A recent piece on NPR reports on the observations of a science writer Craig Childs, who camped for a long weekend in a 300-acre Iowa cornfield to see what is living there. Childs was inspired by the work of photographer David Liittschwager, “who spent a few years traveling the world, dropping one-cubic-foot metal frames into gardens, streams, parks, forests, oceans, and then photographing whatever, or whoever came through.” In the upper reaches of a Strangler fig tree in Costa Rica, for example, Liittschwager recorded more than 150 different plants and animals living in or passing through that one square foot.
But in the corn field, Childs reports:
"I listened and heard nothing, no bird, no click of insect."
There were no bees. The air, the ground, seemed vacant. He found one ant "so small you couldn't pin it to a specimen board." A little later, crawling to a different row, he found one mushroom, "the size of an apple seed." Then, later, a cobweb spider eating a crane fly (only one). A single red mite "the size of a dust mote hurrying across the barren earth," some grasshoppers, and that's it. Though he crawled and crawled, he found nothing else.
"It felt like another planet entirely," he said, a world denuded.
Yet, 100 years ago, these same fields, these prairies, were home to 300 species of plants, 60 mammals, 300 birds, hundreds and hundreds of insects. This soil was the richest, the loamiest in the state. And now, in these patches, there is almost literally nothing but one kind of living thing. We've erased everything else.
It made me think about the similarly pesticide-drenched corn fields that now stretch from Lihue to Mana, and the sugar cane plantations that preceded them, and the tremendous diversity of Hawaii's original native landscape, which has been largely diminished and silenced, just like the Great Plains.
How much longer, do you suppose, can we live apart like this, separating ourselves from the beautiful, complex workings of the world, destroying anything and everything that gets in our way?
And given the magic of a bee turning nectar into honey, a spider spinning a web, a bird weaving a nest, why do we even want to?
As Robert Krulwich concludes in his piece for NPR:
There's something strange about a farm that intentionally creates a biological desert to produce food for one species: us. It's efficient, yes. But it's so efficient that the ants are missing, the bees are missing, and even the birds stay away. Something's not right here. Our cornfields are too quiet.