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COLUMNIST: Population Density

I just returned from a week visiting relatives in northern Virginia. The most striking part of the trip for me was my strong reaction to the population density. It wasn't just the number of people, it was the sheer concentration of people and everything that goes along with them. Roads were full of cars at all times of day, and at deadlock standstills during rush hours when the last thing you can possibly do is rush. Streets were stuffed full of houses, and shopping centers were stuffed full of stores. Restaurants were plentiful, large, and crowded. Consumerism ran rampant. There may be a recession in this country, but northern Virginia doesn't seem to realize it, probably because there are just so many people available to contribute to the local economy.

During this visit, I was keenly aware of the state of life on the east coast in a way that I couldn't have been two years ago when the east coast was my baseline for how people live. Back then, my eyes saw emptiness when I looked around Minnesota. Wide open spaces with few buildings. Gaps between houses were so large that it was hard to imagine residents calling each other "neighbors." Streets seemed too wide. Cars were few, and drivers were happy to let you in front of them when you need to exit.

Now, returning to Minnesota after a week on the east coast, the space around me calms me. I feel a shift inside me when I have room to roam. I feel more aware of what I really need and what is extraneous. When the land surrounding me has only a few inhabitants, when I feel like the air I breathe is not shared with so many different pairs of lungs, I feel larger, more peaceful, more relaxed. I feel like a soufflé baked at the right temperature for the right amount of time so that my consistency is the perfect blend of cake and air. On the east coast, I feel like I've been stuffed in a too-hot oven for too long, contracting into a hard lump. There is pressure in the air there. The simple task of navigating one's way from place to place without crashing into the many people, houses, stores, and cars in the same area is an effort. There is a constant feeling of too much to do, and too little time to do it in.

We humans make our mark on the land. In wanting to shape it to our wills, we change it. In wanting to own it, to possess it, to access it, we pollute it. Simply by living our lives on it, we alter it. Humans are natural, but we are also catalysts for evolution and change. We have a relationship with our environment: we affect our surroundings, and our surroundings affect us. Thus, it makes sense that a place with more people will feel more changed; further away from its pre-human state.

Hints of the way the land once looked--pristine and glorious, rich, fertile, and proud--spring up between the housing developments and shopping centers. These throwbacks to a former era serve to highlight the mark the population has made on the land. Once beautiful land sprouts house after house after house. A twenty-minute drive to Great Falls National Park on the Potomac River was lined with new mansions--not just one at a time, but whole herds of them, crowded into former farmsteads. Many huge homes take up so much of their lots that their glorious bay windows look directly into the neighbor's sliding doors two feet distant. Traffic lights are timed so that if you are on the wrong side of them, you might wait six minutes before you have the opportunity to pass through the intersection. Properties are landscaped to within inches of their lives. The grand river is suddsy with human silt at the intersections of rock and water.

I see the human affect on the land here in Minnesota too, but at least here our affect on the land is mellowed by our low population density. We can only do so much at our present numbers. I relish our contact with the land, our opportunity to engage with it in a way that those on the east coast can no longer do, save in small sections preserved as parks and forests. Seeing what has become of the east coast makes me more committed to protecting the environment we have here.