01 July 2014

The Absence on the Horizon

Photo from http://www.mnh.si.edu/highlight/riola/
This post, for once, isn't about academia.  At least, not directly.

When I was a kid, my mother and I would drive at least twice a year from Morgantown, West Virginia to the middle of Indiana to visit her family.  Ohio was long and boring to get across, but when we had left the hills behind us and the landscape flattened out, I knew we were really on our way and getting to somewhere I very much wanted to be.  The fields stretching out in all directions told me so: the dome of sky was not part of my experience at home in West Virginia and I loved it, even if the long drive under it was tedious.  My mother had long since pointed out the rim of trees circling the horizon.  "Have you ever wondered why we never get to those trees?" she asked me once, and in a few moments I had worked out why.  The fencerows, the occasional buildings, which appeared individually as we passed them by, piled up at the end of one's field of vision, making it look like permanent border between earth and sky. My mother had been pondering the phenomenon with much more regularity than me from an earlier age, and still remembered the bewilderment she felt as a young child, about the forest that always receded.

Now I live under the dome, a bit farther west, in Illinois, but my days are so sheltered by a tree-covered campus and academic neighborhood that I only see it when I drive or bike out of town.  A few years ago on such an excursion I started to point out the rim of trees on the horizon to my daughters, to pose to them the same question that had puzzled my mother.  But it was gone.  There was no rim.  There were a few trees here and there, now and then a house and barn and outbuildings, but mostly there were just soybeans, and then corn and more corn, as far as one could see into the distance.  With no fences to piece out the landscape, less variation between corn and beans, the fields looked less flat, the undulations in the ground were more apparent.  Beyond them, the corn and beans met directly with the sky.

The change fits in with the story that's getting told with increasing urgency, about why the bees are in decline.   These big unbroken fields under a sole manager make it easier to spray pesticides. They lack the borders and fence and marginal spaces where flowering weeds used to flourish.  It's complicated, of course.  My grandfather, a farmer, prided himself on keeping his fencerows clear of the weeds and undergrowth that we now know provide habitats crucial to the ecosystem.  

Thousands of small choices, each of them made for good reasons, have changed the relationship between earth and sky within my lifetime.

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