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View from Today

"They wanted to call it Chicago, and it was to be the biggest thing since its namesake.A huge new city, sprawling over Whidbey Island. Stitched to the mainland by a transcontinental railroad that crossed the water at LaConner. Opened to the world through a deepwater port on the island’s west side.As the Island County Times of 1891 put it, “every enterprising and progressive citizen of the county is enlisted in the scheme.’’But the Northern Pacific Railroad ended its rail line at Tacoma. The grand scheme came to naught.I’m relieved.Relieved that the great Port of Chicago never happened. And relieved that the story is still told.Puget Sound in the 20th century has boomed beyond anyone’s 19th-century dreams. Seattle is a traffic-clogged latticework of concrete and asphalt. Its teeming millions have spread south and north, merging into a megalopolis with Tacoma to the south, Bellevue to the east, and Everett to the north. In between are nightmarishly ugly strip-mall cities, lit with neon, choked with cars.We no longer move to Whidbey because we dream of the bustling cities to come.We move here because we can stand on a quiet bluff on the west side of our island where the smoke-belching sprawl of Chicago was supposed to go, take a deep breath of clean sea air, and be awash in silence. We can walk through Ebey’s Prairie on a cold winter’s day and absorb the rural peace our ancestors enjoyed — calm fallow fields, crystal blue water, silence — because the fields our ancestors farmed haven’t changed.We can get to the city, yes. But we can get away, too, because our island has managed to preserve a bit of the 19th century that was not destroyed by 19th-century dreams.There’s a bit of a lesson in that, I think, that will serve us well as we move into a new century.Beware the dreams of the present, for they can become the curse of the future. And know that change will come — but there is inestimable value in preserving the essence of what we have.A Happy New Year to all today. Take a walk on the prairie if you get a chance. And listen to what’s not there.David Fisher is editor of the News-Times."

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