Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Rocky Path of Progress

My writing corner
Living so close to historical touch-points as I do here in New England, I find myself intrigued by the minds of people who lived here before me.  I have been reading Henry David Thoreau’s book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, and I have a new appreciation for the portion of the Concord River which passes under the freeway close to my work in Billerica, MA. His boat journeyed along this spot in 1839 on his way upstream and I can imagine his oars dipping in the serene water, dripping with sun-glistened droplets with each upswing of the paddle, his eyes scanning the shore for signs of life to think upon. Looking either way as I head for my exit, I see uninhabited shorelines thick with trees and underbrush, a stone bridge the only manmade element in sight – much as he would have seen the river 175 years ago.
So much can change in the course of a single man’s life and a multitude of changes are wrought in a century…or two. Even as Thoreau bemoaned the dams that blocked the alewives and salmon from their spawning beds and changed the pattern of river flooding that had reached far into fertile fields each spring, he melded his observations with historical facts to better grasp the dangerous road man was taking in the name of progress. What once could be fished or grown with moderate toil now could not and village people downstream from the mill towns suffered from the loss caused by demands of the industrial revolution. Fruitful soil reverted to sand.

It is impossible that everything in life changes at once and all that is familiar disappear. There is an ebb and flow to our journey. There are touchstones that keep the thread of our experiences alive and growing. We have history, our own and that of others, to ground us and we can compartmentalize what we learn. We have evidence of prior efforts, their causes and effect.
That we repeat mistakes, or refrain from anticipating how our actions will affect others, is a product of our hurried (and harried) lives. Thoreau felt his era was no less active but his considered thoughts ran along a grand scale and he saw the effects created by the dams, for instance, built to harness water’s power for the mills. He grasped that each action has a complete and opposite reaction in a way that Newton may not have intended but that was apt for his time. Man’s forward motion will, by nature, change something that went before. If Thoreau had not traversed mountains on foot and sailed rivers under his own physical power, he might not have fully understood the effect man was having on his environment and its inhabitants. That his words are apropos today illustrates the importance of considered knowledge.

We stumble along, making plans, building pipe-dreams and skyscrapers without regard to maintaining a balance within our natural lives. Fish go extinct, plants become invasive in new environs, manmade chemicals do dire damage to ecosystems, seas rise and threaten our shores, and we lose sight of what is important in the grand scheme of things. Like Thoreau, we need to simplify and consider our impact on, not only nature, but on those around us and them on us. We need to walk along our path at a slower pace in order to fully consider our purpose in the scheme of things.
It is not enough that we strive to correct the mistakes of the past but that we not perpetuate them in our present in order to save our future.