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A Natural Treasure - for a 'Mess of Pottage'

In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul tells us about what might be called his strategy of persuasion - of making himself all things to all people, fashioning his message according to the cultural background of his hearers. In Shenandoah County, Va., where I live, I recently faced a persuasive challenge of my own, and to meet it I tried Paul's approach. Here's the story.

I moved to the Shenandoah Valley almost six years ago, from where I'd lived inside the Washington Beltway. After a decade in the city, I felt my spirit crying out for some landscape shaped less by my own kind than by the hand of nature. So I came with my family to this place on a ridge, overlooking an unpopulated wooded valley. Here my spirit revived.

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But the forces of what Americans this century have called progress are relentless, and the battle to preserve some kind of landscape not governed by commercial calculations must constantly be fought. In this county, the form that battle most recently has taken concerned a petition for rezoning to allow a 30-acre chunk of land, adjacent to our county seat, to be transformed into a superstore by Wal-Mart.

This proposed megacenter would be many times larger than any retail operation in the county, completely out of proportion to the rest of the human posture on this rural landscape. This kind of decision could prove a fork in the road in the county's whole course of development.

For me, the issue goes a good deal deeper than economics. I've come to experience the despoliation of natural beauty as a kind of sacrilege. But many of my neighbors take nature for granted, and so any effective argument must engage the issue in terms of values other than those closest to my own heart. One must speak, that is, in purely economic terms.

Talking in dollars

So what would be the economic consequences for this rural area?

One clue can be found in an investment advisory newsletter I got in the mail a few months ago. In the course of promoting some company that would make investors rich by doing to retailing in Asia what Wal-Mart has done in America, the newsletter's author spoke in appreciative tones, verging on awe, of how modern merchandising had killed off "main streets" all over America.

Recognizing that their stores might soon be shriveled and lifeless like the husks of bugs in a spider's web, many local businesspeople predictably are opposed to the project. But a substantial proportion of the local population is all for this Wal-Mart proposal. Long worried about their economic prospects, many look to this gargantuan retail operation as a place to find work. Promoters of the project have played on the themes of more jobs and an expanded tax base.

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The crucial realization that not all jobs, and not all economic development, are alike has animated much of the opposition. It has made the politics of the situation more awkward that many of those who look skeptically at the developer's rosy scenarios are people who have come here from elsewhere. Interlopers, some natives suspect, trying to deny them their place in the sun.

But that suspicion misinterprets the case. While some of our neighbors regard the store as a sign that they at last will have arrived, we feel we've seen where this particular road leads, and we think that road is paved with fool's gold.

Common blunder

Just as the little guy has historically tended to sink his life's savings into stocks at the market's top, so might the people of this county be making a tragic blunder if they chose - at the very moment when the era of rampant urbanization and consumerism might be coming to an end - to trade away the treasure we're sitting on now: the kind of landscape that much of America has already destroyed but, increasingly, is hankering to recover.

We're entering a time when many businesses of the future - because of technologies like the fax and e-mail and teleconferencing - are gaining the freedom to locate wherever they want. Eager to escape bleak landscapes that have been shaped by buying and selling, the people in these businesses may well choose to relocate to places that have preserved other values, like the unspoiled natural beauty and coherent small-town communities that Shenandoah County still retains.

If we make our landscape look like what these businesses are trying to escape, that more promising kind of economic development will skip us over.

I wondered: How can I convey this notion to my neighbors who are so eager to "arrive" at a future that many already recognize is not what it used to be? To speak from my sense of the sacred, I realized, would sound to these traditionalists of the Bible Belt like the pagan rantings of a tree-hugger. It was while grappling with this rhetorical challenge that I thought of Paul's strategy.

And then I wrote, in a piece for the local paper: "Will Shenandoah County, like Esau in the Bible, sell its birthright for a mess of pottage? That, as I see it, is what approving the proposed super-Wal-Mart would amount to. Esau was so distracted by his eagerness for something to quickly fill his stomach that he traded away the future that was meant for him. Can we not be more patient and careful and foresightful?"

The Bible's lesson

Nothing I've ever said publicly here in my new home has evoked so enthusiastic a response. The image, with its evocation of that great biblical story of short-sighted desperation opening the way for the long-term swindle, seemed to move some people.

I must tell you, though, that the superstore, nonetheless, is coming. The pen may be mightier than the sword but, these days, the dollar beats them both.

* More of Andrew Bard Schmookler's ideas can be found at schmookler/

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