On the heels of a longer bike ride on Sunday, the opportunity to ride on Monday seemed like an extravagance. But the weather was near perfect: 70 degrees and sunny.
So I pulled out the Batavia kit in red, black and white and jumped on the Specialized Venge for an hour’s ride (or more).
It was windy, and I knew that. So I aimed for the local glacial hill that juts out of the Illinois landscape. Hide from the wind and do hill repeats. There are several such rises in the area. Each is a deposit from the glaciers that once crushed this area of the country. If there were hills at one time in this region, they all got scraped down by mountainous walls of ice that were perhaps a mile tall in places. The winds reportedly reached hurricane force off those ice shields.
But that took place 10,000 years ago. For a long time following the Ice Age, gravel was the dominant feature. Then the recomposition phase began. Mineral soils began to blow around. A feature called prairie loess began to cover much of the Upper Midwest. Plants moved in and evolved to occupy this initially shallow feature. Their roots evolved to sink deep into the ground. Over millennia the prairie built soils as much as six or seven feet deep.
From ice to white fury
This was the landscape upon which European settlers pounced just 200 years ago. When the metal plow allowed the ability to tear up the roots of the prairie plants, it was game over for the native prairie. Now less than 1/10th of one percent of the original prairie in Illinois remains.
And we’ve done a piss poor job of protecting the depth and quality of the soils we exploit for food and fuel. Many billions of tons of rich black soil have either blown or washed away. Much of it wound up in rivers that carried it down to the Gulf of Mexico.
This soil dispersal is visible along old fence lines where the posts perch a foot or two higher than the surrounding land. We’ve gained 200 years of prosperity from that missing soil, but sacrificed 10,000 years of evolution in the process.
And for that reason, the smell of ammonia was rich across the land on Sunday. That’s how farmers replace nitrogen in the soil. Then we passed a hog farm that almost choked off our breathing it stunk so bad. In some places the impact of hog farms on nearby streams is devastating. In others, the mere smell of pig manure permeates an entire section the landscape. Those are the prices we pay for the chance to slap a pork chop on a grill come Sunday. I’ve done it. I’m guilty as the rest of us.
Meanwhile, across the nation the excess love of red meat drives beef farmers to use as much as 50% of the freshwater consumed in America in raising meat products. And all that red meat with its tasty fat helps contribute to health issues such as heart disease. We are literally living off the fat of land. And it’s us.
Think of the equation in all this. We’ve stripped the marbled soil from our landscape and at the same time consume so much marbled beef our arteries and veins grow walls of plaque that eventually choke off our own bloodstream. And yet the ranchers scream that they don’t have enough access and freedom to graze their cattle on public land. They even shut down a nature preserve a couple years ago to make the point that they’re paying too much to let their cattle denude the land of native and invasive grasses. America is turning itself inside out over its own appetites.
These days there are not many cattle ranches or dairy farms left in Illinois. It’s all corn and soybeans. I rode through those fields carefully scrubbed of corn shalks and bean remnants on my way to Johnson’s Mound, the prairie kame that sticks up out of the fields. Then I rode five circuits around the 8/10 of a mile loop. Near the tope of the climb the grade rises to 12%. It gets pretty hard to move without standing up on the pedals. But that’s the point. Hard is good on a bike. Hills are vital to ride.
Wildflowers and pain
There were wildflowers everywhere on the side of the hill at Johnson’s Mound. The have come and gone more than 40 times since the first time I climbed that hill was 1971 as a high school freshman. As I’ve climbed through life, it has not gotten any easier to ride or run the damned hill. But that’s also the point. When life is hard, it pays to make it harder so that the rest feels easy.
Then I pedaled back into the southeast wind that shuttled my aero bike back and forth across the white line. As the sun got to an angle behind me, the tarsnakes behind me shone silver in the white light of a late spring afternoon. To some, it was just another day. But I thanked the universe for my ability to enjoy such a moment, and for the knowledge of all that takes place around me, and has gone before. It all matters somehow. Everything.
Even while people blindly choke down red meat and ignore the history of the landscape in the process, someone has to care. Call that the liberal instinct. The will to wonder why we do the things we do, and to question even traditional “values” when they are obviously the things wasting our soil and killing us inch by inch.
There’s a strain of morbid stupidity a mile deep going on in America right now. It’s like an icy glacier of ignorance flattening the nation’s conscience and demanding that the Doctrine of Dunces be allowed full sway. It’s a cold thick wasteland of anti-intellectualism that spreads like ice across a dimwitted Congress and Executive Branch and Supreme Court.
But the recent March for Science shows that people who care about such things will not be run over by dullards and demagogues. There is still hope. And the silver tarsnakes in the setting sun cheered me on.