The sixth extinction
A writer traces her migration from Midtown Sacramento to outer suburbia and then the construction zone that is El Dorado Hills
Ten years ago, when my husband first mentioned the name Antelope Meadows, I thought he was talking about a funeral home. Then, he drove me to the outskirts of Sacramento and showed me the rows and rows of identical new houses pressing against the Placer County line, ready to burst that invisible seam, and I knew it might as well be a place for the deceased because if I ever had to live in that horrific mess of misguided humanity, my life would be over. We’d been renting in old neighborhoods in East Sacramento for years, and although I realized the beast of suburban sprawl was out there somewhere, that hideous brute didn’t have anything to do with me. I was safely ensconced in a part of town where Depression-era bungalows hugged tree-lined streets, the most useful form of transportation was a bicycle, and there wasn’t a strip mall in sight.
But Bob was pushing 40, and he was tired of watching our money flow into a landlord’s pocket month after month. He was tired of the bleeding. He also wanted the satisfaction of knowing we wouldn’t get kicked out of a rental if the landlord’s son suddenly wanted the house as a wedding gift. That had happened once, and I still cringe when I remember our mad scramble to find another place. We couldn’t afford to buy a house in the area where we were renting, but the builders who were tossing up houses on the edge of town were elated to see us. “What? You’re an Air Force vet? Well, take this baby for a test drive!” they raved, shoving keys into Bob’s hand. “Just a dollar down, and it’s all yours!”
Before I knew it, we’d moved into “The Avalon,” a standard beige model fresh off the showroom floor. We were two adults and two children living on a slab of concrete next door to Mr. Garage. Mr. Garage never took off his tool belt or ran out of places to pour concrete, which was why we called him Mr. Garage. Concrete walkways, concrete patios, concrete borders—even a special concrete ledge for his garbage can. If you asked Mr. Garage how he was doing, he’d deliver a monologue so dull and self-important that you’d suddenly think of a terrific use for concrete yourself: concrete slippers and a nice deep lake.
A woman from Welcome Wagon came to the door with deals for free ice cream, 30 percent off at the dry cleaners and two tanning-salon visits for the price of one. Her handouts included an information sheet that listed plants native to the area in case I wanted to incorporate them into a garden, and I stared at it, thinking, “But the native plants were here until the builders came. The native plants are gone now because the homes are here.” Was I missing something?
Every day, I’d watch a pair of hawks circle over my yard and wish I could tell them there’d been a terrible mistake. I didn’t mean to bring my books and clothes and makeup to their ruined meadow. I felt stupid running my appliances as though I weren’t a trespasser, as though switching on a computer, toasting a bagel and running a blow dryer were what should be happening here.
The women I got to know boasted that they’d watched their homes being built from the concrete up. “It’s my baby,” one of them said proudly. They threw Pampered Chef parties, candle parties and Tupperware parties so they could show off their stylish furnishings and décor. At the Tupperware event, I was disappointed when everyone dove into an ice chest filled with diet sodas and ignored the boxed wine on the kitchen counter. I thought if I could drink with these women, I might get up the nerve to tell them what I really thought. I might mention the majesty of nature and the needs of the Earth or drop hints about declining species and shrinking habitats. I might let them know our dream homes were ruining the world. Instead, someone I barely knew slipped me a pamphlet about her indoor air-purification business and tried to horrify me with stories about dust mites mating in my bedsheets and sloughed-off skin particles clogging my lungs. The party hostess informed me in hushed tones that she was pregnant and that constant prayer had made it happen. We watched a videotape of a woman using leftovers to make a casserole and learned that smart homemakers store enough raw vegetables to last a week. I stared at the hostess and wondered how divine intervention had occurred in a place where every house was the same color, where every street name began or ended with Meadow or View or Trail and where the houses were so close together that I could hear my neighbor’s toilet flush and her unemployed adult son routinely scream “F— you!” to no one in particular.
When I left, the woman with the air-purification business was standing on the front porch smoking a cigarette.
I shared room-parent duty with another second-grade mom, and, over time, she made me question how I’d gotten as far as I had raising two children without all the right props: professional photographs every six months, karate lessons, a Cuisinart food processor, sports trophies, a custom swimming pool, gold-place silverware settings, every Disney video that hit the supermarket and a bumper sticker on my car that said, “Soccer Weekends Leave Me Broke.” She loved to bake—although she had no idea what baking powder was, who invented it or how it became known that without it, a recipe would fail. She didn’t need to wonder. She had all the kitchenware necessary to create every dessert imaginable, and her cookie jar was always full. Instead of poring over cookbooks, I read newspaper articles that explained the ingredients that go into suburban sprawl: irreparable damage to the environment, diminished farmland, deflated property values and decreased tax revenues, utility costs that exceed the value of the housing tracts and bleed city budgets dry, and strip malls built around the idea of the automobile. It was clearly a recipe for disaster, and I knew it. I knew exactly what the baking powder was doing. When all the fields and meadows were gone, the cookie jar would be empty.
Flash forward to 1999, when my husband and children and I finally left Antelope and moved to El Dorado Hills. The house we bought in an old, well-worn neighborhood was a fixer-upper and would need some work, but at least we wouldn’t be living on ground that was freshly razed. When I stepped outside and looked up at the trees, I could swear I was in the woods. I heard crickets again for the first time in six years and birdcalls so varied and different that I just lumped them into the category “mountain birds.” The only snag was the next-door neighbors, an elderly couple who were suspicious of newcomers and couldn’t wait to tell us that coyotes were going to feast on our cats. It turned out they loved issuing threats about termites, cold winters, thieves and coyotes, but most of their stories were based on isolated events that had transpired 20 years before. The only coyote I’ve ever seen was standing absolutely still in a field off the main boulevard, staring at the traffic. Apartment complexes in the final stages of completion on either side of the field where the ragged animal stood were literally squeezing the coyote from its last bit of land.
We hadn’t known El Dorado Hills was about to become Sprawl Dorado Hills, but human calamities, like natural ones, can occur without warning, and about a year after our arrival, the sudden changes taking place made front-page news. A newspaper article described how wealthy professionals from the San Francisco Bay area, seeking a less congested place to raise kids, were cashing out their posh homes and migrating to the gated subdivisions cropping up around us. They weren’t deterred by the formidable commute to their high-tech jobs, and they didn’t care if their massive hilltop houses were turning a beautiful ridge into an appalling eyesore.
Now, wherever we go, construction equipment mars the rural landscape, and a feeling of hectic behavior prevails. A trip to the grocery store feels like a military rally, as men in hard hats block traffic and as women driving tank-like vehicles and talking on cell phones maneuver for parking slots. The women’s sport-utility vehicles have names like Yukon, Expedition and Land Cruiser—names more conducive to long, arduous treks across rugged wilderness than trips to the store—and the way they navigate their giant cars while talking on their phones makes me think of battle commanders dispatching war information to headquarters: “Roger, I have the supermarket in sight. Will secure produce section, set up surveillance in canned goods and await further orders. Over and out.”
All the frustration I’d felt since I’d left my niche in Midtown Sacramento was unexpectedly validated during a recent trip to New York City. We visited the American Museum of Natural History, and in one of the exhibition rooms, there was a plaque containing information about the major extinction events that have occurred on our planet. Five major extinctions have affected biodiversity since complex animal life first appeared billions of years ago. All the extinctions were caused either by global climate changes or collisions between the Earth and extraterrestrial objects. Another extinction is currently under way, but this one has nothing to do with natural forces. This sixth extinction is solely the result of humanity’s transformation of the ecological landscape.
Here in El Dorado Hills, a Costco just opened, a Sam’s Club is going in practically right next-door, and I’ve got a great idea for a kid’s book. It would be similar to that classic story Katy and the Big Snow by Virginia Lee Burton, about a little tractor and her snowplow and how she saves the day when a blizzard hits the city. But my tale wouldn’t be quite as uplifting as Burton’s. My plot would involve a tractor and its bulldozer and the tractor’s partner, Ken Struction. My story would describe how Ken and the tractor set out to destroy the world.