Everybody's Walden

About the year 1890 an extraordinary thing happened in the history of this country. The census-takers discovered that for the first time there was no longer a frontier. The line of westward advance which had always been perceptible was found to exist no longer. Colonization and settlement had filled in the blank spaces of the continent. We were a people for whom the longstanding invitation to flee society and make a home in the wilderness had been withdrawn. We faced one another within a finite universe.

The consequences of this change were to prove profound. No longer could we solve problems by escaping them, or run away from ourselves by staking out a new existence. What we were we had to live with, for better or worse. Now the major questions of national policy were not those of determining what territories should be annexed and on what terms, but how the intricate web of life could be woven into a pattern; how we could accommodate conflicting interests and in truth become one people.

Something as dramatic as this closing of the frontier has occured in this decade, and again it is the census-takers who have discovered facts that will alter our lives. For the first time, it has been announced, people leaving the cities form a greater number than those who are moving into them. We are becoming a nation of country folk -- perhaps not at a rate that will be visible overnight, but with the slowness and sureness with which mighty transformations have occurred in the past.

The deep change in patterns of living cannot be expained away as a mere tendency for people to push outward from existing metropolitan centers. It cannot be discounted as a drift toward rural communities where industries have been established. These things happen; but the novel and challenging fact is that people in large numbers are leaping over intervening counties, settling far from the old cities in areas that were once considered remote and inaccessible. Evidently men and women are looking for a quality of life which neither the city nor the suburb can give them. They are following a dream that seems valid to them even though it may mean a relatively isolated existence and a long daily journey to the office.

All across the country smaller towns are feeling the impact of added inhabitants. Scenic and rural environments receive new settlers until lakeshores are in danger of being ringed by trailers or farmland gobbled up at a disconcerting rate. In vain the states create tax incentives for those who use the land for agricultural purposes. When a certain level of price is reached -- and it seems to be reached with cascading frequency -- the farmer sells out to the developer. Into these new enclaves of rusticity move families who are tired of smog, frustrated by failing systems of public transportation, subdued by the fear of crime. Here come those contemplating early retirement, who want their present home to serve them through the later years.

That every man should seek his own Walden is a touching thought, but also a disturbing one. Those who leave the city to pursue a new life create holes at the center, to be filled by the poor and the recent immigrants. The suburbs, meanwhile, abandon their short-lived promise of being places of shady calm, removed from the city's ills. And what about the famous oil shortage that was supposed to bring us all into tighter clusters, with home and job in close proximity? Was that oil shortage a myth?

In the end, of course, everybody's Walden becomes a Walden for no one. As country and city are intermingled, with the land settled in a more or less homogeneous pattern, new forms of disillusionment arise. In the best of worlds the city would remain dense and urban; the country, sparse and rural. One must hope that the present waves of out-migration will be reversed or countered by the time the next census is taken. At least that is mym hope as in Jun I once again take leave from a city that has delighted me, for summer in a land still keeping its own wildness and quiet.

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