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LET The emptiness in Bamber Valley

By Penny Duffy

Have you seen the trees?" we asked each other. Incredulous, we asked again, "Have you seen the trees?" At the area of devastation we stood in clusters, silenced by the sight. Before us, an ache in the landscape, reminiscent of clear-cut forest, strip mining, or the fields at Flanders. Here in the neighborhood at the intersection of Salem and Bamber Valley roads we mourn the trees. We are not alone. Anyone who enjoys the Zumbro bike path shares our sorrow, and perhaps our surprise.

True, a brown-and-white sign popped up a while back warning us that come summer 2001, the trail by the bridge would be closed. We were told to "plan our routes accordingly." Then came fliers announcing the construction of a bridge and widening of County Road 8, the Bamber Valley Road.

But nothing happened in the summer. Nothing happened in the fall. And those of us who find peace and solace along that woodland path enjoyed our denial into 2002. Things changed this spring. First, a battalion of tiny orange-and-yellow flags marched stiffly along the roadside, signaling subterranean gas and phone lines. Weeks later, a huge crane and some trucks appeared near the old bridge. Before you could blink, the ominous concrete underpinnings of a new bridge, rose up from the river itself like some ancient, alien structure. The trucks disappeared, but the hulking crane remained, stalking and snorting on the opposite bank. Denial grew difficult.

On our side of the river, a graceful stand of tall, white pines sheltered a fork in the trail, filtering sunlight through their branches and spreading their fragrant needles below. Their number, their stately proportions, and their apparent longevity gave peace to the heart. More trees and a riot of underbrush ran thick to banks of the Zumbro. Just a few hundred yards to the west a footbridge arches over the river, offering a long, upstream view. Beneath it, mallard families dip and drift in the currents.

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The woods that meander east along the river are home to all sorts of birds that flit and flicker and fill the woods with song. Like the deer, rabbits, and otters in those woods, the birds feed our elemental need to connect with nature, not via the Internet, not via TV, but live and "up-close." Woodpeckers drill for insects, for territory, or for the sheer fun of it. Red-winged black birds, clutching reeds close to the river, trill out their song, and black-capped chickadees add their mournful note. Cardinals dash by in red feather, and comical nuthatches hop upside-down along tree trunks, looking this way and that. In spring the warblers stop by. In summer, we are blessed by brilliant goldfinches. An egret artfully stalks the shallow waters. Last month a bald eagle soared directly over the portion of the trail that now lies fallow.

We were resigned to the widening of Bamber Valley Road, though not one person I know sees a reason for it, other than to satisfy a developer's lust for more land on which to build more houses and thus to add more traffic. But no one was prepared for the stretch of emptiness that assaults the senses now -- trees felled in a wide swath, the shaded woodland path an exposed stretch of barren hillocks, punctuated by fresh-cut stumps poking up at odd angles until they, too, were torn up and hauled away with the underbrush. Fallen pines and smaller trees were dragged across the river like carcasses to a giant wood chipper, a piece of equipment that conjures up a 19th century logging camp. Dingy red, huge and huffing, it gnawed the trees with ear-splitting efficiency, then took on more pines and a couple of old oaks down the road.

Asked why the new bridge couldn't have been built where the old one stands, reducing the need to cut so many trees, the response is something about straightening the road. And so it is, the straight arrow of progress shoots forward, and the bend in the river will never look the same. Now even the stumps are gone. Certainly, the birds have fled. Some of us avert our eyes as we make the turn onto Bamber Valley Road. Some of us are angry. Some of us feel helpless. But all of us mourn.

Duffy is a Rochester resident and author.

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