A Forbidding Prospect
Ill at ease in Illinois’s wide open spaces
November 16, 1979
Most of Illinois is mostly flat and mostly treeless. This is—and always has been—a cause of comment by visitors and despair among residents, as Charles Schweighauser explains here—although it was a more pressing issue in the past, when so many more Illinoisians lived in the countryside that their descendants only drive through today.
Among the deficiencies of life in central Illinois most often noted by its battalions of unhappy exiles is the land itself. It is not flat, as is often alleged, but rolling, but rolling, but even so its relative lack of variety offends visitors who often see its flatness reflected in our voices and in our lives.
It is true that the landscape of central Illinois is not as scenic as places with more ambitious terrains. But to say, as some do, that there is nothing there is stupid. W. G. Hoskins. who lectures on the history of the English landscape at Oxford, has written that when one looks at the land, "It is the detail which counts, the microscope and not the telescope." The reason people do not see things in the land is because they don't know how to look, not because there is nothing to see; any fool can appreciate a mountain. The main difference between landscape and mere scenery. Hoskins says, is that "landscape asks questions of the spectator, whereas scenery is there for quiet contemplation."
It was to learn answers to some of the questions posed by the central Illinois landscape I grew up with that I traveled last March to the office of Charles Schweighauser at Sangamon State University in Springfield. Schweighauser is Associate Professor of Environments and People at SSU. He is an Illinois native, and so grew up accustomed to unobstructed views: some hint of the peripatetic nature of his intelligence may be found in the fact that he took his B.A. and M.A. in literature, was the first director of St. Louis' McDonnell Planetarium, and now is director of the SSU observatory, and helped draft a bill for the General Assembly to create agricultural districts to preserve prime Illinois farmland.
The eye can't cover much ground from inside Schweighauser's cubicle in K building. It is barely eight feet in diameter and it has no windows—an ironic confinement for a man who teaches a course called "Environmental Perception." Still, the intellectual view from Schweighauser's cubicle stretches in all directions.
"The early settlers in central Illinois had a negative psychological reaction to floating on a sea of grass," Schweighauser notes. "So they went to the woods, which then existed along the stream beds and in the form of hardwood groves that stood in the open prairie. They did this for sound economic reasons, of course: the woods supplied them with firewood and building materials and shelter for livestock. But they also did it because they were not used to wide open spaces. Of course, in the summertime they couldn't see the horizon, because the prairie grasses grew taller than a man and so hid the sheer vastness of the landscape. But in the winter the horizon did appear, and it was a forbidding prospect.
"After the invention of the moldboard plow, which made it possible for the first time to cultivate the open prairies, the grasses were all plowed under. The horizon now appeared in summer as well. The settlers felt unease confronting all this space, so they did some curious things. They left certain recognizable physical features in the middle distance by which they could orient themselves and break up this expanse—trees!
"All around the state, farmers left small clumps of trees standing in the middle of their fields. Their excuse in the early days was that the trees made a good place for the plow horses to cool off. But there was also a deep psychological reason for having those trees there. Look around even today. You see these fields, stretching for three, four miles in all directions, and smack in the middle of them there's a tree. Now farmers don't need that tree there anymore: tractors don't need to rest in the shade. If you talk to farmers they'll usually say. 'Well, my grandfather planted that tree.' Darn right he planted it. for very good psychological reasons, and his grandchildren leave it there for the same reasons."
This defensive repopulating of a landscape denuded in the course of exploiting it has been made even more imperative as technology and market pressures have combined to force most farmers' reach to equal their grasp. The process begun with the perfection of the moldboard plow is being finished today with awful precision as farmers' machines clear hedge rows, creek bottoms, and hillsides to put more and more acres into production. As a result the trees, the glades, the animals are gone. The most fertile land in the world is, except for the life we grow on it, a brown desert.
"Technology keeps adding layers of separation between the manipulators and that being manipulated," Schweighauser points out. "The typical 19th century farm was self-sufficient, independent, self-sustaining, and biologically rich. People, a diversity of stock animals, a variety of plants—all lent perceptual diversity to the landscape while also regulating both the spatial and temporal associations with the farm family that lived on it. The need for larger and larger surplus productivity has led to a need for specialization, specialization not only in terms of crops but also in the way in which the resource base is used.
"Technology has given us the means to manipulate the natural environment, and when we manipulate we simplify. Instead of the biologically rich and visually diverse landscape of the 19th century we've created what I call a 'big white room' into which we deliver energy inputs into one end and remove waste output at the other end. The perfect example of a big white room is the Apollo spacecraft. The big white room replaces the big green room of natural biological diversity."
As I listened to Schweighauser I was impressed at how little we have changed from our foreparents. Like them, we grow edgy and uncertain in the face of the sheer scale of this new world and take refuge in the groves so we will not have to see. Our forest groves are made of concrete now, of course, but they serve the same function of shielding us. supplanting a human landscape for the daunting natural one that surrounds us. This is especially apparent during the autumn, when the harvesting of crops again exposes the blank face of the land from beneath its green mask: in a way. corn is to us what the tall prairie grasses were to our forebears, and we miss its enveloping height just as much.
It is significant that few people in this flat corner of the world seek out the countryside for rest and relief from life in the crowded concrete groves. Instead they seek out other groves—wooded places, preferably near water and even more preferably with hills, places as unlike the open countryside as they can find. There is no solace in the countryside. We've made it an unfriendly place.
I suspect that people do not merely dismiss the landscape here because they find it dull but because they find it hateful in its indifference and its inhospitality. The open countryside is an intimidating place that offers no shelter from the wind, cold, or storms that periodically rake it; there is no safe place in the country unless one buries oneself beneath it. I always wondered what it feels like to stumble into a storm cellar when a tornado materializes like a banshee on the far horizon. Does it feel like re-entering the womb, safe and dark? Or is it like descending into the grave? ●