July, 5:30am. This early, I’ve got the trails to myself. The sky is the color of poached salmon – layers of pink, grey, and orange. Vapor is already rising off the meadow, creating waist-high fog, and my running shoes are wet with dew.
I may be the first person out here today, but the cottontails and sparrows are already foraging on the edge of the path, and they scatter as I round a bend and disturb their breakfast. A fawn, then two, then a doe, stand 20 ft. off the trail in the brush. They freeze as I come into view, we make quick eye contact, and they bolt into the woods. It’s too early for the cicadas to start their chatter, though they’ll be buzzing like mad later, singing of afternoons with no end. But now at dawn, the only sounds are my footfalls on the path and huffing breath. At one point I just stop and listen. Nothing. No breeze, no rustling leaves, too far from any road to hear civilization. I look around. From where I stand, I see nothing man-made other than the mowed path I’m on.
I think to myself, this is why I live here.
Another couple miles and I’m in Wilton Center. Nothing’s open yet. A car or two roll by. A fellow early bird smiles and waves as we I pass. Just a bit further and I’m back on a trail in the deep woods. My feet crunching on the gravel, a burbling creek, and now the birds are chattering a bit. I can’t identify them all by their songs, but I hear crows and mourning doves, and some mysterious others. Me and the birds. And though I don’t see them, squirrels and chipmunks. And snakes, turtles, frogs and toads. And foxes and coyotes. And rabbits, groundhogs, skunks, raccoons and bats. And all the deer. And apparently now, black bears. I never take it for granted that around here, you can duck in and out of unspoiled nature and creature comforts so seamlessly and so often. The trappings of the modern world. Then a giant meadow. Now back onto a quiet road. Then into deep woods again. This is a privilege that most don’t have.
The balance that exists here is very special. For me, it’s liberating – even spiritual. This is why I’ve raised my family here. This is why l look forward to the change of seasons and try to live each one of them without a pane of glass between me and the world. Each is awesome in its own way, and in our special corner of New England, we get our full dose of summer, fall, winter and spring.
As I spend time out here, my thoughts often turn to the past, present and future of this place I call home. When our little hamlet grew from an agrarian outpost into a well-heeled modern community, our leaders and planners had the foresight to make conservation and open-space preservation a priority. Maintaining the character of the town and preserving vestiges of its rural and farming history was an important strategic goal with a real plan and real dollars behind it.
Where stone walls meet retail, where meadow meets sidewalk, where forest meets neighborhood, where river meets ball field, it’s clear that an increasingly rare and delicate balance exists. Absent the stewardship and planning, it would be strip malls, clear cuts and postage-stamp residential sprawl. To this day, there are many dedicated members of our community who continue to foster and maintain this balance in large and small ways. I’m a grateful beneficiary of their hard work and vision. I know many of us feel the same way.
As I bounce through the woods on this now pink-and-blue morning, I’m enjoying the clear-headedness that dawn and solitude provide. I replay the many conversations I’ve been having lately about our town. Over a beer, over coffee, over dinner, increasingly over social media with other thoughtful folk whom I haven’t yet met face to face. Questions about priorities. Debates about where and how much to invest. Neighboring town envy. Discussions about leadership. Hope and concern about affordability, taxes, schools, infrastructure, and more.
“Drive – or better, stroll – around town and take a good look. It’s a big inconsistent mess. Our let’s-not-become-a-giant-neon-Exxon-sign intentions are good, but we’ve made a mess in the process.”
Sometimes it seems so complicated. Other times – like right now – it doesn’t. I’m in a can-do mood. It feels easy and achievable. It feels obvious. I ask myself a bunch of questions and the answers come quickly:
Can we continue to balance rural character and open space with growth? Sure. Should be easy, with a consistent and thought-out long-range plan, and milestones along the way.
Can we improve our business tax base and lessen the burden on residents? Yep. This is the Route 7 corridor. It’s not like we need to get more people to drive through here. We even have a train! If we can’t figure it out and market it here, we’re doing something very wrong.
What’s the plan for the schools? Focus on facilities or the best educational opportunities? How about both? Yep, both. Can we be forward thinking about education? Can we be forward thinking about how we use our awesome contiguous School Rd. “campus”? Definitely. Can we innovate? If we have innovative leaders and volunteers with innovative ideas, then we sure can.
Can we make Wilton Center more of a retail destination? Probably. Should we? Probably. Can we make it more of a ‘destination’ destination? Definitely. Should we? Definitely. Chickens and eggs here. One could argue that with sufficient retail, it becomes a destination. One could argue that if it’s a destination, retail will come. I think it’s kind of both, and it’s a feedback loop, not a one-way push.
What about all the sturm und drang about retail business signage? I see it this way: Drive – or better, stroll – around town and take a good look. It’s a big inconsistent mess. Our let’s-not-become-a-giant-neon-Exxon-sign intentions are good, but we’ve made a mess in the process. It’s pretty easy to fix in a way that preserves character and quaintness, but gives the businesses a boost and provides a more consistent branding for the town.
“In our personal lives, we rail against keeping up with the Joneses. In community life, we’d be equally well served to take a step back and consider whether keeping up with the Townses is really the way to go.”
Lots of chatter about “amenities.” Town-next-door-A has a portal to another dimension. Town-next-door-B had the foresight to build a 24/7 climate-controlled dog park/skating rink made of golden unicorn dust. What about our amenities? Yeah, there are some things we can and should do which would be of value to our community and are just plainly, annoyingly missing. And there are things we already have which we don’t use or market very well. But if we’re doing this stuff to keep up with other towns, we’ve missed the boat. We need to focus on what makes us unique, not what makes us like everyone else. In our personal lives, we rail against keeping up with the Joneses. In community life, we’d be equally well served to take a step back and consider whether keeping up with the Townses is really the way to go. We have underused assets at our disposal which can be leveraged in original ways if we’d look at things a little differently.
I wind down as a warm dawn melts into a hot summer morning. There are now more people out, more cars, more light, more heat, more sweat, more distractions. But the buzz of activity makes something clear: It’s all connected. The natural is connected to the man-made. The solutions in one area beget and magnify the solutions and opportunities in another area. None of it exists in isolation. It never does. The words and ideas I want to tuck away for later are: vision, stewardship, planning, themes, marketing, execution, leverage, amplification, feedback, articulation, cooperation, connectedness, balance. More getting out in it, more thinking through it, more connecting the dots to come…!
My car is parked in a lot near some tall grasses and wildflowers. Some of it looks native and some looks planted. There’s that mix again. There are daisies and black-eyed Susans and some tall purpley things and whatnot. I’m about as good at identifying plants as I am at identifying birds. I have a closer look. A half-dozen well-hidden grasshoppers decide I’m too close and take off all at once, all clattering and indignant. They startle me, as if my heart isn’t already beating fast enough.
I think to myself, this is why I live here.
Dan Berg has lived in Wilton since 1992. He and his wife have raised their family here and are proud to call this place home.