Paving Over Oxfordshire
The demise of the Illinois countryside
August 10, 1979
In which praise is sung of the humanized landscape of the working countryside of the sort that sends tourists in Tuscany or England into raptures. The countryside of Illinois, alas, has been industrialized. The fields are massive, tidy, and bare—perfect for cultivation by massive machines.
My title is poorly chosen; it should have read, “Plowing over Oxfordshire.” It is a point not explored in this piece, but official attempts to save farms such as those described below do the countryside little good when farming is what threatens the countryside ecologically and aesthetically.
The corn is well up now in central Illinois after a saving rain, and farm magazines are again offering advice to subscribers about how to solve the happy problem of selling another bumper crop. But the countryside is more than a corn factory. It is a place to live for something like a half-million Illinoisans, an environment, a refuge, an economic subsystem. It also—if one learns to read it right—is a record of geology's shaping hand on the landscape and of humans' more recent emendations.
The countryside—Britain's, not Illinois'—is the subject of an interesting book by Keith Mossman (The Shell Book of Rural Britain, David & Charles, 1978). Mossman's subject is the landscape, crafts, and economy of rural England, Wales, and Scotland, but much of what he says is true of settled landscapes generally. "The countryside is not an artifact as a town is," Mossman observes in a passage as relevant to Sangamon County as to Staffordshire, "nor is it a manifestation of unaided nature. At its best it is the result of cooperation between man and his environment, achieved so slowly and patiently that the whole seems more of an organic growth than a construction."
Clues to past cooperation are visible everywhere to the alert eye in central Illinois. Cass County offers several examples. To the stranger. for instance, the Chandlerville Road which meanders along the shoulders of the bluffs overlooking the Sangamon River valley between its namesake and Beardstown is a scenic but inefficient ramble that defies sense until one recalls when the road was first laid out the valley floor often flooded when the Sangamon overflowed its banks. Today the river bottom is leveed and drained, but the road up on shoulder of the bluffs remains.
There are many such anomalies: To the south of the Chandlerville Road the traveler encounters occasional stretches of pine forests—ecological interlopers, planted a generation ago as part of erosion control experiments. Roads occasionally take unfathomably circuitous routes around forests that have since been cleared. Houses perch on hillsides surrounded by flat, buildable land all around them, but not for the view (a common modern assumption) but because the hillsides were above the mosquitoes and miasmas that infested the lowlands before they were drained. Churches stand in the middle of nowhere. stranded on the countryside like some bit of flotsam after the human tide that once bore it receded to the cities.
The countryside is forgiving of civilization's insults; as Mossman notes. "Human intervention has a way of being assimilated into the picture provided it is not too extensive or extreme." Nature compensates. and when necessary,improvises. Unfortunately. the changes we are making in the Illinois countryside are both extensive and extreme. The curse of Illinois's land is its fecundity, which has made it worth farmers' whiles to cultivate every available square yard of it until they ingeniously exhaust even its richness.
With their machines, Illinois farmers can farm great stretches of land—must farm it, in fact. to pay for the machines. Unfortunately, machines are impatient of hedgerows,. small plots, pastures, and other features more common to rural Britain. Except where terrain prevents it, the Illinois countryside is plowed, scraped, and mowed, Chemicals keep weeds out, the streams are clogged with silt and (where the silt isn't so bad it blocks out the sunlight) algae, and hedges and ditches are mowed down or burned off. All life except what we plant in it has been crowded into the margins of the countryside; we have turned the most fertile land in the world into a brown desert.
The countryside can recover from even these insults, given time. But some injuries will take centuries to heal. In the spring when the ground is bare, one can see light brown spots atop rises and knobs, like a bald pate showing through darker hair around it. In most cases the lighter soil is a hint of previous occupation; groves of trees that used to stand on such high places typically produce lighter soils because they are less generous with the darkening humus deposited in such quantities by the grasses of the open prairies.
But in recent years light spots have appeared where there was no forest. Erosion is rearranging the landscape, chewing topsoil off exposed plowed hilltops and washing it down their slopes., leaving it in ever-thickening layers in low places while gradually exposing the lighter, less fertile subsoils above them.
Farming paints the countryside with the brush, but other changes are crowding in. Transplanting bits of the city such as roads and houses into the countryside exacts costs in diminished food production capacity and pollution, among other things. The process Mossman complains about in Britain is no more welcome here. "If we continue to sterilize an area the size of Oxfordshire every ten years, by covering it with roads," he writes. "we can hardly expect to preserve either the beauty or the utility of the countryside."
The Springfield-Sangamon County Regional Planning Commission is working to rewrite the county's agricultural zoning ordinances to stem these urban incursions into the countryside. Indeed, in Illinois a veritable posse of government agencies is riding to the rescue of the countryside. The state EPA and farm soil conservation districts are drafting regulations to control erosion. The Department of Conservation encourages rural landowners to plant trees by selling them cheap saplings. Laws are being put onto the books to restore mined land. Tax laws are being reviewed to find ways to make it easier for farmers to keep their farms. The General Assembly has passed laws enabling a farmer to preserve his land against being converted to some other use.
Mossman is sensible enough to warn, "We have also to take care that in our desire to protect the countryside we do not embalm it. Its viability depends, as it has always done, on work and change and growth." It is worth noting that the hedgerows, a feature of the British rural landscape so widely admired by people appalled by the antiseptic plainness of American farm country, are not natural. They date only from the 18th century, and no doubt stirred the wrath of preservationists who bemoaned the trussing up of the open grazing lands that then dominated.
This is no argument for inattention. however. The British hedgerows are a benign intervention. offering wildlife habitat, windbreaks, and stock control while adding an aesthetic dimension to the experience of the countryside. Our local interventions—our superhighways, our suburban condos. our flood control systems—are not nearly so salutary. As Mossman points out. ultimately "lunacy is apt to be more expensive than sanity," no matter how one reckons the costs. ●