Once, when I was in Edinburgh, I bumped in to one of my old schoolmasters. He asked me where I lived. Western Canada, I said. Not one for small talk, he asked me what kind of house I lived in.
“A wooden house,” I told him. “My wife and I built it.”
He corrected me. “You mean you hired someone to build it.”
I corrected him. “No, I don’t mean that. We built it ourselves.”
I enjoyed that little encounter. The school I went to was more interested in getting its pupils into Oxford and Cambridge than with the necessities of life. My old schoolmaster recognised that building a shelter or growing food was not on the curriculum in his day. Nor is it now.
That house sits on a short, dead-end road at the edge of the forest. It looks south, over a stretch of ocean to some hills, and beyond that to the snowy peaks of the Olympic Mountains of Washington State in the US. There were no street lights on our road. We fought for that darkness with a local authority that was always keen to advance things; to be seen to bring ‘progress’.
The result of no streetlights was that we could see the stars at night. When we built the house we put in big skylights. One of them, six feet by four feet, sat right over our bed. When we woke up at night we could tell the time by the stars, and towards dawn, by the sounds of birds and deer in the ten acre wood beside us. When the sky lightened we could tell what the weather would be by the clouds overhead and the direction of the winds—and from the sound the trees made as the wind brushed through them. Rarely did we hear a siren, or the drone of traffic.
We sold that house seven years ago. It is still there, solid as the granite rock the footings are dowelled into. But they have re-routed the main highway through the ten acre wood beside it, logged hundreds of mature trees, and cut everything up to what was our property line. To accommodate the huge increase in traffic from hundreds of acres of new developments in the village eight kilometres up the road, they decided to straighten the main road. The dynamiting they’ve done has wrecked the water wells for the houses all around where we lived. The salmon-spawning creek that provided us for more than thirty years with clear, sweet water, free of chlorine and fluoride, is plugged with construction detritus. It no longer runs in summer as it did.
There will be no deer now in the ten acre wood because little of the wood remains. The magical birdsong we awoke to has probably gone as well. The massive developments have turned the village up the road into a large town, and most of the residents drive thirty miles every day into the city to work—and back again each evening.
With the proliferation of streetlights from the village that's rapidly growing eastwards from the west, and the city growing inexorably westwards from the east, the night sky with its blanket of stars was already disappearing when we left. What has happened since then would have broken our hearts.
But it’s progress . . . and who measures the cost?