More than 150 years ago, Henry David Thoreau wrote Walden; or, Life in the Woods. Walden is a book that many of us grew up with, a book—especially if your father was an English teacher—that you studied, you memorized, and you felt at your very core, because your English teacher father told you it was an American classic and a treasure, and he took you to Walden Pond, showed you around its shoreline, walked you through the woods, as he extolled the ideas of self-sufficiency and stewardship of the earth; well, that, and a bunch of literary stuff that you didn’t necessarily understand. But you got the other stuff: stewardship and self-sufficiency—being kind to the world, living within your means—these were virtues to live by and easy to understand.
Thoreau’s memoir covers two short years in which he lived in deep personal introspection in the woods of Walden Pond. The simplicity of Thoreau’s Walden is brilliant, and, in its time, was progressive and radical. And it still is. Thoreau, a prophet of what would prove to be the ceaseless degradation of our natural surroundings at the hands of humans, understood how the quality of our environment affected the quality of our economy.
In his various journals, he wrote:
- What are the natural features which make a township handsome? A river, with its waterfalls and meadows, a lake, a hill, a cliff or individual rocks, a forest, and ancient trees standing singly. Such things are beautiful; they have a high use which dollars and cents never represent. If the inhabitants of a town were wise, they would seek to preserve these things, though at a considerable expense; for such things educate far more than any hired teachers or preachers… I do not think him fit to be the founder of a state or even of a town who does not foresee the use of these things… [Journal, 3 January 1861]
- Each town should have a park, or rather a primitive forest, of five hundred or a thousand acres, where a stick should never be cut for fuel, a common possession forever, for instruction and recreation. We hear of cow-commons and ministerial lots, but we want men-commons and lay lots, inalienable forever. [Journal, 15 October 1859]
- As in many countries precious metals belong to the crown, so here more precious natural objects of rare beauty should belong to the public. [Journal, 3 January 1861]
Meanwhile, our Cumberland Monastery, protected in perpetuity under a conservation easement and belonging to the public, is about to lose its rightful place as a crown jewel. And for what? A safety building? A complex of concrete, steel, manufactured wood and paved roads?
If the inhabitants of a town were wise, they would seek to preserve these things . . . at a considerable expense . . . such things educate far more than any hired teachers or preachers . . . I do not think him fit to be the founder of a state or even of a town who does not foresee the use of these things…
Each town should have a park, or rather a primitive forest, of five hundred or a thousand acres, where a stick should never be cut for fuel, a common possession forever, for instruction and recreation.
…[P]recious metals belong to the crown, so here more precious natural objects of rare beauty should belong to the public.
Given Thoreau’s prescient words, you might find it odd that the town of Cumberland, in its 2004 Conservation and Management Plan—The Monastery, states that the Monastery is the “oldest and largest parcel of Town-owned open space, and is often referred to as the “Jewel” of Cumberland . . . [o]ne of the pillars of the Cumberland Greenway . . . is very important to completing the Greenway vision. Expanding the Cumberland Greenway area through acquisitions of nearby properties is a top priority of the Town.”
Isn’t it also odd that some 150+ years later we—the citizens of Cumberland, RI—should be uttering the same words Thoreau wrote in his journals?
It’s true. Everything changes. And nothing changes.
Progress, from the Latin progresses, means to go forth, onward, gradually moving toward betterment—such as the progressive development of mankind (the sort of betterment, or enlightenment, for which Thoreau wished). The active verb progress signifies change, development; that is, development to a higher, better or more advanced stage. Progress does not mean the development of open space, farmland, forest and fields, nor does it mean the demolition of precious natural objects of rare beauty.
Raw land, nature, a forest, moves toward its own betterment, in its own time, over the course of all the years in all the time the earth can offer. Just as you cannot step twice into the same river, you cannot saunter twice into the same forest, for everything changes, it progresses, moves forward. Left alone, to cycle through its own seasonal rhythms, to open and fold and open again, the forest repeats, remains the same, year in and year out as the kingdoms of man rise and fall. And there, also, nothing changes.
Progressive ideas reflect the very meaning of progress, “making use of or interested in new ideas, findings, or opportunities,” and improving upon such ideas, moving, always, forward or onward. Today’s progressives understand, as did Thoreau and many of his contemporaries, that the wisdom and sustenance that nature offers (and mankind needs) is not only for quiet contemplation, but also for the air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink—for our very existence.
Conservation, people of Cumberland, is a progressive movement, progressive act, and progress for mankind. Conservation is why Thoreau wrote about our precious world.
The Monastery land is Cumberland’s premier conservation area. It is one of the best and most loved natural areas in northeast Rhode Island. It’s enjoyed and cherished by many people from within and without the town of Cumberland.
Prodigal men—men who prodigiously rake the land—squander our natural resources and commit acts of retrogression by killing complex systems on which human life relies. Why? In the name of progress they tell us.
If Cumberland’s leaders and planners were wise, and progressive (and maybe even radical!), they would seek to preserve these things, these natural resources that belong to the people of this town, the beneficiaries of a conservation easement protecting the Monastery’s land.
We ask, how is the denigration of our environment, our precious land, our “jewel” of Cumberland, progress? Are our town’s leaders so deluded, so arrogant, so foolish and myopic that they cannot fathom a better solution? Groping in the darkness, we are, it seems, blind to our precious natural objects of rare beauty—the Monastery, the crown jewel of Cumberland—about to be crushed beneath our own careless steps.
Teach your children well, peeps.