In the name of progress…

“They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot”
– Joni Mitchell

We drove north up 295, cutting a swath through the great state of Maine as we made our way to Orono. It had been many years since I last made this trek, and on this particular bright and sunny February day, I was looking forward to the journey. We were travelling back to the University of Maine (my college alma mater) to watch our daughter compete in the State high school finals for girls swimming.

We wound our way north past Waterville, Pittsfield, Newport and Hermon before finally seeing Bangor come into view in the distance. Our destination was another 10 miles north of Bangor, but the highway took us right through the city and particularly, took us right past the thriving shopping metroplex that is the Bangor Mall area. As we passed through that particular section of highway, I looked around and saw an endless sea of consumerism. Not just the huge mall itself – an indoor shopping complex that covered several hundred square acres – but also the restaurants, the car dealerships,  the recreational facilities, and the countless, countless other stores and mini-malls that blanketed the area. I was struck by how built-up the area had become in just the 20 years or so it had been since I had been a college student in this area. Suddenly I was taken back even further…

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It was 1977 and I was eleven years old. My family had moved from North Carolina to Mount Desert Island off the coast of Maine just a year before. There had been quite an adjustment to the “quiet life” of Maine. I remembered a particular day that summer when my step-father had taken me on a shopping trip to Bangor – about an hour inland. It think we were school shopping on this trip. Once we had finished our shopping Chuck said he wanted to ‘check something out” before we headed back to the island. “You interested?”.

Always ready for an adventure, I happily agreed.

He drove out to the outskirts of Bangor, where the highway went by the edge of the city, but there was not much else. He pulled the car over to the side of the road and we got out. We walked across the road surrounded by what seemed like miles of empty fields. Probably farm land back in the day, it had been left to grow wild over the years. It was peaceful there. Except for the smallish road we had parked on (which crossed over the highway at this point) and the highway itself, there was nothing else here. Well, almost nothing else. It was getting late in the day, and down in the grass off to the left of us there was a small herd of deer, poking around amongst the tall grass and looking for an early evening snack.

I heard something overhead, and looked up to see a hawk slowly circling above. I watched him for a moment, before he suddenly tucked in his wings and plummeted towards the earth, swooping in on some unsuspecting field mouse, or mole. He needed his supper too. I could have stood there for an hour, just taking it all in.

Finally, Chuck pointed off into the distance. I had not even noticed at first, but way off across the fields, on the other side of the highway there were dump trucks at work. Not just dump trucks, but those big giant earth movers you see on TV. Huge bulldozers were pushing the dirt around and creating a large scar in the otherwise pristine landscape. They were probably a couple of miles away from us, and the distance ate up the sound they made so they seemed to move in silence, slowly waltzing to music only they could hear.

We stood there in silence for a few minutes, watching the earth movers reshape the landscape. Even at the time, I remember thinking what a shame it was they were digging up those beautiful fields. Finally I thought to ask “What are they going to build over there?”

“A mall”.

“Like a shopping mall? Like they had back in Charlotte?”

“Yes, like that. A big shopping mall”.

I stood there watching the work go on. Somehow knowing that they were building a shopping mall – that ‘modern progress’ was going to come to this beautiful place, made it all the more beautiful to me. I don’t think a recognized this thought at the time, but I felt a sense of impending loss. As if that particular moment, standing there on the side of that road would never be repeated.

It was evening, and the summer sun was just starting to approach the horizon. The last rays of the day lighting up the tall grass of the fields and setting everything afire with a golden glow. A gentle breeze began to blow, making the grasses all sway back and forth – dancing to that same silent song.

“…why, you won’t recognize this place. Look around you – this is going to be all built up.” Chuck had been foretelling the future for me. Describing not just what the mall would mean, but what the mall would bring to this place. I had not been listening. 

“Great for the economy too”, he added.

I couldn’t really picture it all at the time. I could not imagine how these seemingly endless rolling fields could ever be anything but what they were – unspoiled nature. Tall grasses and scrub-brush, swaying gently in the breeze. “You’ll see” Chuck added as we got back in the car. “Someday all of this will be gone”.

I remember feeling a sense of sadness about that. I spent the hour drive back home riding in silence, looking out the window and wondering if any of the beautiful Maine scenery we were driving past would still be there when I grew up.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

And now, some thirty-five years later, as I drove past that same spot – the two lane black-top we had stopped on that day so long ago was now a four-lane thoroughfare called Bangor Mall Boulevard. As far as the eye could see on both sides of the highway was an endless landscape of commercial enterprise. Dozens of restaurants, countless stores, a skating rink, hotels and car dealerships without number and somewhere in all that Capitalism, the mall itself continued to thrive.

I found myself shaking my head as we drove by. At once amazed by the progress that had been made, and repulsed by what had been lost. Impressed by what man might accomplish in just a few decades, and sickened by what we had done. There it was – laid out before me. All the ugliness that Man could unleash upon the earth, right there for all to see. So why did this sight cause me such angst? Why would this tangible, visual reminder of “progress” cause me to flash back to that simpler day in my youth?

I happen to make my living in the I.T. industry. Technology, and the advancement of man in general has always been something that has fascinated me. All this shopping utopia represented was just that – the progress of man.

More. Better. Faster. Easier.

We want and we want. We demand convenience and choices. We think not about the consequences, but about the benefits. When did this happen to us? Somewhere along the way we stopped listening to nature, and began hearing the call of commercialism instead. And of course it isn’t just here in this one place, but seemingly everywhere. From fossil fuel harvesting to toxic waste. From urban sprawl to air pollution. We treat this planet like our own personal garbage dump – all in the name of progress.

I shook my head as we drove on by, disgusted by what I was seeing.

Then my daughter giggled in the back seat at somebody’s Facebook post she was reading on her phone. I glanced at my wife, and she was perusing her favorite websites on her phone. Then I got a call from work on my cell about something that just couldn’t wait. Soon after that, the GPS announced happily that we were “1.2 miles from our exit”, and I realized what a hypocrite I was.

It was easy for me to bemoan the state of the world – to criticize all this “progress” we see around us. But don’t ask me to go a day without my cell phone – or find a restaurant in a strange city without my GPS. I like to reminisce about a simpler time. A time when life was stripped back down to its basics. No shopping malls, no cell phones, no Wi-Fi or Facebook. Just us. And nature.

But the truth is, I am a child of the 20th Century. I spend a significant portion of my life on the Internet, and would die without my cable TV.  I am an eBay shopping, streaming video watching, Facebook addicted geek and I can say that progress is a bad thing, but deep down I don’t believe it. I do worry about the planet, and where all this pavement is going to lead us. But I also know that there is no turning back now. We cannot put the genie back in the bottle.

I do fervently hope that we humans figure it out before it’s too late. I hope we continue to do what we can to fix the damage that we do. And I hope that my grandchildren will still be able to stand next to a grassy field on a summer’s evening and take in all the beauty that nature has to offer.

Now please excuse me while I order a pizza online, and wait for the text messages tracking its progress. The Walking Dead is on cable later and I have to catch up on Facebook…


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