Verlyn Klinkenborg paints the scenery with the lush color of a Constable painting as he travels across the plains to the heartland on his journey to the Hudson River Valley. The view is nostalgic as the signs along the roadway describing landscapes that no longer exist. The plains of the west and the prairies of the heartland are gone.
In the space of a single lifetime, between 1830 and 1900, the biodiverse, tallgrass prairie was steadily transformed to farmland. Centuries of accumulated loess and organic matter created a thick mantle of topsoil, which was opened for farming with the 1837 invention of the steel plow by John Deere in Grand Detour on the Rock River in Illinois. Today, 98% of the original tall grass prairie has been converted to agriculture. The tallgrass prairie has become the breadbasket of America. Over time the family farm has been replaced by the corporate family farm and corporate agribusiness. Now, seed is patented and crops are commodified with miles of monoculture crops signed with patent identifications. Concern has been raised about the impact of agribusiness on the family farm and the impact of genetically engineered and ethanol monoculture crops on the surrounding landscape and species.
Viewed from a distance at sixty miles per hour, the scenery is evocative of a time when we worked the land, raised our families and followed the cycle of the seasons. From the highway, the rivers are beautiful and full as we pass by; that is true. But watch the rivers after a rainstorm when the chemical laden silt from unsustainable farming turns the waters brown with runoff. The chemically laden silt causes eutrophication or hypoxic dead zones where rivers meet the sea. Today, we are witnessing the near total collapse of the natural and cultural landscapes of the American grasslands to corporate agriculture and developmental sprawl at a time of peak oil.
Perhaps there is something to be said about the return of the land ethic, sustainable farming practices, permaculture, and the restoration of the prairie biodiversity with perennial grasses and forbs on fallow lands. This change of attitude from an extractive land ethic to a sustainable land ethic may take generations to reshape the Americana of the past into a vision for our future.
© Joseph Emmanuel Ingoldsby, 2010
Vanishing Landscapes and Endangered Species, The Science Exhibition: Curation & Design, Museum Press, UK, 2010.