The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
The View from 9A
My flight was from Denver to Oakland, California -- two and a half hours to wing our way across the western US. I was in seat 9A, a window seat.
As we climbed from the flat prairie where Denver's airport is located to cross the high mountain peaks of the continental divide, the flight attendant came on the PA system with the "good news" that there was enough time to show a movie. She urged the passengers in window seats to lower their shades so that the cabin would be dark enough for easy viewing. "There's nothing to see out there, anyway," she said.
I disobeyed the instructions of the flight crew, and found the changing landscape to be far more interesting than the dreadful film.
As a general rule, I don't fly much. I insist that there be a significant reason for my trip, to justify the amazing amount of greenhouse gasses that are generated by air travel. This summer, though, I've flown from Denver to California, Massachusetts and Kentucky.
On every flight, I've selected a window seat. The opportunity to observe the world from 37,000 feet is one of the delights which helps to balance the hassles and pollution of flying. From 9A, or 17F -- or 5C on a little plane -- it is possible to see patterns and relationships that are hidden on the ground. Problems and trends that are abstract when reported in the news become vivid to an attentive traveler.
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What can be seen from one of those tiny little portholes? The interesting stuff starts right around the airport.
Ten years ago, Denver put its new airport way outside of town, so that noise pollution wouldn't overwhelm people living nearby. New housing is blossoming, though, right around the airport, and urban sprawl pushes out from the city in every direction. On takeoff and landing, the miles and miles of suburban "development" is glaringly obvious -- large homes on treeless tracts, spreading across what had once been prime agricultural land. The role of big new highways in enabling and directing that growth becomes evident, with successive bands of malls and homes spreading from the beltways.
Swinging west over the mountain foothills, I can see a complex spiderweb of roads leading into ex-urban housing. Colorado's zoning laws put few restrictions on "ranchettes" of 35 acres, so forests are now chopped up by low-density housing with about 15 homes per square mile. The boundaries of national forests stand out clearly, where far fewer roads fragment the habitat. From my little window, I get a fresh sense of why forest fires have become so much more dangerous and so much more expensive to fight, with all of these high-end homes nestled into thick stands of drought-stressed trees.
Across those mountainsides, the devastation of pine bark beetles is dramatic from the air -- despite the flight attendant's word that "there's nothing to see." The rust color of dying evergreens is a shocking contrast to the deep green of adjoining areas where the infestation hasn't hit yet. I remember that the spread of these insects has been helped along by a warming climate, allowing the beetles to thrive in high-country areas that used to be too cold for their populations to flourish.
Farther on to the west, extensive new networks of roads cut across the countryside, connecting thousands of natural gas wells. The reality of our energy addiction hits home with the sight of multitudes of 5 acre well pads graded flat and bare, and the gash of buried oil pipelines cutting across the landscape.
The intermountain west, too, shows the importance of water. The barren deserts and salt flats of Utah and Nevada illustrate that people can't live without water. Reservoirs in the high Rockies and Sierras store vast quantities of water for distant users, and the dry "bathtub ring" around many of those lakes reveals how far down the water level has dropped from maximum capacity. Sprawling cities and irrigated fields all depend on this life-giving water.
Flying east from Denver, water is important, too. Gigantic green circles are formed where irrigation makes it possible to grow corn and alfalfa in a semi-arid region. There are now many brown circles, where crops used to be grown, but the valuable water rights have been sold to thirsty cities. The area's small towns are drying up along with the farms.
Looking out my window, it is interesting to watch the shift from cultivated fields to open pasture, as soil quality and water availability make ranching more viable than farming. Green and brown on opposite sides of a fence show the impact of overgrazing on this marginal land. The midwest begins, from my point of view, where the square fields of corn once again emerge, because there's now enough rainfall to support non-irrigated farming. Leafy trees fill the valleys and line the roads.
My western eyes were treated to a remarkable sight as we flew over the broad river bottoms of the southern US. Slow, flat rivers meander in huge bends, and ox-bow lakes are left behind when the river moves. Farmland in this rich soil isn't staked out in tidy grids, but was edged by the curving lines of trees and debris which used to line the banks of the river. Centuries of changing river courses are shown in the overlapping and intertwined curves which trace across the land. The straight lines of roads cutting across the tangled landscape are a new imposition. How long will it be until the moving river cuts through the highway, and today's bridges cross over lakes and fields?
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Across all the diverse landscapes that I've seen this summer, my eco-justice perspective helps me to notice the interconnection of humans and the rest of creation. I observe the double meaning that is expressed in the title of John McPhee's wonderful book, The Control of Nature. (His chapter about attempts to channel and control the Mississippi River is especially interesting with Hurricane Katrina in mind.)
Across most of this vast continent, the impact of humans is not only evident, it is overwhelming. Almost everywhere, the "built environment" asserts control over the earth. Cities and towns, roads and fields, gas rigs and reservoirs, logging and mining leave few places where our species has not asserted ownership and control.
And yet, it is easy to see from the air that nature has the final say in the battle for control. The meandering river will move, whether we want it to or not. Fires and beetles and drought will define what the forests look like. The exposed strata of rock revealing eons of uplift and weathering puts all of our human attempts to manage and constrain the world into a humbling perspective.
There are wonderful things to be seen from the window of an airplane. But you probably won't see them if you only take a quick glance when you get bored with your book or the movie. The view from 9A gets interesting when it is intentional and studied, when questions are asked and details are noticed.
If you must fly, I encourage you to reserve a seat with a view. Allow your mind, your spirit and your conscience to be touched by the remarkable vista spread out below.
Eco-Justice Ministries * 400 S Williams St, Denver, CO 80209 * 303.715.3873
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