September 15, 2000 (Ira pilgrim)


What we call real estate-the solid ground to build a house on-is the broad foundation on which nearly all the guilt of this world rests.

Nathaniel Hawthorne

I spent a week in northern Michigan. It is a sparsely populated area that is now pretty much devoted to the recreation of the Michiganders who live in the cities. It has one thing that the cities don't have: silence. It seems even quieter than my mountain top.

I walk along a gravel road in the quiet cool of the morning. This area was settled by farmers who cut down the trees, moved the boulders and plowed the fields for their crops. Now the fields lie fallow. The few places that show any sign of man's hand are the small patches of mowed lawn near the houses that are set by the side of the road.

I can understand why a person whose life is farming would want a piece of land of his own to farm. However, the farmers are gone now and what is left are farms without farmers.

When Europeans came to this country they brought with them their skills. Many were farmers. There were no supermarkets in those days and everyone had to live close to sources of food. As a consequence, people settled in areas where there was fertile soil, water, timber and abundant fish and game. Before long, much of the choice land was put to the plow. As the population grew, almost all of the arable land was being farmed.

When you fly over the United States, it should be obvious that much, if not most of it, is uninhabited. These are areas of desert. The fertile areas that have water are planted in either crops or houses. It may seem strange to think of Manhattan Island as once having forests and farms, but that was what was there. A few green remnants have been preserved as parks, but other than those, most agriculture in Manhattan is confined to window boxes. The same thing can be said about every city in the world.

I used to live in the San Francisco bay area near the city of Walnut Creek. It was called Walnut Creek because it once contained large walnut orchards. They are now gone, except for the occasional walnut tree in someone's yard. When I lived there, I saw fertile farm fields destroyed to make way for houses and shopping malls. There are almost no farms left, since no one can afford to farm land that costs a small fortune for an acre of land. Farmers who wanted to keep farming had to move elsewhere. They sold their farm land for top dollar and used the money to purchase land somewhere where it was much cheaper.

The efficiency of agriculture methods has increased tremendously. However, land and water are still required. Hydroponics was never a commercial success. Consequently, every acre that is paved over and built on is no longer available for food production.

You don't have to travel far to see that the same thing has happened, and is happening, everywhere. I have never heard of houses and pavement being reconverted to agricultural land; it is a one way street. And what is at the end of that one way street? Would you buy famine? Of course, it is not going to happen this year or next; nor even in 100 years. However, if the trend continues it will happen eventually. Yet, with some intelligent planning, it needn't ever happen. Unfortunately, timely thoughtful action is unusual. What governments do is to react to crises. That reaction is usually too late.

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