Field Station 2: Anthropocene Drift

August 9th, 2019

What is the relation between large-scale agriculture and biome change? An examination of the infrastructure of the monocrop industry in the Midwestern United States.

The Midwestern United States is dominated by cropland, a patchwork of monocrop fields laden with corn and soy destined for confined animal feedlots, fuel refineries, chemical manufacturers, and global export. Globally, such large-scale agriculture is deeply connected to climate change, contributing more than one fifth of greenhouse gas emissions. However, political ecologists argue that the impacts of industrial agriculture cannot be measured by emissions alone. From the near-total destruction of the prairie biome by the beginning of the 20th century to the flow of 21st century chemicals down the Mississippi River, agricultural land degradation reaches across territories, connecting past, present, and future.

Subtended by property law, enabled by large-scale infrastructure, and shored up by popular mythologies, the region and its agricultural practices are also imbricated in violent and problematic histories of convergence between Indigenous Peoples and settler colonialists. The problems of conventional agriculture therefore cannot be faced—let alone addressed—without understanding them in their historical, social, and ecological context.

Anthropocene Drift will focus on a juxtaposition of two landscapes, differently shaped by climate, geology, and culture. One landscape, located in the Kickapoo River Valley in southwestern Wisconsin, is part of a larger region commonly known as the Driftless Area. Defined by scenic hills and bluffs and spared from the effects of the Wisconsinan Glaciation, it is also known as a celebrated home to sustainable agriculture practices. Just south of the Driftless, on both sides of the Mississippi River, one finds a very different cultural and topographical landscape defined by endless expanses of predominantly flat and rectilinear fields of monocrops, an area known to many as the Corn Belt. Just over one hundred years ago, this landscape was dominated by a vast grassland, composed of a complex of tallgrass and oak savannah known as the Grand Prairie. Despite the near-total elimination of this grassland biome, Illinois is still known as “the prairie state.”

Following durational fieldwork in the region, the organizers will produce two public-facing components for the Anthropocene Drift. The first is Field Guides to the Anthropocene Drift, a series of artful guidebooks, each responding to a different cultural and/or scientific aspect of the Anthropocene in this geographical region. The second component of the Field Station is Over the Levee, Under the Plow, a four day mobile symposium that positions the agro-engineering of rural America within the broader framework of settler colonialism in order to attend to the historical, political and epistemic roots of the agricultural and environmental crisis. Unfolding in small towns around the Mississippi River, the program brings together agroecologists, Native leaders, local residents, international scholars for a series of events, tours, and small group discussions to better understand the origins of the present engineered landscape and to build alliances for more just and sustainable alternatives.