rectory we sat and talked in is about six blocks from my apartment and only about a mile and a half north of the World Trade Center. For two weeks last fall you couldn't get anywhere near our peaceful meeting site without showing ID to a policeman or a state trooper. My sense of Manhattan, where I've lived for more than 50 years, changed overnight last fall and has kept changing ever since.

It's unsettling when you suddenly "see through" a place to all the contrivances and shared fictions that go into making it look solid and durable. That kind of inner X-ray vision was one of the sudden first effects of September 11 on Manhattanites; every building on every street seemed temporary, tentative, holographic, merely a mental projection. Durability, we now can see, is a force within people, and people, fragile as they are, can, under the right circumstances, generate endurance and resilience within one another.

But if buildings are only thoughts in solid form, what happens when they embody, or attract, stagnant thinking and smoldering feelings?

New Yorkers won't say a bad word about the Twin Towers any more–it would be disrespectful to the lives lost–but many never liked them. Not because they embodied what they were attacked for representing: capitalism, globalism, America throwing its weight around. (As a piece of capitalism, the World Trade Center was actually a failure; for a quarter of a century, it stayed full only because government offices were required to move in.) The Twin Towers were disliked for nearby reasons–for the local throwing around of weight that got them built; for displacing an entire, centuries-old neighborhood and acting as if it had never existed; for their preoccupation with "bigness" and setting record heights; for the way they overshadowed people instead of giving them a lift.

Doesn't that throw a lurid new light on things, when a place is targeted for destruction for something it never was?–at least in the minds of those nearest to it.

Two years ago, in Winnipeg, Manitoba, I found an older example of a place that gives off an almost radioactive glow of concentrated rancor. In Winnipeg, slung along the western bank of the Red River, is an opulent, palatial, turn-of-another-century train station. Still gleaming white, it looks like an abandoned celebration, an engine drained of fuel, a beached whale. Ages ago it was the epicenter of downtown; now it's semiderelict and not much thought about except by the French-speaking, or "Francophone," Manitobans just across the Red River. For them, every day for almost a hundred years, the station has been a reminder of defeat and powerlessness–a bitter insult, renewed every morning when they leave their houses and turn toward the river.

They say, and they may be right–their Anglophone neighbors having almost entirely forgotten their own history–that the only reason for aligning the station parallel with the river instead of perpendicular to it was to erect a long wall preventing train tracks from crossing the Red at that point, thus keeping the railroad and its prosperity away from the French settlement directly opposite the station site.

Two buildings in New York: locals disagree about whether they're a landmark or an eyesore. Halfway around the world they have become a galling sore. Perceptions are not exchanged or corrected, with explosive and deadly results. A train station in Canada: a symbol of triumph that over time has become almost invisible to the dominant group in town. For the minority group, however, a marble, still-impenetrable Berlin Wall. Winnipeg's explosions have been internal, the results not deadly but deadening. A century later, the city's two communities still lead separate lives.

"Places of hurt." Only some of them are recent installations, while others stretch back to prehistory. The result is that, just as Afghanistan's orchards can't be replanted or its cities rebuilt until it has been swept clean of land mines and unexploded cluster bombs, all countries contain acres of uncleared psychic ordnance that stoke and restock ill feelings–sometimes inadvertently, through clumsiness, sometimes deliberately and provocatively. Such places are dangerous; they're destabilizing; they're poison. They are out of alignment with human aspirations. They need to be identified, charted, defused, before the communities that have been harmed by them can be reconciled.

This is part of the unexplored "geography of fear," a shadowy shantytown lurking on the other side of what Pulitzer Prize-winning author Wallace Stegner called the "geography of hope"–his wonderful phrase for the places that inspire and focus our fellow-feeling with all humanity and our kinship with the rest of creation. Is the opposite of a sacred site simply a scarred site, a place where people stay frightened and angry? Whose job will it be to dismantle and reclaim such places?

It's a matter requiring sustained public thought, clearly, since places of hurt sustain public ill-being. They are the brownfields of our inner landscapes, the malarial swamps, the bubbling tar pits, the strip mines, the reeking hog-waste lagoons that haven't yet been looked for or acknowledged on our mental maps. We're all trying to stretch ourselves these days. Which public groups can expand what they do to take this on–governments, universities, nonprofits, or a new network? How would we begin such an investigation?

The only method I can think of is to open ourselves up to the persistent pain in these places, and then move beyond it by reaching back to times when these places offered joy ("reframing," therapists and healers call this process). Maybe historic preservationists, redevelopers, and landscape restorers need a third group of practitioners at their side–place decontaminators, or place healers. People who, instead of reinsulating and reisolating damaged places, can add balm, perspective, solace, relaxation, balance.

Our discussions last June took up the matter of protecting locally threatened places by bringing together groups of people from beyond the immediate community who think they have nothing to do with each other but are united by their deep commitment to protecting places dear to them. "Cross-enchantment," we called this, and talked about creating connector zones between such places. We spoke about amplifying the signals a place gives off. Along with this, we might also have to add signals or change the mix of signals–"retune" places.

We also need to double and triple our previous efforts to make sure that every time we take action on the land–whether that means protecting it, or developing it, or restoring it–the result is a place of health. We're all trying to learn, faster than ever before, what is required of us by land, by people, by life. One thing we know for sure is that "the other reasons" for saving land are now quite clear and have become a safeguard, a lifeline here in the new century. The land, when we listen to it, will help us steer the course.

Tony Hiss, author of The Experience of Place, directs a new environmental group, NatureRail, and is completing a book about transportation. He is an advisory council member for TPL's Center for Land and People, which is dedicated to exploring, understanding, and celebrating the connection between land and people and the importance of that connection to the spirit, health, economic vitality, and quality of life in all communities.