America by Air: 2,000 Years of Human Construction

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Bill Barse, a reader who gave us a comprehensive tour of Arkansas, Tennessee, and Virginia, sends an image from amid “the endless expanse of sugar cane fields south of Lake Okeechobee, Florida”:

There were relict streams that once drained into the original Everglades that are now submerged due to sea level rise that took place over the last 2,000 years. Many archaeological sites, low-lying mounds, are present along these now submerged streams, sites that we were working on at the time of this trip. The area south of the lake is a low-lying plane with limestone bedrock barely two feet beneath the current ground surface.  And it is only several feet above sea level. This picture shows a good view of a 2,000-year-old house mound located not far from one of the relict stream channels. One of the access roads for the sugar cane fields made a U-turn around it to avoid its destruction.  

Bill flew all the way from East Stroudsberg, Pennsylvania, on this trip, and the archaeological sites near Clewiston, Florida, were his final destination. He also documented more recently built structures, from highways to horse tracks:

The first picture shows the magnificent Delaware Water Gap, where the Delaware River cuts through Kittatinny Mountain (along with I-80). I am flying over Pennsylvania, looking east towards the gap, which is in Warren County, NJ.

Here, I am crossing from South Carolina into Georgia, setting up to find, then land, at Plantation Airfield. Plantation is an old Army-Air Force training field with the typical triangular runway layout. Most of the fields from South Carolina down to Clewiston were once training fields first built in the early 1940s. Plantation was largely a duster field when I passed through. Little did I know that my engine was to quit after I crossed the Savannah River and had the field in sight. I landed it like a glider!

Here’s a shot of a horse race track near Ocala, Florida, which is a thoroughbred breeding area of note in the U.S. There were horse-racing tracks everywhere I looked in the Ocala area!

In our America by Air series we often focus on beautiful, wild landscapes—the places that can only be seen in their full glory from the air. But what strikes me most about Bill’s photos is the way they document the mundane, man-made features of America’s topography—like the interstate cutting through Kittatinny Mountain, as much a force in shaping our world as the river. And noticing all this human infrastructure has a practical benefit, too:

When I was flying back through Georgia, my horizon was occluded by haze, the interminable summer haze, and I realized that I was off course. So, using an old airmail pilot’s expression, I “buzzed” a water tower in a small town that I did not recognize. The tower had its name prominently displayed: Glenville, Georgia! Airmail pilots would “shoot the station,” meaning a railroad station, to determine where they were (they used road maps back then). Since I was trying to pay attention, I did not take a picture of the Glenville water tower, but when I crossed into South Carolina about an hour later, I snapped a shot of the prominent water tower in the small town of Allendale, South Carolina—which, of course, had the town’s name on it too!  So, I was “shooting the tower,” so to say, as a form of navigation on the way back.


Bill Barse