Friday, August 13, 1999
What Price Caution?
Zhenya, my son Will's eight-year-old nephew from Russia, came to Carlisle for a visit this summer. Will, who grew up in Carlisle, decided it would be a good idea to sign Zhenya up for the Carlisle Recreation Program's summer camp where he could interact with American children his age, improve his English, and just have a good time. Because of Will's work schedule, I offered to drive Zhenya to camp in the center of town each morning at 8:30. The plan was to have him walk the mile or so back to our home on Estabrook Road when camp ended in the early afternoon. Zhenya's walk would take him down School Street to Bellows Hill Road, over the hill and around the corner to our housea fifteen or twenty minute hike for an energetic eight-year-old.
After several days of following this routine, I started to hear from some of the parents and finally one of the directors of the camp that it was unwise of me to let Zhenya walk home alone. I was surprised to think that I was doing something that others thought might be dangerous, and it ultimately got me to thinking about the lives of children growing up today.
My boys had walked home from school and ridden their bikes to school or camp back in the mid-seventies. Yes, School Street is a narrow winding road but Will had instructed Zhenyaa pretty savvy city kidto walk against the traffic and close to the shoulder. The traffic at 1:30 in the afternoon is not heavy and it was a relief for Zhenya not to have to try to speak English as he made his way home. Walking that distance was nothing compared to the miles he walks every day in his car-clogged Russian town.
So what has changed? I know that the population of Carlisle has doubled since the seventies when my children were growing up. I also know there are more cars on the road. I was reminded that more women have gone back to work and houses are left empty during the day. What if Zhenya had been accosted on the road? Where would he have turned? With our houses spaced so far apart and no one else out walking around, what good would it do to call for help?
I found people still remembering back to the eighties when Sarah Pryor, a young girl in Wayland, was abducted and murdered walking near her home. I called the Carlisle Police to see if there had ever been any incidents of kidnapping in town; the answer was no.
Could it be the media then? With the proliferation of cable channels and the tendency of the media to focus on the sensational, have parents become unduly fearful of what some people call "stranger danger?" Is the media fueling this paranoia?
What is the reality here? Why is it that more parents are driving their kidsto the bus stop, to school, and around townthese days? Why can't children walk or ride their bikes in their neighborhoods to a friend's house?
All I know is that the kids growing up in Carlisle these days have less independence and freedom than did my sons twenty-five years ago. There are more cars, going faster, on the roads today, and it is clear that the media stokes parental obsession with dangers lurking around every corner and every tree in suburbia. Automobiles have taken priority over the way our children live.
Are there really more kooks out there, ready to snatch one of our children on his or her way home from school or camp? One would think not, but how am I to know?
In the end, taking my cues from parents and others, I picked Zhenya up at camp and drove him home. Zhenya wasn't happy about thathe liked his daily walk home behind Guy Clark's field and past Poole's swamp. I wasn't happy, either. But if I had to err, it was going to be on the side of caution.
Hiking the Appalachian Trail in the summer of 1980, I remember being able to smell a road. In the sun, the asphalt gave off enough aromatic hydrocarbons that I could smell the road well before we crossed it on the trail.
In the fall of 1984, I had another very visceral reaction to modern infrastructure. I was trekking in Nepal with a Peace Corps friend. Returning to Katmandu after hiking from Besi Sahar to Manang, I can remember developing a real thirst for the well known. The trek, although spectacularly beautiful, was devoid of the technological infrastructure we take for granted in the United States. Back in Katmandu I reveled in walking down the main commercial street at night with automobile horns blaring and street lamps glaring. It felt so familiar after the stark nakedness of the undeveloped areas outside Katmandu. Without realizing it, one becomes very accepting of the visual reality of modern infrastructure.
I think the most striking thing about Sturbridge Village, in western Massachusetts, is not what's there, but what isn't. When film makers scout locations for scripts set before the mid-19th century, modern infrastructure is a major problem. A single roof-top antenna or utility pole can ruin a film audience's suspension of disbelief. Yet, when folks from that same audience step out of the theater into the modern world, they drive by utility poles and, in spite of their ugliness, take them for granted.
Not long ago, the United States countryside was devoid of all modern infrastructure. But very rapidly, railroad tracks, asphalt highways, telephone poles, power lines, coaxial cable, and satellite and cellular antennas completely altered our way of life and the look and feel of our environment. It's hard to realize how drastic the visual change has been. Recently, the town of Bedford, with state aid, widened Rt. 225. In the process they took down all utility poles along that stretch of road. The difference is palpable in a very positive way.
I wonder, as we in Carlisle confront another wave of modern infrastructure, whether we should take steps to minimize its visual impact. They can't make cell towers and antennas out of glass. But perhaps we could steal a page from the air quality playbook. The EPA allows polluters to trade pollution credits, so that a manufacturer who can easily reduce emissions can sell its reduction credits to another company unable to reduce emissions to meet tightening standards. Could we agree that erecting a cell tower in Carlisle impacts our environment visually and otherwise as much as, say 50 utility poles? So if a carrier wants to erect a cell tower, it can do so as long as it can arrange to get one mile's worth of utility poles removed along one of Carlisle's major roads. Perhaps this could be codified as a zoning ordinance. Development and renovation is regulated in the Carlisle historic district. Could we not demand that the overall negative visual impact of infrastructure remain constant or decline? The total wetland area is regulated so as not to decline in size. Yet the law allows wetlands to be created in exchange for destruction in another location. Imagine, as the result of cell tower installations here in Carlisle, crossing the Concord River and driving into the center without seeing a single utility pole!
© 1999 The Carlisle Mosquito