There is a deep, angry, red scar across the face of the land in northern Virginia. You have to see if from the air to appreciate its full ugliness and the broken promises it symbolizes.
It used to be a lovely serpentine patch of woods that flowed gently from outside the Beltway through Falls Church, Arlington, and then up to the banks of the Potomac. It is now a gash in the earth, and known locally as I66.
It was not always so. My sons and I used to spend scores of idyllic hours in those green glades, playing fox and hare. The mammoth sycamores that used to line Four Mile Run Creek were host to Baltimore orioles and chestnut-sided warblers, and home to raccoons. Children used to build tree forts in them, from which they could launch out on a thousand fantasies.
The creek we used to wade in search of polliwogs is now a hemorrhaging wound to the sensitivities, distinguished only by the silt it dumps into the Potomac. The roar and rumble of bulldozers and heavy earthmovers have literally drowned out the spring peepers and tree frogs, burying them alive. The clean, fresh smell of leaf mold has been replaced by the sweet, sickly smell of raw clay, soon to be followed by 10,000 belching exhaust pipes in years to come.
During the '76 campaign, Jimmy Carter promised that if he became president, his administration would never override the wishes of local government by ramming unwanted superhighways down our throats. He also promised that when such decisions were made, the appropriate Cabinet secretaries would first tour the disputed areas.
I do not remember Mr. Carter's secretary of transportation ever taking a personal look at the proposed route of I66. It's too bad. I could have shown him a patch of profusely blooming trout lilies within walking distance of a thousand homes in Arlington. It was one of those lovely treasures that existed right under our noses, waiting to be discovered by adventurous children and adults who still appreciated a moment of solitude. My trout lily patch is now buried under a mound of bulldozed earth a hundred feet high.
I don't suppose the secretary of transportation would have seen anything worth saving in the patch of skunk cabbage that used to grow along the creek. Those skunk cabbages were, however, the first harbingers of spring. On the bleakest of February days, when we silently prayed winter would loosen its grip on Washington, I could have shown the secretary their mahogany-colored spadixes, pushing their way up through the frozen mud.
I managed to save some of the jack-in-the-pulpits and Turk's-cap lilies from the "progress" superhighways bring us. They grow in my back yard like so many refugees among the phlox and purple loosestrife. If you want your children to see jack-in-the-pulpits and Turk's-cap lilies in their natural state now, you can drive halfway to the Blue Ridge and start by looking for a farmer who will let you on his property.
All of nature has not fared so badly from the coming of I66. The wood rats, who used to live under the sycamore roots, have been driven from their dens and are gnawing their way into our neighborhoods. There's a fine brood of new young rats living right next door in my neighbor's underground drainage pipe. Unfortunately, the hawks and owls that used to keep wood vermin in check do not find the neighborhood so agreeable and they have moved away.
The irony of all this is that two years ago the Carter administration touted a new program to create parks in urban and suburban areas. In his message to Congress on this program, the president said, "The quality of life in urban areas in critically affected by the availability of open spaces and recreational facilities." Mr. Carter proposed spending $150 million in grants to communities to create islands of park land in urban centers -- like the one they destroyed near my home.
There is another special irony to all of this. Jimmy Carter is a president who, perhaps more than any other since Theodore Roosevelt, appreciates a nice walk in the woods. He spent so much time in the Georgia woods as a boy that, with his knowledge of wood lore, he could probably give you a guided tour of wildflower patches and identify 20 birds on the wing without having to consult Roger Tory Peterson. As president, he has fought to save hundreds of thousands of acres of wilderness in Alaska, which most of us will never see. I just wish he could have saved one little patch of woods in Arlington.