Little Boxes

Thursday, December 20th, 2012

Late fall always strips away Nature’s decorations. For farmers, it’s a useful time of year – it’s a great time to seed pastures, plant trees and cover crops, lay down manure on fallow gardens …. and most of all, appreciate how much nicer things were in the summer. “Yep, sure was nice back then.” Life is all about contrast.

The other day I was driving up to the feed store in the old rattletrap truck. I went past rolling hills, huge barns with silos, mowed cornfields. It was joyous and beautiful in that sad, dying autumn sort of way. And then like a big SLAP I was confronted with row upon row of stacked, lookalike houses jammed together with no yards. This visual monotony went on for more than a mile. The houses seemed to have been bled of color. There were no trees. In front of the newer ones there was no grass – not even the fake kind. A kind of panic beset me; I have been known to get hopelessly and tearfully lost in new housing developments trying to find a friend’s abode, never able to tell one house from another, the difficulty compounded by the derivative street names (Ticky Tacky Street, Ticky Tacky Court, Ticky Tacky Circle….). I’ve had the same experience at my dreary corporate job: my office is full of little grey fabric-covered walls, and I frequently wander in circles just trying to find the conference room. Who ARE these architects?

When I first saw photos of Cairo, Egypt a few months before I moved there for my graduate studies in the 1980’s, I thought to myself with some dismay, “it’s all tan.” Every building was cast with a sandy hue making it impossible to distinguish one from another. When I arrived, I found this ‘visual’ to hold true. Stupendous, really, stupefying. I often got disoriented in the dusty streets, vainly trying to identify some distinguishing landmark. Of course, quickly I learned that the buildings in Cairo really did not look alike at all, and as my eyes adjusted to the desert, I saw the intense beauty of the ages of architecture that touched that city, from medieval mosques to British colonial rowhouses to French palaces. (The Soviet-style concrete block buildings, however, continued to scare me, especially the grotesque “Mugamma”, the large government building in Tahrir Square where, it was said, a person might not emerge for days while attempting to acquire all the requisite stamps and approvals. An ambulance was parked permanently in front. Students at the university told me it was to handle the jumpers. But I digress wildly.)

That bleak afternoon, driving to the feed store, I did not flash back to Cairo – memories of which now are filled with bright colors, raucous sounds, crazed, fast taxi rides, smells both gorgeous and nauseating, sickly sweet and seductive with spices, the desert tan veneer stripped away completely in my mind’s eye.

Instead, my memory went quite unexpectedly back to the rather doofy Mr. Meardon, my second grade music teacher who wore 50’s style heavily black-rimmed square glasses, had a buzz cut, and always seemed depressed about something. Mr. Meardon taught his classes in the third floor turret of the old Victorian mansion in Providence, Rhode Island that was my elementary school. He’d point out half notes and quarter notes on a chart and make us chant out, “ta ta tee-tee ta”. It was loathsome. He sometimes brought his guitar along and taught us folksongs which we thought were dumb (but many things seem dumb to 7 year old little girls: parents, take note). As I drove past the stacks of lookalike Clarksburg houses the lyrics of one particular song came wafting back to me with Mr. Meardon strumming along,: “Little boxes, on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky tacky, little boxes on the hillside, little boxes all the same”.

Forty five years later, an advocate of farmland preservation (“More goats, we need more goats” – Mr. Newman Goat), I understand Mr. Meardon’s distress as I re-read the lyrics to this powerful and deeply disturbing ditty. He seems to me now quite a good sort and I’m sorry I didn’t like his pedagogical methods. It sure takes me a long time to catch on, sometimes.

“They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”

People are not only still building the ticky tacky houses by the tens of dozens, but I do believe the structures are programmed to self-propagate without the need for construction crews, reproducing like large, colorless amoebas made of cardboard, razing all trees, bushes, and annihilating any live thing that gets in their way, covering up the dark earth that grows our food, displacing wildlife, increasing the use of vehicles to get to these far-flung Stepford wives repositories of sameness…. all of which has the ricocheting effect of centralizing food production in grand centers of industrialized efficiency and appalling quality.

Death by mediocrity.

And I wonder. If there hadn’t been a little patch of land for sale 11 years ago, on a tiny country road in the middle of the Montgomery County Agricultural Reserve, there would be no Star Gazing Farm sheep, no silly ducks, no Gumby-like llamas and no Mr. Newman Goat. Children would be stuck in front of their computers playing “Farmville”, not hoisting hay bales and learning how to care for real, live animals. Livestock guardian dog Sam would not be running, flying, like a marathon athlete, joyously protecting the farm from the menacing UPS trucks. Goats would not make people laugh, kittens would not get themselves stuck up 40 foot locust trees, and no one would cry for the little lives lost of chicks who fell out of a barn loft in the middle of the night. How many lost chances for charm, beauty, freshly grown vegetables and herbs, clear skies full of stars, and a life of unceasing labor (oops, I didn’t mean to mention that part) are slashed and burned as each house goes up, not a one with any more personality or increased function than the previous?

Qui bono?

Till next time,

Farmer Anne
Star Gazing Farm 501(c)3
A haven for retired farm animals and wayward goats
Check out our new site:
tel: (301) 349-0802
CFC: #86412

“The mind can rationalize anything, but the stomach can take only so much.” — Czeslaw Milosz

Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky tacky,
Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes all the same.
There’s a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one,
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

And the people in the houses
All went to the university,
Where they were put in boxes
And they came out all the same,
And there’s doctors and lawyers,
And business executives,
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

And they all play on the golf course
And drink their martinis dry,
And they all have pretty children
And the children go to school,
And the children go to summer camp
And then to the university,
Where they are put in boxes
And they come out all the same.

And the boys go into business
And marry and raise a family
In boxes made of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.
There’s a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one,
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.
— Malvina Reynolds

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