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Seas of Green

Posted on Friday, June 16, 2006 at 12:15PM by Registered CommenterMarshall Massey in | Comments2 Comments

Before moving on to a report on my meeting with Urbana-Champaign Friends, I’d like to back up a bit and talk about the land I’ve been passing through.

You may recall that, before I headed home to be diagnosed and counseled on what turned out to be bursitis, I made it as far as Dahinda, Illinois, and the Spoon River. I caught up to that point in early afternoon, Tuesday, June 13, on my way to Bloomington-Normal. Immediately after passing it, I rounded a bend and, lo, there was my first sight of the Great American Corn Ocean — that vast biological monotony that sprawls across the flat lands and rich soils of the Midwest.

Mind you, I’ve been passing one cornfield after another ever since leaving home. And actually, the corn belt stretches westward a long way from my home in Omaha into Nebraska and Kansas, Wyoming and Colorado. There were cornfields within three miles of my former dwelling-place in Denver.

cornfield.jpgBut the Great American Corn Ocean is different from what I’d passed so far. Iowa’s cornfields are thoroughly broken up by pastures, woodlots, creeks and terracing. The Corn Ocean is not; it’s near-continuous.

Standing in the middle of it, one can might see solitary trees, a very few small groups of trees, and a few farm buildings separated by great distances from one another — and nothing else, all the way to the horizon and far, far beyond. Corn is so much the dominant note, all the plants rising to almost exactly the same height, that the effect is a desolation, exactly as if you were in a sea of sand, or a vast expanse of tundra, instead of an ocean of corn.

The Great American Corn Ocean is, in my mind, one of the wonders of the modern world: a human remaking of the earth of truly staggering, intimidating scale. But I cannot praise it, even though it feeds countless millions of humans, for it is a terrible biological impoverishment of what was there before. (I have elsewhere mourned the vanished bison, wolves, eagles, passenger pigeons, etc., that existed in vast numbers on this land before the plough and gun and corn culture erased them.)

Had I been walking as I’d planned, the journey from Dahinda to here would have required more than a week, and I would already have been taxed, mentally and emotionally, by the long miles of trudging through the corn fields. And this would have been but the barest beginning of my long trudge from west edge to east edge of the Corn Ocean. The shadow of what might have been, had my feet not given out, nibbles at the edges of my soul like a bad dream barely glimpsed.

jun 08-11.jpgBut even in the Corn Ocean there are islands — small farm towns and little cities: Brimfield, Peoria, East Peoria, Goodfield, Congerville, Carlock,

jun 11-12.jpgNormal, Bloomington, Le Roy,

jun 13-15.jpgFarmer City, Mansfield, Mahomet, Champaign, Urbana —





And not only towns and cities, but biological islands, too, where tiny remnants of the original biosystem struggle to endure. Crossing the Illinois River, I passed among the great bluffs of Peoria and East Peoria: magnificent formations, that must have looked glorious before the cities covered them over. At Moraine View State Recreation Area, a wooded area some miles past Bloomington (see the middle map above), perched atop one of the vast heaps of rock left behind by retreating glaciers ten thousand years before Christ, I could no longer bear to sit in a car; I pulled out my walking stick and wandered through the trees and undergrowth for a mile or so, tuning out the pain in my ankles so that I could listen to the earth.

It was all secondary and tertiary growth at Moraine View, a chaos of saplings crowding each other between older trees thirty or forty feet tall. But it was life as God designed it to be: green things working out their own destiny as they interacted, and providing habitat for animals, rather than merely green things genetically engineered to be nothing but fast raw material for sacks and silos of corn. One could look at the space between each plant or tree at Moraine View and its neighbors and see a life-long interaction, a working-out of relational problems that had shaped each plant as it grew. Every natural field and wood is a rich ongoing conversation between God’s creatures. Cornfields are not.

In Urbana, my hosts directed me to a small park on the south edge of town where a tiny fragment of land is being cultivated as a restoration of the original Illinois Prairie. I took an hour yesterday to walk through it. Alas that I am not a botanist; I would have loved to have been able to identify each of the prairie plants I saw growing and recount its story in my mind. I started counting the number of different grasses and shrubs I saw growing side-by-side and lost count at twenty; I am sure there were many, many more species there than that.

Once again I was overcome by a sense of the individual plants in interaction with each other, being shaped by one another. I could see, too, that there were many more square inches of green photosynthezing plant surface per square foot of land in the restored prairie than there were in the cornfields: far more of the sun’s energy was being channeled into life here, and it showed. Birds were singing all around the prairie — whereas the cornfields were very nearly silent. The very plants of the restored prairie, for all their monotonous green, seemed to me to pulse with life.

All these observations I carried away with me. Underneath the superficial tranquility, this is a region where the original vitality of the native landscape has been drastically reduced by human intervention. I have the sense here of a living planet embattled, superficially thriving but in fact now only half alive.

ew tiny.png

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Reader Comments (2)

Marshall’s description of the vast Great American Corn Ocean may be true for much of Illinois in the spring, but in August and September the area might be better described as a Great American Corn and Beans Checkerboard, with alternating rectangles of tall corn and much shoter soy beans. Yet within each rectangle is a monoculture, with all competing forms of life pretty much kept in check by pesticides and herbicides. While within the bean area, nitrogen is fixed in the soil, it is depleted in the corn area. Since often beans and corn are alternated from year to year in any area, what was grown for food in one year becomes a weed the next year. One may find in the midst of this vast checkerboard, a monoculture huge pig or chicken operation. Gone are the farms I grew up with in Iowa where corn was rotated with oats, wheat, hay, clover, and alfalfa; pigs, cattle, sheep, and chickens roamed on the non-crop land providing needed fertilizer and removing bugs; and vegetables supplemented the cash crops raised.

Consider also in Great American Corn and Beans Checkerboard that almost all the food grown now is fed to animals, not humans, although a small, but rapidly growing, percentage is now being grown for ethanol as fuel for our vehicles. As we look for alternatives to gasoline so that we may continue drive as much as possible, the Checkerboard is stretched even farther as fuels compete for food. To maintain the production of the Checkerboard, we use significant amounts of inputs from fossil fuels, such as oil and natural gas for fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and fuel for tractors, combines, and trucks. As supplies of oil and natural gas dwindle and become more expensive, can the current industrial agriculture of the Checkerboard be maintained?

Roy C. Treadway

-- comment posted by Roy C. Treadway
June 18th, 2006 at 4:49 p.m.
Sep 3, 2006 at 03:36PM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey
You’re quite right, Roy, in saying that my failure to mention anything but corn amounted to an oversimplification. But it’s when I’m standing in a place where almost nothing but corn is visible, that I am most overwhelmed by the surreal poverty-in-affluence of what I am looking at. And that sense of being overwhelmed was what I was hoping to convey –

Many thanks for contributing the additional details, so that readers can flesh out the images I was dwelling on with a more thorough description of the land.

And I heartily agree with the concerns you express about the energy dependence of agribiz in this region!

-- comment posted by Marshall
June 22nd, 2006 at 8:28 p.m.
Sep 3, 2006 at 03:37PM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey

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