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.
Back on line in a few days.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to email@example.com.