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In the Landscape

Radical Root

Follow the Craft Farm exploration in sustainable and creative living.

In the Landscape

Allison Duncan

It is a pity indeed to travel and not get this essential sense of landscape values. You do not need a sixth sense for it. It is there if you just close your eyes and breathe softly through your nose; you will hear the whispered message, for all landscapes ask the same question in the same whisper. ‘I am watching you — are you watching yourself in me?’
— Lawrence Durrell, Spirit of Place

When I hike up or around a mountain, geology is pretty hard to ignore.  I’ve hiked a bunch in the Adirondacks, which is a dome of a mountain range, exposed about 5 million years ago as the pressure from moving glaciers pushed giant stones.  The rock formations that I have climbed upon, are made of sediment that is more than a billion years old.  Most of the high peaks are made of up coarse and blue-ish grey anorthosite.  The Adirondacks just feel old.  I thought about this, as I approached the Flatirons in Boulder, CO.  These, reddish rocks, tilted dramatically towards the sky, as if they were formed in one big jolt of Earth. 

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At the edge of the Rocky Mountains, The Flatirons found their dramatic tilt around 35-80 million years ago – exposing rock around 290 million years old.  It’s considered a Fountain Formation of conglomeratic sandstone, I learned. Similar formations can be seen along Colorado’s front range, but I, along with many other weekend hikers, had a good time climbing about the first and second of the Flatirons.

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I took a couple days in Boulder, CO to restock on supplies, get an oil change, and to visit the biggest farmers market in the state, before carrying on with my trip. 

After a quick pop-in at Aspen Moon Farms (who had a large market booth, filled with a wide variety of organic veggies,) I drove northbound to Badlands National Park in South Dakota. 

Theodore Roosevelt once said that he would not have been president, if it weren’t for South Dakota. Roosevelt declared the Badlands a National Monument in 1929, and congress elevated it’s status to National Park in 1978. 

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This surreal landscape, made even more bizarre by the lingering smoke of distant wildfires.  (As I write this, 27 wildfires continue to be battled, with hopes that the upcoming cool weather shift, will aide in extinguishing some.)  After driving all day, mostly through back roads of Nebraska, I quickly made my way through the National Park to get to the backcountry, wilderness campsite –only stopping at a couple breathtaking overlooks that evening.

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When I hit the gravel road, I knew I had 15 miles to drive to get to the remote campsite.  I watched the sun, getting closer to the horizon as I passed a heard of mountain sheep, a town of praire dogs, and some bison grazing in the distance.  I made it to the campgrounds in just enough time to set up my tent and start heating water for dinner before the sunset.  I watched a bison grazing from my tent. 

This was the one.  Captured here with a telephoto lens.

This was the one.  Captured here with a telephoto lens.

After nightfall the face of the country seems to alter marvelously, and the clear moonlight only intensifies the change. The river gleams like running quicksilver, and the moonbeams play over the grassy stretches of the plateaus...The Bad Lands seem to be stranger and wilder than ever, the silvery rays turning the country into a kind of grim fairyland.
— Theodore Roosevelt

In the morning, I explored more of the National Park, where the sediment lines of millions of years of erosion could be clearly observed, even at a glance.  The history of the changing life of the landscape is exposed.  I hiked around the dry, dusty landscape, still under a yellow-orange haze of smoke.  ...If the eclipse made me feel like I was in a sci-fi movie, this landscape took me to another planet.

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The stark contrast of these mountainous formations against the vast flatlands, that I spent hours and hours driving though on this trip, made me contemplate landscape and place.

Roadside sunflower field in Nebraska, under a smokey haze. 

Roadside sunflower field in Nebraska, under a smokey haze. 

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These former prairie lands are now mostly used for agricultural production.  I passed row after row of perfectly aligned corn (although some soybeans, and a surprising amount of sunflowers) that could only be planted by large-scale agricultural equipment.  Interjected between the crops, often in hillier locations, herds of cattle munched on grasses in the distance.

I can see that these vast areas, of mostly flat land, make prime farmland.  With low populations and distant neighboring cities, I also understand that a local food movement might be difficult, if not impossible to financially sustain.  It seems practical for these farms to grow on larger tracts of land, and ship their products to other areas of the country.  But, nearly all of the large farms that I saw were growing food for cattle, and for ethanol production. 

Driving through this landscape, I can’t help but wonder - how can we improve upon our system?

On this road trip, I have seen farms, trying to work as best as they can with their landscape and weather.  I have also driven past hundreds of acres of farmland across the central United States, and explored some ancient rock formations alluding to the more distant history of the land.  This trip has, if nothing else, reinforced the fact that we are all parts of our shared landscape.  And, I believe that this thought is worth holding on to.