Monday, November 02, 2015

Whole lotta ruttin' going on

That's what the highway sign said this morning:
WHOLE LOTTA RUTTIN GOING ON WATCH FOR DEER
It brought a smile to my face even as I was duly warned of the frightful danger that I face on the roads of Iowa.  This is one of the most intense states in the nation, when it comes to collision risk: currently third, with a 1 in 68 chance of hitting a deer each year.  Frankly, this number really blows my mind, especially coming from Massachusetts where the odds are an order of magnitude lower, and Boston in particular where you might as well not even bother thinking about the possibility.  I've had a recent close call of my own already, a couple weeks back on a date with my wife, when a deer darted across in front of us and I had to jam my breaks on to avoid an accident.

In Iowa, the distinction between countryside and city is much sharper and closer than New England, and it seems to me that it's a virtually ideal environment for deer.  Deer flourish on the edges of forests and in sparse woodlands, and those are things that Iowa has in great amount.  Drive through the countryside, and you see something that I have never really known before I moved out there into the Midwest: an entirely rural-industrial environment.

Growing up in New England, and with my father's stories of growing up in Colorado, I'm used to the idea of "rural" meaning lands where little or no people live.  Walk through the woods of Maine or New Hampshire or even Massachusetts, and you will first of all find that you've a very hard time walking through those dense pine woods at all, and second that they often extend in all directions for many miles, a fearsome wilderness broken only by the old stone walls of centuries-abandoned farms. The woods of Iowa, by contrast, are linear affairs, in which one would have a rather difficult time getting lost at all.  They curve along contours of land, following streams and rivers, in those narrow places where the land is too steep to be productively arable.  Elsewhere, the land is mostly farms, broken by an apparently arbitrary fractal dispersion of cities, towns, and factories.  Suburbs don't exist they way I knew them in New England, where the city slowly peters out into nothingness over the course of many miles: Iowa City stops about a mile East of our house on a straight-edged line, an instant transition from extremely dense developments to fields of corn and soy (rotating on a 3-year cycle).  Even in the most rural areas I've been, you're never more than a couple of miles from a dense aggregation of a few hundred people clustered together in a tight little town.

Biodiversity is low, in an environment like this, but species that do well on the boundaries with humanity, like deer and rabbits, flourish and expand.  All the halloween pumpkins in our neighborhood are attacked and eaten by marauding squirrels.  And this transplanted specimen still feels for roots, sorting out my place in this rich Midwestern soil.
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