The beautiful site

THE children named it ''the beautiful site,'' the glade below a neighbor's house. One afternoon, out exploring for wild things, they discovered the clearing and came running to tell me.

I saw them straggle through the garden gate, Gregory and Timmy with toy guns, and Anna dragging her sled, full of dandelions, through the grass.

''Com'ere, Mom. Quick!'' Anna said. ''We have to show you something. It's a beautiful sight.''

And it is. Surprising, too, in Acton.

Once a pasture, then a garden, ''the beautiful site'' is now a grassy place in the center of firs and wild shrubs, a reward for venturing past the backyards.

When I first moved here, city friends would say, ''Oh, you're moving way out there?'' Or, ''Oh, Acton! Now that's really out in the country.'' Apparently, Concord was as far west as their urban minds could grasp as thickly settled.

This is not ''country,'' not in the sense that Vermont or northern Maine is, or even western Massachusetts. But vestiges of the rural town this once was remain. ''The beautiful site,'' for example, or the open, undeveloped land stretching for acres behind the split-levels and ranches on many streets in town; the farmhouses that surprise you, surrounded by new construction; the grain mill, still thriving, by the river.

But Acton's claim on ''country'' is tenuous. The rural spots are rural because they didn't pass a perc test. Getting a permit to build on wetlands is difficult but not impossible. That piece of land back there is empty because it doesn't meet the frontage minimum, for now. Developers circle these spots like hawks, waiting for someone to sell, for minimums to slacken.

In the meantime, I visit ''the beautiful site'' at off-hours - at a break in the din of traffic and dogs and hammers, or at night when the town has just sprayed for mosquitoes.

Sometimes, several of us meet there. We sit on the ground or on mats and pretend we're camping, that this is wilderness, that the lights we see from the subdivision are embers from our campfire, and the traffic we hear on its way to Maynard or Stow is the wind in the treetops bringing in a storm.

-30

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