Reading the landscape for the great actions that are displayed in small ways.
“Watch the ground,” Grandpa said.
I don’t remember where it was. I don’t even remember how old I was. I mean, sure, I could look it up. I know how to find soil surveys and read geologic maps. How many places in Illinois can you see where the ice age ended? What I do remember is the color.
The Carson Scholars program at the University of Arizona is dedicated to training the next generation of environmental researchers in the art of public communication, from writing to speaking. Partnering with Terrain.org, the program will present essays and other writing from students and alumni of the Carson Scholars Program—A Life of Science—with hopes of inspiring readers to understand not only research findings but the textures of the lives of scientists and others engaged in the crucial work of helping the planet along in an age of unprecedented change.
The truck slipped down one of those nameless county roads that divvy up the fields into neat squares. I kept my eyes glued to the passing rows of unplowed corn stalks. The road hit a small decline and dropped 20 feet.
“There it is,” he said, pointing.
The ground changed from the dark loamy silt of my family’s farm to a sandy brown. Black to brown. A slight change in the ratio of sand to silt to clay, nothing more.
“That’s where the glacier stopped during the last ice age.”
We kept driving.
I spent many hours riding in Grandpa’s truck, wandering all over the county he lived in and listening to him tell stories. But the story of the soil always stuck with me. That a small, subtle change in the landscape could speak to the monumental shifts of the past, imbued that Midwest drive with a sense of grandeur. The ice age stopped here, on my family’s small farm. It gave me pride in a land that is otherwise typified by its tedium.
I always felt like I grew up in a land without nature. Yes, I explored the woods and biked by our lake, but none of it felt real. Nature was the mountain vistas on my school planner or the storm-washed seascape of a dentist’s office painting. Nature wasn’t in Illinois. If you wanted nature you went somewhere else. Florida or Texas or California, someplace exotic. We would visit the family farm and see only endless miles of empty fields. No trees, no animals, only a smattering of homes and machine sheds. I wasn’t upset about it. It was a working landscape where my ancestors farmed and provided for the generations that followed. Still, I felt a sense of sadness about the lack of the natural.
Eventually, I read Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. In his writings I found a description that celebrated the nature of the Midwest. In the vignette “A Prairie Birthday,” Leopold spoke of the persistent silphium flower, surviving the prairie’s destruction in the unplowed corners of the settler graveyards:
What a thousand acres of Silphiums looked like when they tickled the bellies of buffalo is a question never again to be answered, and perhaps not even asked.
Yet I wanted to know. I became obsessed with finding the last remnants of the Illinois prairie. Any chance to see a big bluestem on a railroad siding or a relic burr oak in a hillside pasture was worth the long drive down backroads. Each sighting gave me the same jolt of excitement as that time with Grandpa. Each one a connection with a grander past.
It was around this time I began my formal scientific education. I was spurred on by the advice of teachers and a knack for the coursework, but with no particular focus. I bounced among disciplines. I thought geology could explain the mountains or hydrology would unravel the rivers. All were interesting but none held my attention for long.
Then slowly, over time, I realized my fascination with the mundane. What always caught my eye were the quirks in a place, an erratic boulder or a change in vegetation. Like hearing an errant note in a monotonous rhythm, my upbringing in dullness had attuned my ability to find subtle shifts in the world. I loved reading the landscape for the great actions that were displayed in small ways.
As a doctoral student in dendrochronology, I study bristlecone pines growing high in the Rocky Mountains. When I collect samples, the vistas are always garishly ornate with a multitude of crags and shadows. But my interests are piqued by the half millimeter of cells growing slowly inside the tree. Aggregating the pine’s experienced weather, the ring is a transformation of climate into distance.
Using this measurable increment, I look for the potential correlations between the temperature or the precipitation at the site and the ring-width. Once an association between width and modern climate is found, I reverse the process to translate the ancient rings into climatic values. Multiple sites can be combined to produce a regional record, with the final data used for climate reconstruction or global climate model validation.
Malum enim omen est, quando Aetna, mons Siciliae, non fumi, sed flammarum egerit globos.
“It is a bad portent when Mt. Etna of Sicily emits not puffs of smoke but balls of flame,” writes Virgil in Georgics 1.472 after the 44-42 B.C. eruption.
I’m back at my desk, scanning the results of an ancient code. I’ve measured the tree-rings and siphoned them into a Fortran age decoder. Numbers scroll by like scientific hieroglyphics.
This number pops out.
I scan the results a second time.
It appears again. And again. 846 B.C.
Suddenly I’ve found my needle in a wood-stack. I’ve discovered the oldest remnant wood found in Colorado. Nearly 3,000 years old. It’s a realization that blossoms into full-blown excitement. I can’t believe my luck. This slice of wood from an unnamed peak extends across half of written history.
I check the piece again. I find crumpled cells at 42 B.C. A sign of an early frost, a violently cold summer. They match the date for the Mt. Etna eruption.
A slight change in cell division tells a story of events half a world away, eruptions that cooled the atmosphere, ancient poets driven to record. When my research finds those tiny off-notes, those ancient imprints, I think back to that drive on the Illinois county roads. Colossal, global changes contained in small places.
Will Tintor is a Ph.D. candidate in Geography at the University of Arizona. His work focuses on unlocking and understanding past climates using tree-ring records. He lives and works in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Header photo by Wolfgang Borchers, courtesy Pixabay. Photo of Will Tintor holding the oldest piece of remnant wood found in Colorado.