If a man walks in the woods for love of them half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer. But if he spends his days as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making the earth bald before her time, he is deemed an industrious and enterprising citizen. ~Henry David Thoreau
History books recount the tales of how the world's great cities took shape, how men with vision came in and swept whole sections of countryside clean of vegetation and wildlife in the name of progress. In other cases, the sprawl happened gradually, with cities extending their reach until it was impossible to even guess at what had been there before. In both cases, architects, engineers and builders painted over nature's great canvas, obliterating her work for all time in places such as New York City, Chicago and Boston. Yes, the city planners incorporated parks and other green places in their sprawling cities for residents to enjoy. But there is no question that nature has taken a back seat in many areas of this country, and one is hard-pressed to find her in any but the least-populated places.
Thanks to citizen resistance to sprawl and development, nature maintains her hold on the vast spaces that exist between the smaller towns and among the great swatches of terrain that divide them. Two years ago, the residents of Shapleigh voted against a company that had plans to test, tap and sell the town's water, thus ensuring that no bottling plant, such as the one that now takes up a huge area on the Killock Pond Road in Hollis, would suddenly pop up on their own pristine land. To economists and others who insist on placing a dollar value on everything, this translated into lost jobs and lower revenues. But to naturalists and others who appreciate nature's presence, it was no small victory. For to drive through Shapleigh is to pass through a place of incredible beauty, from its gently rolling hills to its densely wooded areas. How sad it would have been to disturb that land for the purpose of extracting the very water that makes its lush existence possible.
Those who choose to live in small towns and villages do so from personal choice or, in some cases, because they've been there all their lives and it just never occurs to them to live anywhere else. There is an inherent sense of freedom in such places, where nature exists close by as a constant reminder that boundaries are a human convention and that no such concept exists naturally in woods and fields. Again, the open areas are preserved and left to their own devices, imparting to small settlements an aura of non-intrusiveness and resignation. Nature rules, and those who live in such places do so out of deference to her and with great respect for her processes. The appearance of wildlife in a rural back yard is an everyday occurrence in many small towns and is never an intrusion. There is an intrinsic acceptance among a populace that has learned to live in harmony with its wild neighbors that involves never forgetting who was here first.
It's always a pleasure to drive through the smaller towns and villages that dot the landscape away from the larger metropolitan areas. I never tire of seeing the family farms, weathered outbuildings, apple orchards and vast gardens coexisting with other modest homesteads and small businesses that know their place in the scheme of things and that keep the local humble economy going. The eye travels easily across such landscapes that offer few, if any, detractions to their flowing harmony. For mercifully, the human touch has been gentle and respectful in these places where nature's imprint is still the deepest.