My Best Friend is Building a Hummer of a House

by Chris Bolgiano
Tuesday, January 08, 2008
Licenced through the Blue Ridge Press free syndication service and posted here with the active cooperation of the tragically blogless author.

Our best friends Philly and Jake retired last year and built their dream house a short walk over the ridge from where my husband and I live amid a hundred acres of Appalachian Mountain forest. We all met in college and bonded on the first Earth Day. Since then, my husband and I have gone “Back to the Land,” homesteading in the lushest temperate woodlands in the world, while Philly and Jake worked their way across continents. For 35 years, we’ve looked forward to retiring together.

Now, their dream has become my nightmare. It began with their plans for a 4,000-square-foot house — twice the size considered comfortable for a family of four just a few decades ago. Suddenly I felt frightened for the state of the world, and saw the situation in double negatives: If my nature-loving friend Philly wouldn’t choose not to build a mansion, who would?

“It’s a personal decision, how much space you need,” Philly said, not in answer to my question, which I’ve never asked, but after I emailed her a link to a website that calculates the environmental footprint of such “personal” decisions. Every decision an American consumer makes is environmentally charged, because we use more of everything and pollute more than anyone else in the world. Philly knows this, and she knows that I know that she knows.

As Philly’s blueprints materialized, I recognized the green-eyed face of jealousy, namely my own, reflected in the wall-sized windows of her cathedral-ceilinged great room.

Philly’s house is much bigger and far more elegant than my rustic, passive-solar cabin — House Beautiful magazine versus Field and Stream. Trading jealousy for guilt, I joined Philly on shopping forays and shared her new-house happiness by buying toxic remodeling products likely made by exploited Chinese workers.

Meanwhile, Jake was directing bulldozers to open the view by pushing down two acres of big oaks and pines. No one limited the tread of tires, no one tagged any trees for protection, no one saved the mossy-carpeted forest topsoil for reuse.

In a footprint eight times larger than the standard quarter-acre suburban yard, nothing above microscopic level was left alive, and even the soil microbes must have been pretty hard pressed. Then dozens of dump trucks delivered soil mined elsewhere. Jake just bought a riding mower.

The real test of friendship came when I first walked down the southern slope of Jake’s new yard. Fallen trees sprawled across the property boundary and their wilting canopies sagged into our creek, where they would, in a sudden storm, divert the flow and erode the stream banks. I knew this to be a violation of a local erosion ordinance.

Talking to my husband later, tears sprang to my eyes. “If it was anybody else, we would turn them in just like we did those other two neighbors when they threatened the creeks.” One case involved a careless logger and the other a careless house-grader, and both times the creeks ran the color of bad coffee.

“Yes, that’s true,” my husband acknowledged. “But these are our best friends. We’re not going to… turn them in? His voice took a Valley Girl swing upward.

No. Ethical questions about who is responsible for protecting the environment faded in the harsh light of being a snitch. Who am I to criticize, anyway? We sent our share of sediment to the beleaguered Chesapeake Bay when we built our quarter-acre pond. Our ecological footprint here casts a shadow even at high noon on a clear day.

Scales of space and time determine what is sustainable. Extrapolated to each of the world’s six billion plus human beings, the scale of even my (minimally) more modest materialism would crash the earth’s ecosystems sooner rather than later, according to climatologists.

Well, I’m hoping for another twenty good years of living next door to Philly and Jake before the world collapses or I take the ultimate “Back to the Land” trip. Now that they’ve moved in, we get together regularly for dinner and a movie. We laugh at all the same jokes, just as we did in our youth. Our dear old friends have become poster people for the American environmental disconnect, but like siblings committed to family peace, we skirt the topics of our personal contributions to consumption, climate change, energy wars, and pollution.

For me, friendship trumps ideology. And if environmentalism is a religion — if the Creation is sacred — then I want to be a “hate the sin but love the sinner” kind of believer, not a “if thine eye offend thee pluck it out” kind. All I can do is ride herd on my own damage to the earth.

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Mildly amusing nature writer Chris Bolgiano (website) has written dozens of nature and travel articles for Wilderness Magazine, American Forests, Sierra, Audubon, the New York Times, Washington Post, and many other publications. Two of her six books have won prizes. After retiring from her day job as a librarian/archivist, she produced a documentary history of home-town Fulks Run Ruritan Club as a community service project. In 2011, the University of North Carolina Press published Southern Appalachian Celebration, a full-color, gorgeous collaboration with renowned nature photographer James Valentine.

16 Comments



  1. Thanks to Chris for sharing this essay with us. It’s worth mentioning, perhaps, that in addition to the main dilemma she describes, she also faces a situation that many bloggers are intimately familiar with: should I keep quiet about things that must be said, if it means hurting the feelings of those who are close to us?

    Habitat fragmentation is a huge issue here in the over-populated east. Aren’t those of us who write about our lives in quasi-wilderness settings partially to blame for keeping that Daniel Boone fantasy alive? Shouldn’t we all be living in towns or cities if we care about the earth?

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  2. I thought I might mention a 150,000 acre private sustainable forest project here in Missouri. A couple created a foundation dedicated to developing best possible forestry practices, and then donated this huge chunk of forest to it.
    http://www.pioneerforest.com/index.php

    Wonderful writing in this excerpt, Dave. What nuance the author deploys in describing her friendship!

    An aside: 15 years ago a pond was dug in a field at the foot of a wooded hillside. In fifteen years, the pond silted up. For fifteen years the hillside was undisturbed, and hadn’t been disturbed for at least twenty years before that. The pond was recently dug out with a track-hoe. I got to see the amazing volume of material where it had been dumped out. I was surprised that none of it looked like clay or erosive run-off, but that it seemed to consist purely of decayed leaf matter intercepted on it’s way to becoming bottom land. Fifteen falls. I hadn’t thought that a “healthy” forest would shed so much material.

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  3. A poignant essay indeed. I sympathize with Chris’s plight, but I must say that living in such a splendid unspoiled environment is a luxury available to but a few these days.

    I lived for several decades in a similar place in NE Missouri. Times have changed, and those who have the privilege of living in such unspoiled spots have to pay dearly — often meaning having to endure neighbors such as the ones Chris describes. My former rural neighborhood is now afflicted with three CAFOs, large hog-confinement industrial/agricultural outfits.

    Most of us who live in this over-populated and generally-defiled world must make do with local public t.lands, places reserved for quiet walks, bird-watching, and other such recreations. The wealthy will retain their private preserves, but even those will be eventually hemmed in by loud and bustling developments. It’s the inevitable result of our burgeoning population; I’m still just blown away by the simple fact the the population of the US has doubled since I was born!

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  4. I’m trying to think why someone would need 4000 sq ft of house. Roger and I bought a house that is 2000 sq ft. When we visit our friends and family who have smaller homes, we drool with envy. We are trying to sell our house so we can build or buy something that does not exceed 1200 sq ft. With land enough to draw our attention outward and minds that know inward contemplation, who needs more space? It seems to me that when we buy a piece of land, we are making an inherent promise to be good stewards. That does not include chopping down acres of trees for a better view. I’m not sure I would know how to stay heartfelt connected to people who reveal themselves like this. I wish Chris luck with future dinners and movies.

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  5. As close friends for decades, I’m surprised they couldn’t sit down and have a heart-to-heart talk about their plans. I would hope that old friends would be able to share ideas,…influence each other’s thinking through mutual admiration.

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  6. What a sad tale. ‘If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.
    E. M. Forster’.

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  7. quiet regular – It’s my understanding that they did have such heart-to-hearts, they just didn’t do any good.

    I think all of us probably have some good friends or close family members with different values from our own. G-d forbid I ever choose a friend on the basis of whether s/he happened to think exactly the same as me! But if we are serious about building — or re-building — community, than we have have to work harder than ever to confront these differences… as well as try and demonstrate to over-consumers some of the very real joys to be found in smallness (remember Small is Beautiful?), in slowness, and in making things with our own hands.

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  8. Our young neighbors built a 6,000-sq-fter and we finally got to see it a couple weeks ago, so I know how hard it is not to envy space. But even the elegant, compact spaces of “The Not-So-Big House” are enough to arouse my envy, and a much more Earth-friendly aspiration.

    I suspect our 1400 would feel more adequate (for 2 of us plus critters) if only I’d held regular garage sales all these years! But, Robin Andrea, it’s tight! I wish you luck with 1200, and respect your less encumbered lifestyle. I hope to get there someday! “With land enough to draw our attention outward and minds that know inward contemplation, who needs more space?”–lovely!

    Friendships do fade, and values become important revelation. I, too, wish Chris luck with these neighbors–a sad sad story! So much of this havoc is being built by our once-conscious generation… Disconnect is the perfect word.

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  9. I do feel for them in this. I don’t readily choose to fall out with friends even when their views or actions are quite offensive, and I’m sure my agonising about it is harder on me than them.

    Of course everything is relative, we consider many things reasonable aspirations which people in poorer parts of the world or our own parents and grandparents would have seen as wanton luxury. I do wonder that the people didn’t want to ask the opinions and advice of their friends who’d been doing it for longer, but evidently they didn’t see any need to…

    In restoring our old house, we haven’t always made the most sustainable, ethical choices, often because these are simply too expensive, but often through inertia; it’s just easier and quicker to buy the more readily available timber products, for example, without checking the source, even knowing what a dismal record France has on such matters, so from that point of view we think of our own comfort first. Acquaintances who are more right-on and tend to lecture us and others do make us feel chastised, but this is sometimes off-putting, and we sometimes bristle defensively and look for hypocrisy in them. Positive encouragement, sharing of useful information on better ways of doing things is perhaps more useful.

    And frankly, until there are real disincentives to greed and over-consumption, not many people will voluntarily abandon it to any meaningful extent.

    A very fine article.

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  10. The family of a blogger I enjoy reading and whom I admire, is in the later stages of building a house for the four of them. 250 square feet!

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  11. Reminds me of a date I had at a guy’s house several years ago. He’d built the place himself on the side of a hill. The place was enormous and only him living in it. From the picture windows in one room he pointed out the 180-degree view and told me he was planning to clear out more trees on either side, because apparently having a 180-degree view wasn’t enough. Proudly showed off the gorgeous wood throughout, and it all made me sick to my stomach. I tried to be a gracious guest, and I’m not given to confrontation, alas, but I couldn’t wait to get out of there.

    I suppose it’d have harder if I’d come to be fond of him before finding this out. Somehow the master of the universe thing, though, doesn’t much appeal to me and would have been clear enough soon enough.

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  12. I built my house 38 years ago. My guiding metaphor was the goldfish bowl. I you keep fish in a small bowl they will not grow.
    So I designed the living room large, with a 17 foot ceiling.
    Now my family is gone and I live alone in 2300 square feet, with lots of registers shut off.
    When the land was cleared, I argued with dozer operators daily and wouldn’t let them remove a single tree that wasn’t in the house’s footprint. I have never understood the people who wanted a “view,” as opposed to viewing the trees, birds, squirrels, etc., that would be displaced.
    But the controlling fact is that we all live too large. With 300 million of us Americans, 6.5 billion of us earth humans, and growing, living small, living tidy, only delays the consequence of our desire for more.

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  13. “Master of the Universe” is a good way of putting it, I suppose. I’ve always been appalled by the lack of imagination such people display. Landscape views tire me in about five minutes, and I guess y’all know my feelings about nature as scenery. The view from my front porch is interesting to me precisely because it faces trees and bushes at relatively close distance. (I’m trying to fill in the space in between with smaller trees and shrubs, but it’s a deer highway and I’m reluctant to fence the yard, for aesthetic reasons.)

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  14. Many people build the big and beautiful dream house only to find it too expensive and troublesome to maintain, especially as they get older. Rural living is also a shock to natives of suburbia. We have to drive 3 hours to visit dentists and doctors, and that’s about how far one would travel to find ingredients for the lovely meals prepared on all those TV cooking shows.

    It’s rather common for people to retire to Pocahontas County, then sell out and go somewhere suburban after a few years. We have a many vacant dream homes.

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  15. This is happening all over Vermont, both by individuals and developers. I wonder if people’s anxious need to surround themselves with space is similar to their aversion to silence. But all too often it’s also the desire to have a “trophy house,” which will then justify the finding, buying, and filling-up of all that space. Good essay. I wonder what the friends thought if/when they read it.

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