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Restoring Good Order to a Disturbed Land: Erosion as a Natural Tendency

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[This piece is the second in a series that began here with an essay that's to be found at click here


 Good order in the human realm always requires overcoming the natural tendency of things. Consider my driveway.

When, sixteen years ago, I was hunting for a special place to which to transplant my family, I'd been hunting for three months --hunting in an arc as far as two hours from Washington and Baltimore from the mountains west of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania around to the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia and Maryland-- for the right place, for some place that captured the beauty of the earth and spoke to my soul.

The places I rejected failed in many ways, but one major indicator of the consciousness that had crafted a homestead was the driveway. Many were the places whose driveways were an insensitive blot upon their properties, a paved over shortest-distance-between-two-points travesty bulldozed from the road to the house.

But this place on the ridge on the western flank of the Shenandoah Valley was different: a graceful, graveled curve coming down off the ridge, caressing the slope of the land on the way to a house not yet visible. It was the first thing about the property I saw, and already before I saw the house something was awakened within me.

Just as it was then an apt harbinger of the specialness of the place, so also this August the driveway was a harbinger of the property's overall distressed condition.

As I said to my wife, April, at the end of our first day back on our new/old place, only half humorously, our property might warrant a chapter in Alan Weisman's book THE WORLD WITHOUT US. That's the book, cited here on NSB some months ago, that describes what would happen to this planet if human beings wer suddenly to disappear. And it was above all our driveway that brought Weisman's book to my mind.

As we first drove down that driveway after days of traveling from New Mexico, we were confronted by tall weeds that had sprung up in the median between the graveled tracks, and we heard them scraping the underside of our car as we descended to the house. For days, every time I walked along or across that driveway, I stooped to pull up handfuls of these weeks, gradually restoring a bit of the passageway the driveway is supposed to be.

But more serious than the weeds were the gullies that months or years of unchanneled rain had worn down the slope that this driveway descends.

Rain happens. It is part of the natural process, and it unleashes an inevitable natural force: unless human beings work to channel its runoff, the water will find its own path and carve the earth in its descent. Especially on steep slopes, such as that on which our property sits, the force of this carving can be very powerful.

During the decade when we previously lived here, I'd intervened to create an order consistent with the preservation of our driveway. I dug channels to carry the water off the driveway into the vegetation of the woods. But our tenants had done nothing to manage the drainage, so our downhill driveway had become a natural streambed.

The deterioration of the channels meant that when rain happened, so did erosion.

Erosion, then, is a process of destruction and loss caused by the collapse of the structures designed to prevent it. As in my driveway, so also in America in these recent years, where we've heard much talk about "erosion"-- the erosion of our liberties, the erosion of the rule of law, the erosion of our Constitutional framework itself. It is more than metaphor.

In the weeks since I arrived here, I've taken shovel and maddock and rake to recreate the kinds of channels that were here before. And, following the advice of a soils and water expert from the state, I've supplemented this channel-digging with the making of berms. To accomplish this, I've sought out places within reach where the washed out gravel and soil have been deposited and, using a wheelbarrow, have brought this material to fashion berms running diagonally to the driveway, to carry the water off to the side. This is how trails get maintained in mountain parks. And other wheelbarrow loads I've dumped into the gullies that the water has dug along the driveway these past six years; these gullies would otherwise not only aid the water in persisting in its bad habits but also threaten the two of us --who walk up and down that driveway a dozen times for every time we drive it-- with ankle sprains.

In America also, the old channels need to be re-established. These are the channels by which our Founders sought to control the natural tendency of hierarchical systems-- tendencies for those in power to use that power to seize still more power for themselves at the expense of the rights and interests of those below them. The idea of the sovereignty of the people --the "consent of the governed"-- is a bulwark against that natural tendency. So also are the liberties enshrined in our Bill of Rights.

The Founders knew that eternal vigilance --the ongoing protection and maintenance of the precious channels to control the play of power-- is the price of liberty.

We Americans have lately had a terrible brush with the kind of tyranny our Founders most feared. America stood by while those sacred channels were degraded and filled in right before our eyes. And now we've got urgent work to do to reestablish those channels. We've got wheelbarrow-loads to bring to our eroded system to restore those of its essential parts that we've allowed to be eroded by that destructive tyrannical force against which they warned us.

It is often said that the blessings of our democratic liberty must be defended and won again and again through the generations. This idea is usually used to refer to the need to defend ourselves against external enemies. But really, it is much more in this way -- in fighting against the natural downhill tendencies within our own body politic-- that the most necessary work of preservation of our system must be done.

And never in American history more so than in this recent, dark, Bushite age-- where power burst out of its legitimate channels and took much of our precious democratic soil downhill.


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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is (more...)
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