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W.L. McAtee Conservation Essay “Farms in the Hills” from RJO’s Library

The newsletters and other seemingly ephemeral publications which make up a substantial portion of my serials collection often contain items of enduring value. A fine example is this miniature essay with a revealing postscript by noted naturalist and conservationist Waldo L. (W.L.) McAtee, which appeared on pages 35–36 of the 1946 issue of The Audubon Society of New Hampshire Bulletin—the sole issue published in that post-war year, comprising volume 17 complete. These early issues of the ASNH Bulletin were beautiful letterpress productions of the Elm Tree Press of Woodstock, Vermont.

Farms in the Hills

Never again will such houses be built. For into them has gone the wealth of the hills—wealth that can be appropriated but once.

Never again will such barns be built. For the sparse crops from the now improverished soil neither warrant nor require them. The soil can be robbed of its fertility but once.

Never again will such families be raised. For they too are a product of the soil, the richness whereof can be consumed but once.

They were the lusty spawn of heedless forbears, nourished on the cream of every quickly exploitable resource. There will be no replacement from the skimmed milk now available.

Our honored forefathers! Shall we attribute their rapacity to ignorance? Well, then, at least, they were ignorant. If we should weigh more closely their plundering of our heritage, we could only conclude that we have less to thank them for than idealism has led us to believe.

View these hills on which not one sturdy tree remains. See the pastures gnawed to the roots and bare spaces where even the roots have gone. Look at the meagre remnants of plow land so exhausted that its produce hardly repays tillage.

To this day, men—we as well as our forefathers—have scalped the hills and ravished the lowlands. It must be stopped. We must reforest the hills so that they will not literally come down upon us. We must till only the flattest fields that they will not run out to sea.

Better a little piece of land within a wall, where it cannot get away, better an acre held and kept fertile, than a thousand of gullied, stony hills, and of valleys strewn with their debris.

Whether the people see it or not, whether they like it or not, the exploitive era is over. Upon the honest facing of that fact and upon doing the things that must be done to insure a continuing husbandry, the fate of the Nation depends.

Supplementary Note

On returning from a trip by automobile to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in September 1936, in western Virginia and southern West Virginia, I passed the most devastated country I had ever seen except that in certain smelting districts. The contrast between what evidently had been in farms and buildings, and what was, at the time, started a train of thought, which resulted in my writing at Bluefields the night of September 20th the first draft of the preceding essay. The revised paper was later sent in turn to three conservation periodicals as a gift. Each of the editors expressed personal approval of the manuscript but none used it. One, in charge of a publication devoted entirely {page 36} to soil conservation, after saying that the article was “beautifully written,” nevertheless found grounds for not printing it. The only reason I can think of for these objections is my forthrightness of expression. Many find it difficult to take a positive stand on any subject. But as to this one—conservation, primarily of the soil and secondarily of all renewable natural resources—I can only repeat that we must do it to survive. Conservation is in no way a debatable question, either we must achieve it or we will perish.


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