Where the Bluebirds Sing

Bluebirds used to visit my yard. The landscape starts at your front door. And nothing says that better than stepping outside on a spring day as a flash of blue darts around the corner. It comes when you are not looking so you find yourself doubting, did I just see that? A bluebird evokes wonder and joy. I never tire of sighting bluebirds. 

Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) beautify the landscape with their hues, cerulean for the males and slate for the females, as well as their cheerful songs. Where I live, seeing bluebirds indicates a particular landscape between the town and the woods. Bluebirds are an open meadow species. When Penn’s woods were woods, bluebirds were less common in the state. But the advance of European forms of land use cleared the woods and in their place put towns as well as farms with fields and meadows. Of particular importance are the hedgerows dividing the fields. Bluebirds like nesting in natural cavities in old trees. The individuals that winter in Pennsylvania are able to do so because they have a protected deep cavity high up in a gnarly black locust. The others fly to warmer southern landscapes, returning in March to pick up their joyous mating rituals.

The house I rent sits in the center of a mixed-use development under construction–what city planners would call new urbanism. Reaching through the twentieth century and into the nineteenth, this had been a landscape of cattle pastures and cornfields beyond the limits of the borough. Many times as a teenager I rode my bike past here as we escaped the town to explore the countryside and wooded hills. This farm sat where the road forked, and we could choose west or south, although as for that both roads led to the cool Yellow Breeches Creek. On the north side of the road the land was flat with limestone soils and supported productive cornfields. The old farmhouse sat there near a newer horse barn, both painted white with green roofs. On the south side, where my house now sits, the terrain rose up into a weedy pasture with thin soils, which had cattle in my youth, but later was a place for horses to run. The roads were lined with the trees nature put there: black locusts, osage oranges, sycamores, oaks, and maples competed for that narrow unplowed strip between road and field. Poison ivy tangled with exotic vines, honeysuckle and bittersweet, curtaining the partitions. These same rows, making right turns here and there, created hedgerows that boxed the cornfields in like series of rooms. In March, this was bluebird heaven. 

I moved in in October and marvelled at near daily sightings of bluebirds. This was three years into the construction of the new neighborhood. The old one of cows, horses, and bluebirds no longer being remunerative. First to go were the farmhouse, barn, and roadside hedges. Building in the pasture was phase 1. Since my house is the first one up in the old pasture I moved into a view of a wildflower meadow, then across the road three cornfields with tall hedgerows. 

There was a lot of action that first season. That meadow in front of my house is actually a right of way. The Mariner East pipeline runs thirty feet beyond my front gate. All winter long roustabouts trenched the cornfield and drilled under the rocky ridge, laying new pipe to bring Marcellus shale gas to coastal cities and export terminals. 

In January came site preparation, as the engineers call it, for phase 2. A large orange Doosan, like some mechanical saber tooth tiger set up at the edge of the road and began systematically chewing the hedgerows. The new neighborhood took no design cues from legacy features of the landscape. The speed with which this diesel giant plucked full grown trees was dazzling and bewildering. One man working alone, I wondered what he was thinking. In two weeks there was not one foot of hedgerow standing.

Next, earth movers scraped the land clean of topsoil. Even a plowed cornfield develops soil horizons, but these were all mixed up and deposited into a massive pile in the far corner of the site.

The most exciting phase started that spring lasted through the summer: blasting the limestone bedrock. We learned to listen for three whistles in a row as our cue to run to the windows to watch long furrows of limestone and soil heave into the air as the house shook. 

This loosened the earth for city infrastructure–water in, sewage out, underground cables, stormwater inlets. A veneer of pavement and curbs and the shape of a neighborhood, which was designed on a piece of paper in a different county, begins to appear on the erstwhile farm. The first apartments and townhouses started going up that June. 

I haven’t seen a bluebird since. Rachel Carson’s words run through my head, “The rapidity of change and the speed with which new situations are created follow the impetuous and heedless pace of man rather than the deliberate pace of nature.” 

On the one hand, dense developments like this one are good. Sixteen hundred homes plus commercial buildings plus open space on 247 acres concentrates land disturbance and creates neighborhoods with some walkability. This in turn protects or at least defers other farms from being converted to new houses. New towns need to be built and old cities expanded. Dense mixed-use development is relatively positive design. 

On the other hand, many of these buyers wanting a town-like quality to their streets don’t even look at the towns that have been around for 200 years. The mentality of preferring new construction over anything old, causes land to be converted from rural to urban unnecessarily in some cases. A bigger issue is when the design is artifice and ignores the land and its history. A sense of place is rarely designed — it is earned over many years. While good design can build on an existing sense of place and mitigate the impacts of development, so much land development is impetuous and heedless. We are building these new suburbs with utmost speed, not pausing to ask, can the bluebirds still have a place to live?

Theme images: Blue-bird (details). 1831. Robert Havell after John James Audubon. Courtesy National Gallery of Art.

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