Monday, December 15, 2008

Musings from my drafting table

It is finals week here at the university; I just finished a required agronomy course in soil science. My classmates have complained all semester about the relevancy of this course, but I found this introductory material fascinating…and very relevant. I have never had chemistry, or physics (I have an undergrad in business), but I studied this as if my life depended on it. I had read an article in LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE magazine last summer that suggested that we, as a profession, would truly be “greener” landscape architects if we better understood soils and hydrology.

My interest in landscape architecture centers on wetlands. I grew up on a farm in the Midwest during the 60’s and early 70’s. I remember the clay drainage tiles laid on the fields, awaiting burial in the trenches snaking across the land of our farm and that of surrounding farms. Most days throughout my childhood began or ended with my daily tromp which led me through the fields and the pastures, along the creek, and into the stand of grasses at the edge of the sloughs and marshes of north central Iowa. Tiling dropped the water table and drained these glacial depressions. It brought more acreage into row-crop production, all with the encouragement of Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz and his “fence row-to-fence row” farm policy. Now the wetlands are diminished, as are our forests and tall-grass prairies.

Our township cemetery was native prairie, so fifteen years ago I bought a burial plot-Lot 3 in Block 4-for $150. I never intended to be buried there; I wanted to safeguard some virgin prairie soil. A nearby farmer was hired by the cemetery board to plow the last section of the virgin prairie to “control the weeds”. He did just that, but my far corner plot escaped his plow. My mother passed away last January and before she died, she told us that she wanted to be cremated, but one of my sisters objected. She insisted that she be able to visit Mom’s gravesite, so I gave my mother permission to place a marker on my plot so Cathy would be able to place flowers there to memorialize Mom. There was no grave dug, and no coffin lowered, but there is a granite marker that will safeguard forty square feet of precious Iowa prairie soil for eternity.

Today at 7:30 AM the temperature was 40 degrees; it was calm, with crystal blue skies. And then it cut loose. The wind blasted in around 9:30 this morning, bringing with it charcoal gray clouds. The calm before the storm. Tonight the temperature is 0 degrees and the wind is furiously howling at the moon. Today when I was driving south on the interstate, I noticed the blackened the snow. With a little “digging” around on the web, reading some research done at the university I am currently attending, I found the following stats. Iowa topsoil erosion is pegged at about 5 tons per acre per year. The soils course taught me that an acre furrow slice (the area of one acre one plow depth (a little over 6.5 inches) weighs about one thousand tons. Iowa farmers cultivate around 25 million acres of cropland. “The Earth’s Carrying Capacity”, a 2007 report compiled by Bruce Sundquist estimates that in the U.S., wind and water erosion of cultivated land averages about 8 T/A/year. Think of it this way. U.S. farmers lose about one inch of topsoil every 8-10 years, which is ten times the natural rate of soil creation. Now hold this information for just another minute…

Last fall in my landscape ecology course, we read from Jared Diamond’s book COLLAPSE. The author described a people, the Anasazi, who perished about A.D.1200 because of their short-sighted vision with regard to intensive agricultural production. The deforestation of the land led to serious soil erosion and the inevitable decline in soil productivity. I wonder why we aren’t doing more to save this precious resource?

This posting began with the sound of the furious wind blasts rattling the window panes. As a future landscape architect, I am starting to connect the dots with regard to how we shape and mold the land. If we don’t appreciate Mother Nature and her brilliant design of this good earth, we don’t stand a chance.


  1. It's fascinating to see someone else in a similar stage of the Landscape Architecture learning process. I like the list of books next to your drafting table. I have "Sunset's Western Garden" and Chip Sullivan's "Drawing the Landscape". I'll be back.

  2. My landscape history prof mentioned more than once that my drawing projects for her class reminded her of Chip Sullivan's work. I was flattered when I opened one of his books, but I am so NOT in his league! I notice he does a monthly page in Landscape Architecture magazine. Keep in touch.