Away From the Internet, Over the Center of America

I've been seeing America from an unusual and (in my opinion) absorbing and revealing perspective these past two-and-a-half days, about which I'll say more later. One thing I'll say now is that the wildfires of the mountain west have made the air seem opaque across much of the Great Plains region. And that when you can see downward, the effects of the disastrous mid-American drought are visible mainly as a dramatic shift eastward in the pattern of vegetation-change you normally see when crossing the continent at low altitude.

Long before this drought, the pattern of settlement, farming, and greenery reflected the effects of steadily less rain as you moved from the Appalachians westward toward and beyond the Rockies. You start with darkly forested hillsides in West Virginia, then when the land flattens out you have the small plush farms of Ohio and Indiana. Then the much bigger and squarer plots of Illinois and Iowa, with fewer and smaller trees. Then, across Nebraska, the appearance of grazing land and feedlots, and farmland following the pattern of the huge circular irrigation systems. Then -- coinciding with less rain and sparser vegetation -- the beginning of the hills, bluffs, plateaus, and badlands that lead to the stark barrenness of much of Wyoming and the Great Basin as a whole. It's hard to see the systematic nature of the changes from ground level when you're driving, and in a big airliner it's all too far away to be quite as vivid in its impact. The moving diorama of the effect of moisture change is always the most dramatic part to me of a long haul trip at low altitude in a small airplane.

It's a similar progression from lush vegetation to blasted badlands now. But the dryness scale  is shifted far eastward, toward the center of the country. What you'd consider the normal look of western Nebraska or eastern Wyoming now shows up in parts of Iowa. I am exaggerating slightly -- there's a difference between land that's been dry for centuries and land that has burned up these past few months -- but the effect is real.

One historically bad year? A taste of what is to come? I have my guesses though of course I don't know. But if you wanted a scene to illustrate the nightmare version of what's ahead -- a shorthand image to update those from Blade Runner or Max Mad -- you could do worse than smoky, ocher skies overlaying blasted brown former cropland. Just a thought.

And before you ask: Yes, I am aware that any internal combustion engine is part of the problem. Yesterday afternoon, when we had stopped at the Cheyenne airport to get 40 gallons of gas, a huge firefighting helicopter pulled in to get 900 gallons of fuel before setting out on its next run; a modern version of fighting fire with fire. So you'll know: getting myself and my wife from DC to Idaho in a little plane required just under 190 gallons of gasoline. I go into these ethical/environmental aspects of worldwide aviation, and the hopes for remediation, in my recent book and will return to them in this space, but not right now.

In the meantime, here is the look on Tuesday night in Red Oak, Iowa, a wonderful small town just east of Omaha -- in a part of the state not as hard-hit by drought as others, and a part of the sky just before the fire haze set in further west.

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Back on line in a few days.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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