Ap­pre­ci­at­ing Your Own Back Yard

On our is­lands it’s all about WIMBY

Times of the Islands - - Departments - One touch of na­ture makes the whole world kin. Wil­liam Shake­speare

Beach houses are built for the view: you en­ter from the front yard but you be­hold (and are held) by what’s in the back­yard. Here on our spe­cial is­lands, where there is more land in con­ser­va­tion than in de­vel­op­ment, the warmth of na­ture’s em­brace beck­ons not just from sand and shells, but also from aro­matic stands of man­grove and vast, vi­brant in­te­rior wet­lands. So, on these is­lands where the fo­cus is of­ten on NIMBY ( not in my back­yard), we should in­stead turn our at­ten­tion to WIMBY, or “What’s in my back­yard?”

The ar­tic­u­late nat­u­ral­ist, Henry David Thoreau, had sim­i­lar con­cerns. In 1862 The At­lantic pub­lished his es­say, “Walk­ing,” which ex­tolls the virtues of “saun­ter­ing through the woods” and laments the in­evitable ex­pan­sion of pri­vate prop­erty into the wilder­ness. His fond­ness for swamps brings to mind the char­ac­ter of our low-ly­ing bar­rier is­land lo­cale: Hope and the fu­ture for me are not in lawns and cul­ti­vated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the im­per­vi­ous and quak­ing swamps … Why not put my house, my par­lor, be­hind this plot, in­stead of be­hind that mea­ger as­sem­blage of cu­riosi­ties, that poor apology for Na­ture and Art, which I call my front yard? It is an ef­fort to clear up and make a de­cent ap­pear­ance when the car­pen­ter and ma­son have de­parted, though done as much for the passer-by as the dweller within. The most taste­ful front-yard fence was never an agree­able ob­ject of study to me; the most elab­o­rate or­na­ments, acorn-tops, or what not, soon wearied and dis­gusted me. Bring your sills up to the very edge of the swamp, then (though it may not be the best place for a dry cel­lar), so that there be no ac­cess on that side to cit­i­zens. Front yards are not made to walk in, but, at most, through, and you could go in the back way.

Thoreau, like ev­ery en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist, fer­vently be­lieved that one’s in­ter­ac­tion with na­ture was not just good for per­sonal san­ity but es­sen­tial for the well-be­ing of our so­ci­ety. We need good and plen­ti­ful ground on which to live and move and have our be­ing. This year marks the 150th an­niver­sary of the adop­tion of the 14th Amend­ment of the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion. Grant­ing le­gal sta­tus to eman­ci­pated slaves, it af­firms the an­cient prin­ci­ple in law called jus soli (“right of the soil”). If one is born on the land, one be­comes a na­tive ci­ti­zen among those who live in the land. It is a no­tion that may have moved Amer­i­can writer and conservationist Nancy Ne­whall to make a pro­found state­ment: “Con­ser­va­tion is hu­man­ity car­ing for the fu­ture.”

In the spirit of those with is­land back­yards, we cel­e­brate the wish of Richard Jef­feries (aka Eng­land’s “Thoreau”): “I hope suc­ceed­ing gen­er­a­tions may en­joy their days, and the earth, and the beauty of this beau­ti­ful world; that they may rest by the sea and dream.”

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