Elegy for an unremarkable field

There is (well I guess now I need to say was) an open field near my farm. Since I was a kid it has looked the same - a ten-acre grass field below an older housing development. I liked it. It wasn't being farmed but sometimes you'd see horses grazing the land. When it went up for sale I worried. Who would buy it and what they would do with it? I fantasized about buying it and just letting it be but then I remembered, oh yeah, I don’t have any money to do that sort of thing.

After awhile, someone or a group of someones bought it, as someone always does.

I watched the bulldozers remove and contour the dirt. I watched them pour the concrete. I watched them frame out large buildings. I watched them plant trees in the perfectly manicured landscaping and put in turf grass that will need to be watered all summer to keep it bright green. I watched the open field be transformed into a field of storage units.

People tell me that storage units are money makers and it seems like they are right. One day the developers put up signs advertising some of the units they were selling. The 24 x 60 sized heated units for people's RVs are being advertised for $122,000. For me, that was shocking. Those big RVs can cost $100,000 or more and then to pay $122,000 to store it seems completely insane, but then again, what do I know? When I'm on the road sometimes I sleep in the back of my Subaru.

As I write this I can look out my east window and see the metal sheds that will hold people’s stuff because apparently we Americans have so much stuff that we need to rent and buy places to hold our stuff just in case we end up needing the stuff at some point. As of 2014, the self storage industry has 48,500 locations across the country, more than triple the number of McDonald's (14,350). The trend shows no sign of slowing down.

Forgive me if I don’t understand what is happening in America anymore.

It seems like such a little thing to be sad over doesn’t it? A ten acre field on the outskirts of Billings, that wasn’t doing anything besides sitting there, is now making money for someone or someones and providing property taxes to the county.

I’ve thought about this field more than you could probably imagine. You, the person that didn’t grow up across from it, wouldn’t even notice it as you drove by because visually there was nothing remarkable about it.

Here is why it means so much to me.

My farm is along the Yellowstone River. Over the years, many people have lamented that we don’t have “development” along the river like Missoula does. I guess that means restaurants and trails and hotels and little parks. I understand that those things are nice for people and I enjoy the trails when I’m in Missoula but personally, I don’t want that. My preference is to leave the river corridor as open as possible for wildlife without them having to navigate people and our dogs and our concrete.

I know that not many people agree with me. In the last 20 years, what has happened along the river corridor in Billings has been discouraging. There hasn't been any notable effort to keep it open for wildlife and farms or even to develop the area for the enjoyment of people like in Missoula.

Instead, I've seen housing developments and trucking companies and warehouses get built. I've seen the river property where the old coal fired power plant used to be just sit there looking like a junk pile because the company that owns it, Talen Energy, doesn't seem to think they need to contribute to our community and get it cleaned up.

The thing about living in the place I grew up is that I remember. I remember where there used to be open spaces. I remember where we used to go hunt pheasants. I remember where there used to be farms. I remember the farmers.

One of these farms that will soon be eaten up by growth and progress is on the other side of the river from me and owned by a man who is in his 90s. He was born on that place and he still farms it.

Sometime in the near future I’ll see a for sale sign on his property. I’ll drive by it every day and I'll wonder how I could get the money together to buy it but I won’t be able to because it is worth more as land to be developed than land to farm or graze or leave for wildlife.

I’ll watch bulldozers tear down his house and his outbuildings. I’ll watch them pour the concrete. I’ll watch them frame out the buildings. I’ll watch them plant trees in perfectly manicured landscaping and put in turf grass that needs to be watered all summer. I’ll watch his fields be subdivided. I’ll watch more critters get hit on the highway because there will be more traffic.

Oh, the casual violence of driving. I see the dead animals every day along the highway to my farm. I see a little whitetail buck laying motionless on the side of the road, his stomach distended with bloat, and I wonder if he was the one I watched eat apples from the tree in my garden. I see a dead doe with a full udder and I wonder if she was the doe with the twins that I saw grazing in our sainfoin field. I see the orphans and hope they make it through the winter.

I also see the wounded deer that make it to my farm after being hit. I remember the fawn with the broken leg, her mom waiting with her in the tall grass but the little one not being able to walk very far without having to take a break.

Just a side note, if you are ever driving out to the Blue Creek area and some asshole in front of you is driving slower than the speed limit, that asshole is me.

Here’s the thing. The ten acre open field that is now a ten acre storage unit facility for people to keep their extra stuff in wasn't providing amazing wildlife habitat. It wasn't a field full of diverse plants. It wasn't remarkable in any way. However, what happened to that field reminds me of the fact that one day soon almost all the farms and open spaces along the river will be gone and replaced with houses and warehouses and box stores and more storage units facilities because farming and wildlife don't make anyone any money.

We are losing something valuable when we lose our open spaces and farms. When I look at those storage units all I see is, what Wendell Berry calls, a defeated landscape.

I wonder if this is the best we can do. I wonder if one day my small farm will be an oasis in a sea of metal buildings and concrete and people will look at it and wonder who the hold-outs were.

17 Comments on “Elegy for an unremarkable field

  1. Alexis . . . as long as the birth rate and the “entitlement fate” remain unlimited, the conclusion is clear.

  2. You remind me of the writer Annie Dillard.

  3. Well said. I’m 64 and other than my years in college, have always lived on farms. Unfortunately, its always the best land that is urbanized – the best farmland and the best habitat. No one wants to live on alkali flats. They want to have good soil and trees and water. Wildlife suffers from urban sprawl, and so do we, even if we may not realize it at the time. Thanks for reminding us of that.

  4. Thank you for this post. I grew up on a farm and while I now live ‘in town’ I have never fully adjusted. My dream is to return to the country–away from all of the things you spoke of in your eloquent post. I find the scraping away of farm land so disturbing and the lack of consideration for wildlife and wild “country” extremely sad and disheartening.

  5. The grief of loss you express is shared, at least by me. So many different forms of grief that this extra empty stuff stimulates. Representing unexpressed grief being stored likely until the owners die. Then what? Not likely to turn back into grass and wildlife. The illusion that this is a free flowing river is so thin. If the riverside habitat is gone, that part of the river is damed up as surely as concrete across the channel. I grieve with you. Thank you for expressing it.

  6. Thanks so much for sharing your timely thoughts and wisdom, so much appreciated.

  7. You are a gifted writer, and have made me sad thinking of all the poor animals that suffer because someone is in a hurry. We all need to slow down and realize the pictures from our past.

  8. Wow, I feel your grief, Alexis. I’m friends with Erica Sparhawk. Our girls play in wild nature together. I think Charles Donne up above nailed it, unfortunately, but I feel like you, grew up like you, and, and am doing whatever I can [without money, like you] to make a difference like you. There are people like you and me everywhere, and while we may not turn the tide, we can make small inroads everywhere. Keep writing! Keep loving this Earth!

  9. Alexis: This is one of the most poignant – and sad – pieces of yours that I have read… Sooooo on target. In my cross-country sojourns the last few years, I have watched land like you describe disappear, acre by acre. Perhaps we should crowdfund the land across the river from you and make it a preserve for those of us who value open spaces and wildlife. OH! And please keep driving slow. My truck and teardrop trailer never go faster than 60 mph – and that’s on interstate highways…

  10. The place across from you, could it be donated to the nature conservancy? before he dies? can you talk to him about it?
    Such a sadness in this post.. Such a sadness in our world right now..Enjoy the viewings you have of the nature that is left..Thanks for your thoughtfulness and your wonderful writing. We feel your soul.

  11. I worked for the Dept of Ag for 25 years. I felt the same as you, when I would come across a farm that had sold to a commercial business or had a new subdivision on it, and I had to “delete” that farm from our records, it made me sad that such a fertile piece of land was lost to “progress”! And I would always say “I hate to see good land like that being developed!”

  12. Sorry, but they will tax you out. seen it a lot of places.

  13. Over the 22 yrs I’ve lived out here , the Blue Creek Rd commute into town has become more and more cringeworthy. Would a night time speed limit of 40mph really destroy the local economy? So what if you store your 100k motor home five minutes later than you wanted?

  14. The pressure to develop is real, and feeling sad and bad about it won’t stop it. But land conservation organizations are doing what they can, where they can. Local effort and help from the Montana Association of Land Trusts might save some of those farms.