Leaving behind the spectacular landscapes of the South West, I crossed the pan-handle of Texas and then of Oklahoma. In Texas, approaching some 15 miles out from Dalhart, the smell shifted from rural grasses to acrid. To my left vast circular irrigation systems seemed to be watering alfalfa, and at first I thought of fertilizers. Then into view came the vast feedlot of JBS, with ten thousand cattle loitering in their own excrement – the smell was uric acid and manure. Some modest mountains of cow-shit were covered with white plastic held down by thick black rings – old tires. Then to the other side of the road a mile or two further came another such lot, Cargill. Industrialized agriculture – whether the giant irrigation systems sucking up the aquifer below on such a scale that they are rapidly being depleted, or the animal Auschwitz of JBS and Cargill – the mid-west announced itself and said, “there ain’t nothin’ romantic about farmin’.” Not these days – it is agri-biz, the industrialized making of vegetable and animal flesh to eat. And I assure you, there is nothing romantic about the stench of 10 thousand cattle lingering in their own waste, shot up with antibiotics, waiting to be herded into line to have a slug of steel rammed with a blast of air into their skulls, and then hoisted, bled, skinned, gutted and sliced and diced into more “products” than you can imagine.
Driving smaller roads, as I entered this intense area of agricultural “business” I was struck by the constant stream of 18 wheelers barreling down the highway, loaded with chemicals, hay bails, animals, oil, and all the things needed to fuel this kind of “farming.” Pulling into the small towns along the way – Elkhart, Rolla, Hugoton, Wilburton – I noted the many abandoned houses, the forlorn Main Streets, all the inverse signs of the precipitous change in the world, where once a majority of people labored to make our food, and now, industrialized, only 2% do so. Modern agriculture was the harbinger of robotisization, and the landscape there in the southwestern tip of Kansas, flat and naked, reveals it all. The giant mechanized silo systems, the chemical making and distribution nodes, the trains laden with fertilizers and fuels, or with coal, running a mile and more long, tracing along the flat seemingly endless fields; the 1/4 mile long rotating spindles dispersing water in vast circles . And the sad little towns, eviscerated of people, with I imagine a median age well into the 70’s. And then the rural dose of things Mexican, the now common labor force from Georgia to Eastern Washington State, vaguely invisible until you walk into an AutoZone store and the lingua franca is Spanish.
Stopping in Greensburg KS, I was taken aback as everything was new – houses, city hall, a little art museum, the entire Main Street. I figured it out on my own and had it confirmed when I had a nice long talk with a woman in her 80’s at the Museum (spanking new) of the World’s Largest Hand-Dug Well. It cost $8 to see it, so I passed and instead had the conversation. Greensburg was flattened in 2007 by a Force 5 tornado. A town of 1300 then, 10 locals were killed (and 2 others from out of town), and rebuilt it now has 900. A lot of old folks decided a new house there made little sense and they took their government handout and moved on. The town’s appearance now is almost shocking – a glassy new (useless) art museum, the Well now surrounded with a big wrapper and (empty) shop; a downtown “Main Street” in current vernacular. The large new houses, all with basements I was assured, looking like a slick suburban housing tract; a huge new school. I am sure it was it was all paid for by the Feds, whom I am equally sure the locals look suspiciously at, that Big Bad Guvmint.
I spent election night in Liberal, Kansas, in an older motel, run, as they all seem to be, by Indians from Gujurat. Long – decades – ago I’d noted that out in the abandoned towns of the West, the most desolate motel might still be open, manned by a family from India. I surmised back then (in the 80’s) that Mr Patel, famed hotel owner, had spied a good deal: he could buy up these closed down motels for nickles and dimes, get Greencard visas for his clan in India, and whisk them to the New World with a job, a place to live, and I am pretty certain, a kickback. I suppose a family in India might pay a decent sum for such a deal, and I imagine something like an old American staple, indentured servitude, would be part of the package. I, though, often wondered back then what the locals thought of these sudden strange new arrivals to some Wyoming backwater, and likewise what the Indian family thought of their strange new surroundings. A big deal on both sides of the equation. I though, was happy to see this, as it meant these places were open, and usually for very cheap. I accepted the often heavy dose of disinfectant as part of the game.
As I kept up with the election-night news, the joke of “Liberal, Kansas” hammered in as Governor Brownback, who has bludgeoned the state into near bankruptcy with tax cuts, eviscerating the education system, and raising East Coast pundit hopes of a change when some opposition materialized, won his election handily enough. He promises his further austerity fiscal medicine will bring in business and soon the place will thrive as the corporations of the world spy his tax haven on the plains. Probably he knows that fracking will shortly overtake corn, sorghum, alfalfa and cattle as the state’s Big Biz, and, if only for a short while, man-camps will swarm the landscape and a quick buck will be made and he can say “I told you so.” What Kansans will be left with afterwards is another matter.
And so moving through this decimated landscape of emptied towns, boarded up Main Streets and abandoned homes, juxtaposed to the industrialized agri-biz of big rigs, irrigation circles, tanks of anhydrous ammonia, massive silos and feedlots, it all seemed something out of Dorothy’s nightmares: a rural world ripped apart by economic forces and technology, but one with no rainbow at the end of the golden brick road. Dotting the fields were oil pumps oscillating slowly, and some places the giant white stalks of wind farms, and more recently the fenced in compounds of fracking sites. Punctuating the vast flat lands were the delicate tethered towers holding cell repeaters, stitching the great seeming emptiness of what was once called “The Great American Desert” into a unified whole. Beneath the surface, webs of pipelines paralleled the surface tracks which bore the mile-long freight trains hauling coal to generator stations. And pumping through it all was the fluid demiurge of money, extracted from the Ogalalla aquifer in the form of food-stuffs, from the fractured subterranean zones of slate and coal seams, from the buried lakes of oil. American as apple pie, this urgent need to suck the landscape of whatever seems of value, and once extracted, to leave it, wrecked and stripped of life. It seems, as de Tocqueville noted almost two centuries ago, as if it is stamped in our cultural DNA.