Preserving a Town’s Informal Commons
Urban planners and landscape architects call them Desire or Heart Paths. In rural areas such as ours, they’re the short cuts that people (usually kids) have taken for generations through people’s back yards and lots on their way to school, to another neighborhood or to a frozen pond. After the first light snowfall, the indentations and impressions they’ve made in the landscape reveal themselves, as though what is being revealed is a map of the neighborhood as it exists in the imagination of a child or young teenager. If you grew up in the area, seeing those paths from a car is like coming upon a lost map of your own childhood. Of course, these paths cut across private property, but it never seems to occur to anyone to ask who owns the property, and the owners never seemed to have minded much that their private property was being treated as common property. And that’s essentially what they were: a community’s commons. Until the property is sold, and then it’s not. People then lose access to land they’ve treated as their own for decades. That’s what happened in Bolton when the Pinnacle was sold to a family that hopes to build three houses on the mountain. Like the mountain in Robert Frost’s ‘North of Boston,’ it holds “the town as in a shadow.” And as with the farmer in the poem who never climbed the mountain because “it doesn’t seem so much to climb a mountain you’ve worked around the foot of all your life,” there are people who live in town who have never climbed, picnicked or hunted on the Pinnacle, but who have felt its influence nonetheless. We’ve heard through the grapevine that an effort to purchase the property for the public has gathered new momentum. If an offer is made and accepted, the consent of the town’s taxpayers will be sought and, we hope, secured. As real estate becomes more valuable, it becomes clear that lands like the Pinnacle have a social value above and beyond their ecological value – they preserve open space as accessible, rural country side. We should be thinking about preserving those spaces for reasons suggested by the naturalist Hal Borland: “Boys – and girls, and grown ups as well – desperately need places where they can watch lizards and ants, and chipmunks and dragonflies and frogs and bumblebees. They need places where they can sit on a river bank or lie in the sun and see the sky without looking for satellites or missiles.” That’s as true now as it was in the 1950s, when that was written.