Hudson, Ohio, to Black Wolf, Wisconsin

Another unpleasant drive. I tried to schedule the drive so I could miss the morning rush hour around Cleveland, and still get through Chicagoland before the evening rush hour. But I grew sleepy in the middle of the day and pulled over to take a nap, and by the time I got to Gary, Indiana, it was four o’clock. I called Ed and Nancy from a noisy, busy, dirty service area to say I wasn’t going to get in to Black Wolf until after nine.

It took me two and a half hours to get past Chicago. Finally I got into Wisconsin. At dusk, I pulled over at a rest area. It was green and peaceful, with fireflies rising up out of the grass. I looked up the hill from the rest area, and there, in the fading light, was a classic midwestern farm. And in Wisconsin, it might actually be a real farm, not just empty buildings left after agribusiness took over the actual farming.

Wisconsin farm, July 23

This July 23 post was actually uploaded on July 24.

Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area

As promised to E, photos of Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area, from my birding trip there yesterday.


This wildlife area is huge. It covers about 25 square miles along the Sacramento River, and when you’re in the middle of it, you’re more than a mile from the east and west boundaries, and maybe five miles from the north and south boundaries.


About a third of the land is still farmed, and you can see some of the fields on the right of this photo. While I was there, they were prepping several fields for rice cultivation. Rice farming is getting a bad name in California right now because of the drought, but migrating birds love rice fields. Diverting water away from rice fields to big cities is going to reduce the number of places migrating waterfowl have to rest during their travels.


This Turkey Vulture flew quite close overhead. Notice the worn primaries — P5 on the left, and P3 on the right — as well as the missing left tertials.

Joliet, Ill., to Kearney, Neb.

We started driving at nine in the morning, quickly leaving behind the crowded roads of Chicagoland.

Water towers are prominent features of the midwestern landscape, and traditionally the municipality that owns the water tower will paint its name on the side. Stuart, Iowa, has updated this tradition: a large white wind turbine had “STUART” painted in large letters down the tall tower.

We stopped at a rest area west of Des Moines, and as I looked out at a large field of corn I couldn’t help comparing the ecological characteristics of corn fields with lawns. Both crops cover large areas of North America (one source says that lawns cover more land area than any other single crop). Both crops are raised as monocultures that require huge amounts of chemical fertilizer and chemical controls for weeds and pests. Considered from the point of view of ecological science, both lawns and corn fields support a low density of species; and the “insurance hypothesis” predicts that lawns and corn fields will be relatively vulnerable to changes such as drought, invasive species, pest infestations, etc.


Above: Corn field near a rest stop west of Des Moines

As we drove by the Adair wind farm on Interstate 80, we could see a highway rest area with a tall white monument in front of it. As we passed it, we realized it wasn’t a monument at all: it was a wind turbine blade standing upright.

We decided to stop in Omaha for dinner. Carol found what sounded like a good restaurant, McFoster’s Natural Restaurant, using her smartphone. When we got there, we realized we had been at that restaurant some years earlier. At that time, the restroom walls had been covered with stickers, so Carol stuck one of her own stickers on the wall: a yellow spiral with the words “Urine Charge, Take Life Full Circle.” Alas, the restrooms had been renovated, and all the stickers were gone.

As we sat eating dinner, a couple in their early twenties walked in. The woman was saying to the man, “Yeah, I don’t know if you’ll like this place, but it’s my favorite restaurant. If you don’t like it, we can go somewhere else.” When they were out of earshot, Carol said aloud what I had been thinking: unless they were brother and sister, the man had better at least pretend that he liked that restaurant. As we were walking to our car, we saw them coming out of the restaurant; they both seemed to be in a good mood.

We had a long way to go, so we got in the car and kept driving west, into the setting sun….


Above: Wind turbine on Interstate 80 in Nebraska



Above: Sun setting over a Nebraska soybean field

Stow, Mass., to Fredonia, N.Y.

We left Stow, Massachusetts, at nine o’clock this morning. Stow lies on the edge of the coastal plain of southeastern New England, and we drove west through the hills of central New England, into the Berkshire Mountains, through the Taconic Mountains of New York, up the Mohawk River valley through the dramatic gap between the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains to the north and the Catskills to the south. I said goodbye to the last little foothills along the freeway.

Mohawk River valley

Above: The Mohawk River along Interstate 90, looking north towards the last of the Adirondack foothills.

We will see no more mountains — nothing but plains and rolling land — until we reach Wyoming, some 1,500 miles from here. We stopped at a rest area near Waterloo, New York, and already the landscape began to look like the Midwest or the Great Plains: a big field of legumes, a line of trees in the distance, some farm buildings, and a big outlet mall on the other side of the interstate.

Nine Foot Road, Waterloo, N.Y.

Above: Farm off Nine Foot Road, near Waterloo, N.Y.

When we got to Fredonia, N.Y., where we will spend the night, we took a long walk from our hotel to the campus of SUNY Fredonia. Although the university was founded in 1829, it obviously saw a big building boom beginning in the 1960s, when lots of big bland institutional brick buildings got built. I imagine it can look pretty bleak in the long gray winters, but everything was beautifully green today.

Fredonia obviously has a big student population. Lots of the attractive older houses in the center of town have been split up into student apartments, and we saw lots of evidence that this is a university town: a peace sign in a window, a poster proclaiming allegiance to Bob Marley, and a lovely garden with a handpainted sign that read “GROW FOOD NOT LAWNS.”

Garden in Fredonia, N.Y.

Above: Garden in Fredonia, N.Y.

Fredonia, New York, to Joliet, Illinois

After breakfast served on the front porch of the White Inn in the village of Freedonia, we got back on Interstate 90 and started driving west. We drove through the hills of western New York state and northwestern Pennsylvania and the Western Reserve of Ohio, the waters of Lake Erie (elevation 570 feet above sea level) invisible somewhere off to our right.

After we got through the sprawl of Cleveland, the land flattened out, and we felt that we were in the true Midwest: a less dramatic landscape than the northeast, one that is best appreciated when seen from close at hand. For when the Midwest is seen close at hand, you can see the details that make it charming: creeks and small rivers at the bottom of gullies and ravines, hedgerows and small patches of woodlands nestling in among fields of corn and soybeans, hundred year old farmhouses turned into residences while the surrounding fields have been bought up by agribusiness, old barns falling into quaint and attractive disrepair. Even the industrial buildings that punctuate the landscape, and the high tension lines that tie industry together, and the mile-long freight trains loaded with containers being shipped across the continent look almost attractive, if not quaint, under the gentle clouds and high-arching blue sky.

Carol had some business that she had to take care of during business hours today, so we stopped at two or three different rest areas in Ohio and Indiana so she could use the free wifi connections. I started eating some blueberries at one rest area in Ohio, and thought about how I had picked those blueberries in Massachusetts two days ago with my friend Will, on the farm where four or five generations of his family have lived. We walked along the neatly mowed paths between the blueberry bushes, which grew six to nine feet high, the branches thick with berries, mostly green berries, but plenty of ripe ones for us to pick, and either put in the plastic containers that hung around our necks or pop in our mouths. We picked two gallons of berries while we caught up with each other’s lives: health problems with our siblings, what his children are doing, how our parents are doing, etc.

Before we started picking, I told Will and his wife about the invasive Asian fly that moved into southern New England last year and decimated the blueberry crops for many growers in New Hampshire. I told them how the flies lay their eggs in the berries, and when the farmers get the berries to market, sometimes they find maggots crawling out of the berries; not an appetizing sight for potential buyers. Their eyes got big — it’s not often that you actually see someone’s eyes get big, but theirs did — as they heard about such a devastating pest. Blueberries have been an easy crop to grow in New England, since they evolved here; as opposed to apple trees, which evolved elsewhere, are troubled by native New England pests, and require lots of care.

I had heard about these invasive flies just a couple of days earlier, on Firday, when Carol and I went up to Apple Annie’s orchard in Brentwood, New Hampshire, so that Carol could look at a composting toilet that was malfunctioning. Carol was fascinated because it was a composting toilet that she had never seen before. I was fascinated to hear Laurie tell about the invasive flies, which she had learned about in a course she took to re-certify for her pesticide certification. She said they prefer red fruits, so rasberries are even more vulnerable — raspberries, which used to be yet another relatively pest-free crop in New England.

So I ate my New England blueberries in a rest area in Ohio, thinking that this might be the last easy crop of blueberries grown in my home town. Who knows why that Asian fly finally chose last year to arrive in New England. There are too many human beings everywhere, prying into niches in ecosystems where they don’t belong, moving species from one ecosystem to another at an alarming rate, and warming up the planet so that certain invasive species suddenly have to potential to disrupt native species. I would not be upset if nine-tenths of all humans died off suddenly, and I’m willing to be one of them — but I’m only willing to be one of them if we really get rid of nine-tenths of human beings; although I guess I could settle for a seven-eighths mortality rate.

We stopped again at a rest area in Indiana, where Carol and I took a long walk out through the employees’ parking lot and down a country road. On our right hand side was a corn field. It was not a field of sweet corn, grown to be sold at roadside stands and eaten as corn-on-the-cob. Carol recalled how we had once had a housemate who talked about “cow corn,” tough corn sold for cattle fodder. I said that there was a good chance this wasn’t even cow corn, but rather industrial corn bred to serve as the raw materials for chemical processes that produce ethanol, high-fructose corn syrup, corn oil, corn steep liquor, polylactic acid used to make corn-based plastics, and other industrial products.


On our left hand side was a patch of woodlands, covering at least twenty acres, that made the air feel twenty degrees cooler. We noticed black splotches on the road, and realized that mulberry trees hung over us. We picked as many ripe mulberries as we could reach reach, and ate them, the sweet elder-y taste a perfect complement to a hot humid afternoon.