Geologic Time, and Touching the Ground Lightly

Today we met with geologist R. M. Joeckel at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. His talk gave us a great reading of the issues of the Keystone Pipeline from a scientific standpoint. As a geologic scientist, his reading of space and time are huge, covering thousands of years of development in the Nebraska landscape. Changing scale like that on this issue does help to see beyond the current argument, to how the pipeline will actually be an added condition to what the ground is made of. This doesn’t really help to draw conclusions, and it shouldn’t. It makes me think instead of the perspectives we read in Landscape Futures. In the article “Superscapes,” Smout and Allen discuss that thought for the future of these ‘curious environments’ is what is really at stake. The landscape, its history, its ecological risks, are more interesting to me than any partisan arguments.

At the Homestead Monument earlier today we saw a bit more of the landscape’s history, especially in terms of how it was cultivated. The history of homesteading, and also seeing the evolution of farming equipment used, provided yet another scale with which to look at the Keystone. Every bit of the landscape here is rooted in how America became what it is—back then, through what must have been excruciating labor. The machines people used to use are beautiful even through their rust. What struck me the most about these were their incredibly light touch on the ground: with just a few points of pressure, these machines and their operators were able to cultivate energy, food, and economy from the landscape.

This contrasts with the physical effects of the pipeline. Though invisible, it has a heavy footprint of continuous contact with the land. And it is not operated by hand, but instead by sensors and data readings. This automation is perhaps another reason, in addition to its subterranean location and liquid medium (see my previous post), that there is trepidation about the pipeline. Automation is somewhat new, and we don’t trust in its fail-safe mechanisms because no one will be there to double check them. But it is important to keep in mind that we are at just one moment of the pipeline’s history. Looking at how far we have come from early farm equipment, it is difficult to imagine how far we will go with the technologies that are in use now, from the pipeline to power lines, windmills, and grain elevators. Whether the new advancements are for good or bad is something that will probably be continuously in flux.

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