Friday, April 9, 2010

Technology Reshapes the Landscape

As we were driving across I-64 in Kentucky today, headed back to Minnesota, I started to really notice how technology has changed the landscape in front of me.   We were in a beautiful, rural area on the eastern side of the state.  Of course, my attention was first drawn to the highway stretching out in front of me: the concrete, the guardrails, the traffic signs, the mile-maker stakes.  Then I started to notice that the landscape itself had been sculpted to allow the road to unwind smoothly across the rolling hills.  There were deep cuts blasted out of the rocky hills and massive bridges over the deeper ravines.

Looking farther afield, I noticed..,well, the fields.  Again, man-made, cultivated, plowed, stripped clean of trees.  Fences divided the fields into neat squares to clearly indicate that the land had been surveyed and was recorded in plat maps somewhere.  There were high-tension towers and power lines, windmills for pumping water for the livestock, and billboards to lead us to the nearest McDonalds.  Even the livestock and crops most likely came from deliberate breeding programs.

In the distance on the rolling hills, forests made soft blankets over the contours of the land.  But even these were at best second-growth forests.  The original trees had long since been logged for lumber.  I even wondered how many of the plants growing in the ditches along the roadside were invasive species brought there by passing automobiles?

As far as I could see over this rural landscape, I could see nothing that had not been altered in some way by technology.  Don't get me wrong on this.  I am not saying that technology has completely ruined the land.  Far from it.  In many ways, technology has allowed us to move more easily, to feed ourselves, and to provide a living to people who live in rural areas.  It is not all bad.  It is just that it has changed our world without our being aware of it.  Barring some nuclear winter scenario, what I was looking at today will probably always be a domesticated landscape.

We live so closely and constantly with technology that we hardly notice its effects.  We think we are seeing nature when we are really seeing the handiwork of people.  Awareness at least lets us make a conscious choice about how we alter our environment.

I am glad that there are places like our National Parks where nature has at least half a chance of being itself for a while longer.  I think of Henry David Thoreau's classic quote:

"In wilderness is the preservation of the world."

It is, quite literally, true.

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