As I sat in the back yard with Lucy late Wednesday afternoon, I suddenly looked around me at all the trees and started comparing my neighborhood to modern neighborhoods.
I had shown houses earlier in the afternoon in very nice (and very expensive) neighborhoods. My little house built in 1927 was certainly different in design, but there was a much more obvious difference.
The real difference in the way the neighborhoods feel — to me, at least — is in the trees.
The trees in my older neighborhood are the ones that were there when this was a forest. Most of them were left exactly where the builders found them. Because of that, there is a stunning natural canopy that covers much of the street. I’m enchanted by some of the bigger trees right around my house. They make me happy.
That organic feel is missing when I visit most of the nice newer neighborhoods where I show houses. Even in neighborhoods where the developer carefully planned buffer zones of trees, the yards feel more sterile. It’s very clear that someone bulldozed the whole place and then planted just enough decorative trees to look good on promotional brochures.
Maybe it’s about some other natural feature in some places. In parts of Nebraska, for instance, trees of any kind are as rare as palm trees in my neighborhood. Somehow, in a way that I have trouble explaining, it’s about having a connection to the land where we call home.
The people of centuries past did migrate from time to time and there are definitely nomadic people. But I have some deep feeling of connection to people who were connected to the land of a particular place. Even when they traveled or even when they moved away entirely, they still felt she reverence for a place which still felt like home in their hearts.
I’ve identified more as I’ve gotten older with feeling connected to a sense of place. I wrote awhile back about the realization that I’ll always feel a sense of belonging about the South, even though I can easily see myself living elsewhere, maybe even in another country. Maybe I didn’t feel it as much when I was younger because I moved around so much and never felt attached to any one place.
But as I feel a sense of identifying with a place, that makes me want to connect with the land and the environment of wherever I live. I don’t want to live in a place that might as well be picked up completely as it is and dropped into any other suburb in the country.
I want an environment that feels authentic to the land where I am. In the current neighborhood, these trees go a long way toward creating that feeling. When I walk out my front door each day and look slightly up, I see one of the most majestic trees I’ve ever lived around. (That’s a picture of it at the very bottom.) Feeling connected to that every day makes me feel more grounded.
I don’t get that feeling in many of the neighborhoods where I show houses. The houses are beautiful. The yards are immaculate. In many cases, they back up to fancy golf courses and everything has the feel of living at a country club.
But it feels artificial to me. It feels as though the heart has been ripped out of the land. It feels as though it was cheaper and more convenient for a developer to have one cookie-cutter plan and force that plan to fit every site, not the other way around. The best and cheapest way to do that is to flatten all the trees and start from scratch.
A few things are changing in some places. I’ve told you before about a local development that I love called Mount Laurel. If I could live anywhere in the Birmingham area right now, that’s where I’d choose. I think a lot of people are feeling disconnected from their environment — and I think some people are yearning to return to something they don’t even quite understand that they’ve lost.
Our nice, modern homes in cookie-cutter neighborhoods have lost touch with the heart of the land on which they’re built. For me, that’s something that needs to change. I hope there will be more who feel the same way and insist on the same thing in the coming years, too.
If there’s enough demand for such environments, maybe I’ll have a chance to build them for some of us. That would be very satisfying. But don’t even think about joining me unless you like trees and want to feel connected to your land.
Note: The photo at the top is Lucy in front of the house earlier this week. Below is Lucy in the back yard with me Wednesday evening. Below that is a recent shot of the massive beaches of a tree that dominates my front yard.