What is Crown Hill’s worth

There is no measurable value in maintaining the wooded area on the north side of Crown Hill Cemetery. In the face of the economic calculus presented by Crown Hill and the developers involved, the removal of the trees and the resulting construction on that space will present something of tangible — which is to say, economically calculable — worth.

There is also calculable economic worth to your arm and your eye and your child’s life. Should you be so unfortunate as to lose any one of those, prices have been assigned them all through the good graces of the insurance industry.

In the absence of any other measure of value, both the above assertions represent empirical, verifiable truths.

It’s hard to view equating loss of life and limb to dollars and cents as anything other than the result of catastrophe. It’s something we’d never willingly arrange to occur. On the other hand, the loss of some woods or a bit of wetlands or even some farmland all seem easier to swallow. And why not? On the Procrustean scale upon which they are measured, they have little or nothing that can be counted. And having little that can be counted, they have nothing that counts.

I am not an immediate resident of the Crown Hill neighborhood; I live a mile or so away. I offer my thoughts as an interested outsider. On the other hand, I am not totally without connection to the space involved. For many springs past I have walked in the midst of those woods. Occasionally, I’ve gathered wild edibles. More often, I’ve watched with my children as wild flowers emerge so abundantly as to be carpet-like in their profusion.

More than once I’ve contented myself to sit with my back against one of the eldest trees and listen.

I’ve learned enough to know that when I go still, the natural rhythm of a place comes to life — as in the time the small deer herd approached me, one of their curious number coming to within 6 feet of me and several times rearing on her hind legs to try to elicit a response from me. She smelled and sensed I was alive, but my low, immobile posture didn’t square. She was checking me out.

I treasure that moment. It is, however, of no value. It literally doesn’t count.

There are four generations of my father’s people buried in Crown Hill, perhaps 30 individuals in all, dating from the Civil War era to the present. I guess that’s enough to make my connection personal. From my great aunt’s grave it’s an easy saunter over to the trees slated for destruction, one that I’ve made with gratitude numerous times. The persistence of the annually returning wildflowers and of the trees — both the elder giants and the younger saplings — have been a comforting presence to me as I sit next to my great aunt’s gravesite and reflect on the brevity of all our lives.

Yet this too is of no count. Any reflection of this sort will always be “worth-less” by the schema the removal of that wooded space insists upon. Perhaps I am making a rather trite observation. But it doesn’t feel trite. And of course I’ve seen this happen before. Who hasn’t?

My favorite woods near where I grew up as a kid (in Beech Grove) was removed with the same justification. It — the woods — didn’t have a prayer. It had merely been the playground for several generations of kids. It wasn’t a neat, safe, mulched playground. It wasn’t much in terms of a wilderness area. All it finally managed to do was inculcate us kids with a healthy dose of, and love for, the natural world. In the end, of course, that too counted for nothing. The woods stood no chance against the economic argument that the coming of condominiums could marshal.

So my observation and complaint are not new. Today, farmland is lost to suburban sprawl. Yesterday, forests were lost to farms.

But what most interests me in this particular controversy (and most controversies of this sort) is the lack of voice for arguing another nexus of value. How do we make a justifiable claim for the persistence of a wooded area when the economics offered by development are so towering? How do we make a convincing case for maintaining farmland as farmland when farmers who want to stay receive so little for their labor — and are offered so much to relinquish it for development? How do I go about assigning a dollar amount to the nearby trees whilst sitting next to my great aunt’s grave?

It seems intrinsic worth, emotion and connectedness must always lose when compared to the “harder” reality dollars represent. As Einstein once said, “Not everything that counts can be counted. Not everything that can be counted counts.”

Bob Sander is a professional storyteller (www.bobsander.com).

For more on the Crown Hill development story see www.nuvo.net/archive/ 2006/02/15/crown_hill_controversy.html and also Zachary Shields’ video of the woods that Sander describes: www.nuvo.net/multi/CrownHill.mov.


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