Food For Thought

Cherishing Our Rural Landscape 


by Deborah Huso, Contributing Columnist

Across the creek from my parents’ house, nestled in a swath of yellow pasture, is a copse of hemlocks gathered about a massive granite sheath of rock vaulting skyward out of the side of the earth. Here, as a child, I found my secret hiding place, climbing the sturdy evergreen boughs and cowering with the dog against the rock, watchful for imaginary villains hiding in the grass beyond. As a teenager I came here with a book or notepad, seeking solitude away from the noise of school, the demands of parents. I never thought that life would ever be anything but this — the serenity of a secret place at the edge of woods.

But my parents’ farm, once a world away from everything in the rolling Piedmont east of Swift Run Gap, is a little, sadly hopeful oasis of quiet pressed by subdivisions, a bypass, and a manmade recreation lake that often floods their gentle creek into a sludgy swamp. This gently rolling landscape beneath the hazy outline of the Blue Ridge that I once called home is not what it was 20 years ago, or even 10. Virginia is changing and perhaps not for the better.

According to a 1999 report from the Virginia Conservation Land Coalition, in the decade between 1987 and 1997, Virginia lost 450,000 acres of prime farmland, roughly 5 percent of the state’s total, and the most recent surveys conducted on loss of forest land in the state show an average annual loss of 26,000 acres. Even more disturbing perhaps is that Virginia ranks in the top 10 states in the country for its rare plant and animal species. What is becoming of these as the state’s population continues to grow and expand into once rural and forested areas?

The Progressive Farmer recently named Fauquier County, Virginia, the Best Place to Live in Rural America. Three other Virginia counties made the top 10 regional list. There is some irony here. Fauquier, like so many other rural counties, stands on the brink between its rural heritage and a much more suburbanized future. And often, environmental changes wrought by development are so subtle that we don’t even notice them, not right away. Fauquier, for instance, has the highest abundance of cerulean warblers in the state, according to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. But these seasonal migrant birds could be history before long, as they are a forest-

interior species. As Fauquier experiences more and more forest clearing, often the result of suburban sprawl, the cerulean warbler and other plant and animal species dependent on large swatches of unbroken forest may no longer have a presence in Virginia’s landscape.

A neighbor of mine in Highland County, one of Virginia’s last rural strongholds against both industrial and suburban development, recently advised me that the stream that runs through both our properties is not the stream it was 20 years ago. “Once my children could play in it, and I didn’t have to worry about them,” she explained. Now, however, the stream has enough depth and force to drown a small child and floods with regularity; proof, an excavator tells me, that human activities, most likely land clearing due to logging, have an impact on everything.

The key to preserving Virginia’s rich agricultural heritage, her forested mountains and coastal woodlands, pristine waterways and scenic beauty is in understanding how humans can very quickly, easily, and often irreversibly change her landscape. The unfortunate reality, however, is that localities often find the easiest way to bring tax revenue into rural-county coffers is by encouraging industrial growth and large-scale housing developments. More often than not, little attention is given to how development of any kind will impact landscape, wildlife, and ultimately humans’ quality of life.

Highland has seen several recent close calls where development is concerned, and her citizens, thus far, have managed to stave off would-be real estate developers. At present, the county is engaged in a long and divisive fight over whether or not to allow industrial wind turbines on her highest ridgelines. At stake are the rights of property owners to earn income from their land as they see fit and the right of the county’s citizens to preserve one of the last unspoiled, privately held scenic landscapes in the state. It is a struggle facing many of Virginia’s rural counties in one form or another. And as so many counties have failed to either develop or follow solid comprehensive plans, they often find themselves legally defenseless against both industrial development and suburban sprawl.

As long as governments see development as a quick way to cash, the lack of attention to responsible land planning and growth will most likely continue. Perhaps, our local governments and schools should give greater attention to small business development and entrepreneurship training for young people. The future of rural communities ultimately lies in teaching the next generation to appreciate, protect, and live in them.

When I was growing up along the edge of the Blue Ridge, very little attention was given to teaching young people how to earn a living in any other way than by going away to college or finding a job in the city. Most of us indeed left and never came back, leaving our hometown to be swallowed by homogenous sprawl instead of enriched by the infusion of young blood.

My childhood best friend recently purchased an old country store in our hometown and is endeavoring to restore it to some semblance of its former life as a community gathering place and provider of general merchandise. Like me, perhaps, she wants to recapture something of the rural, close-knit community heritage that so many of Virginia’s counties have either lost or are quickly losing. For myself, I have moved to what I consider one of Virginia’s last holdouts against the flood of consumer homogeneity, sprawl, and industrial development, hoping that Highlanders will take the time to continue to protect and cherish what so many other rural communities have already lost. And perhaps in 20 years, I will still be able to find serenity at the edge of woods and hear cerulean warblers sing.

What’s Your View?

Obviously, there are at least two sides to every issue. Do you have a different view? This column is meant to provoke thought, so keep sending comments. Each one is read with the utmost interest. Send e-mail to: [email protected], or send written responses to the editor.  Mail will be forwarded to the author.




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