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People Pressure

Once a year I head down to Mount Vernon to give a talk to schoolteachers, and then repair to the mansion for cocktails on the piazza. It's a great two-fer: First I pretend to be a historian, and then I pretend to be George Washington.

Last night the view from the piazza was sublime as always. A still evening. The river betrayed no motion -- it was a lazy arm of the sea. An occasional motorboat furrowed the surface but otherwise no human activity interrupted the tranquil vista. The far side of the river is undeveloped, thanks to the Accokeek Foundation, which has vigorously preserved the viewshed. But wait: I detected a blemish. A house! There's a house over there, one that I haven't seen previously. It's right on the riverbank at about 2 o'clock. What in tarnation is going on???

Who dares interrupt my magnificent landscape?

We attack at dawn.

From the M.V. administrators I hear the news: The house has been there all along, obscured by a tree that fell in a recent storm. More trees will be planted to hide it anew.

But hold: The house is actually an 18th century structure. George Washington would have seen it as he quaffed his Madeira on his big fancy porch. So perhaps we need to rethink this. Certainly there's nothing inauthentic, nothing "wrong," about a distant house intruding upon the view from Mount Vernon. In fact, GW would have seen a different landscape, one marked by a more active river, and probably framed by fewer trees. The river banks would have been vigorously logged by the late 18th century.

The "preserved" view is a 21st century artifact. The modern eye enjoys the suggestion of untouched wilderness even as we sense a burgeoning metropolis and mega-mall just over the next ridge.

In the near future, the transformation of the planet into an artificial environment will be complete. All human encounters with nature will be designed, manufactured and controlled by landscape architects, park managers, and concessioneers. The person in charge of bees will work in the office next to the person in charge of snow cones.

Certainly every tree in the forest will have its own URL. Trees will communicate only with their own species; a maple will have no more sense of the feelings of an oak than a grouper can understand the yearnings of a squirrel. (Cynics will accuse some woodland tracts of being so wrapped up in trivia and minutia that they can't see the forest for the trees.)

The general outline of history begins with the formation of the sun and the planets and the cooling of the Earth into a sphere capable of supporting life. Some four billion years later we are reaching the inevitable end of the geological and biological evolution of our world. We are not entirely sure of the meaning of it all, but we suspect the meaning has something to do with gift shops.

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A view without people will be a real estate sales point. It already is, of course: The New York Times today has a piece on the surge of humanity into the forests of the West -- everyone trying to nab a piece of wilderness, even though it may mean their homes go up in flames:

"A new generation of Americans like the Morrises, in moving to places perched on the edge of vast, undeveloped government lands in the West, are living out a dangerous experiment, many of them ignorant of the risk.

"Their migration -- more than 8.6 million new homes in the West within 30 miles of a national forest since 1982, according to research at the University of Wisconsin -- has coincided with profound environmental changes that have worsened the fire hazard, including years of drought, record-setting heat and forest management policies that have allowed brush and dead trees to build up."

And imagine living today in China, where huge cities rise almost overnight.

By Joel Achenbach  |  June 26, 2007; 8:05 AM ET
 
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