A bird’s-eye view

I rarely fly anywhere these days. I am fortunate to be able to spend most of my time close to home. My children live within two hours of home and I have limited my volunteer activities. I don’t miss crowded airports, stuffy planes and being searched by the TSA. In spite of the discomforts of air travel, however, I do like to travel by air. My favorite part of flying is being able to see the world from the perspective of a bird. I love looking over the prairie on a clear day and being able to see the landscape of the earth for miles and miles.

From a vantage point above the earth, the fields below look like an intricate quilt.
In many places the fields are laid out in even square mile blocks with roads on all four sides. Farmsteads sheltered by rows of trees disrupt some of the neat squares. Rivers wander in tree-lined curves back and forth across the squares. Smaller rivers run into larger ones. Ravines reach up from the rivers’ edges.

The earth is a beautiful place. From several thousand feet in the air, one can see things not visible when you have your feet planted on the ground.

When I have flown and looked down on the many shades of green, brown and black below me, I couldn’t help but think how very different the landscape is now than it was two hundred years ago when Meriweather Lewis and William Clark made their journey up the Missouri, across the prairie to mountains and eventually to the Pacific. In those two hundred years we have built roads, cultivated fields, and fenced grasslands. We have dammed rivers, stretched power lines, dug coal out of the ground and burned it and punched oil wells through the earth’s crust. We have cut down trees and we have planted trees. We have eliminated some species of plants and animals. We have introduced plants and animals in areas where they have become pests because they have no natural predators. We have stopped prairie fires in some places and have caused fires in others. We have built cities and covered the earth with pavement.

Every creature changes the earth by its living. If a deer follows the same route to the river to drink each day, a path is made that wasn’t there before. If an acorn falls on the earth and an oak tree grows, eventually it shades the soil around it and the plants that are able grow there will change. The earth and the life on it changes constantly.

Looking out an airplane window at the earth below, it is hard to find a place that hasn’t been touched by our human footprint.

From the air one can see how thin the layer of top soil is by the way the crops on the hilltops resemble balding heads. You can see how soil washed from fields by rain fills the river beds. You can see algae growing in lakes where nutrients are washed from the surrounding fields into the water. In the winter you can even see how topsoil has blown with the snow into dirty blackened drifts.

You can look down on cities and see how many acres and acres of soil are covered with houses, streets and parking lots. There is little exposed earth to absorb the rain that falls and the water in channeled directly into storm sewers and drained from there into rivers, lakes and streams. How runoff from those houses and concrete has become a major source of water pollution becomes obvious.

The changes we have made in the world around us in the last two hundred years are far more extreme and have happened far more rapidly than ever before.  We can change things on a bigger scale than at any time history. At the same time, we can also change things on a tiny, even microscopic level. Our impact on the earth is formidable.

There is no doubt that humans–and every other creature–necessarily leave footprints on the earth. I would not want to cross the Northern Plains using Lewis and Clark’s modes of transportation. Realism tells me that roads that cross the distances, and fences to contain livestock are necessary. Cities with paved parking lots are facts of life.

The question is, how do we as humans live on the earth and use her abundance in ways that make it possible for life here to continue?  What choices do we need to make to be sure that our footprints don’t destroy the very things we need for existence?

Copyright © 2012 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains