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Hi there! I am a new graduate student in the Hadly lab, and here is my first blog entry reflecting on my recent cross-country drive from NY to Stanford.

I am from New York; from all of its parts. My home is a small port town on the Long Island Sound, a stretch of coastline away from the New York City skyline. My love of New York, though, is rooted deeply in the lush earth of the Catskill Mountains and the Finger Lakes. There, where hills slope like the backs of sleeping dragons, is my connection to place, and therefore, my sense of self. The connection to place and landscape has all but been obliterated in modern times; yet it informs most deeply who we are and how we perceive the world. The land cultivates us, too.

New York is a water state, in simplicity. We are known for our glassy Adirondack lakes, for our unfiltered reservoir that sustains millions in New York City, and for our waterfalls that breathe mist into many a Devonian gorge. In Ithaca, the ground is ripe with the dead of ancient seas: trilobites, crinoids, early fishes; a parallel universe of the first of major radiations and the last of long gone forms. Although New York is certainly not under salt water today, our evolutionary ghosts haunt us further:  hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) of the Marcellus shale deposits, delivers a politically tractable source of natural gas that has divided communities between the promise of temporary economic bounty and the sure cost of irreparable environmental damage and loss of wilderness areas. As Aldo Leopold would presciently and more poetically frame the quagmire, “like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them. Now we face the question whether a still higher ‘standard of living’ is worth its cost in things natural, wild and free”.

In leaving the place to which I am connected, to begin my PhD at Stanford, I realize it is the first time I am physically divorcing myself from the landscape that forever frames my imagination. My sense of space and what is a “good” or “bad” use of land stems directly from how I perceive the preciousness of forest fragments when crowded by tall buildings and heavily manicured grass lawns. New York is brimming with people, and it feels as though all open space is just a bulldozer away from suburban sprawl.

In August, I drove from New York to California in the span of six days. I wanted to see the spread of the country; to see “red” states and swing states that I had only heard of on TV. I wanted to broaden my myopic perception of what the United States is, especially in light of the upcoming election. But more importantly, as a scientist interested in public policy, I believe it is absolutely imperative to understand who the stakeholders are in this game of conservation and management. And what better way to do so than by visiting the contentious land itself?

The first leg of the journey meandered through Pennsylvania, Ohio (the holy grail of undecided voters), Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, and Kansas, with long stretches of monoculture farms and valleys of windmills that demanded a Don Quixote.  Although I have never visited these places before, traces of their chemicals, their soil, and their air surely filter down through my blood. Where did the beans in my soymilk come from? Not my New York CSA share. This trip was beginning to feel like a pilgrimage through the sacred soy and corn supply chain— the far-reaching, gasoline-clotted veins of mechanized agriculture.

Kansas was both empty and full space; it was verdant and green, but the food crop biomass seemed like an alien masquerading as a native ecosystem.  In Colorado, I drove up to 12,000 feet in Rocky Mountain National Park, watching the silhouette of trees shift as oxygen grew sparser in the atmosphere. It was first in Colorado when I started to get a sense that I was truly moving westward.

After the scenic mountain views, the small sign welcoming us to Wyoming on a crumbling and desolate secondary highway was of little note. But, along the road, I began to see caramel and cream colored ungulates that I recognized as pronghorn, Antilocapra americana, living ghosts of our continent’s evolutionary history. During the Pleistocene, 12 species of pronghorn existed; today there is a single species within a single family, making them evolutionarily distinctive relicts. Pronghorn are the fastest creatures in North America, able to run at 70mph. Although none of their modern predators are that agile, pronghorns evolved at a time when the threat of the American cheetah was looming behind every ancient bush. Though their partner has gone extinct, A. americana retains this anti-predator adaptation from its evolutionary duet.

I saw cattle grazing on the scorched earth of Bureau of Land Management owned land, the cattle for whom the Endangered Species Act was eviscerated to accommodate corporate interests at the expense of wolves and their ecosystems. The cost of losing what was natural, wild, and free—is it worth that cheap hamburger?  I think about how some of the “reddest” states politically are those with the most fantastical fossil records—the rocks of Wyoming impregnated with dinosaurs—but if landscape informs political opinion, why are the places with the richest paleontological knowledge also the least accepting of evolution?

Driving through Utah and Nevada the sky was like an eggshell half cracked and removed, where the sheer linearity of the horizon made me anxious. To me this was a stagnant world of red rock and dust, and I could begin to understand how this view of infinite open land has truly shaped our country. Manifest destiny—the pioneer mentality that land is endless, that it is ownable, and that it must be productive—gives us a sense of entitlement. The ruggedness of Western “wilderness” makes us want to conquer it. The West gave us our guts and nationalism; and as we vanquished its mystery we became disenchanted with nature itself. 

The New Yorker in me screams internally, angry that such vast stretches of land exist unappreciated, but corporate interests need to continue developing my precious state’s forests and poison its legacy of water with fracking chemicals.

                  Arriving in California, the mountains again are peopled and a veil of greenery overlays the slopes of hills. Water returns. Palo Alto reminds me of my hometown on Long Island and San Francisco of New York City, a mirror image reflected across 3,000 miles of “otherness”. If tourists visited only the coasts, they would have a very poor understanding of the United States itself. Our patchwork of national parks and oil rigs, livestock fences and conservation reserves is symptomatic of our country’s strange love affair with wilderness. And as Leopold writes better than I, man always kills the thing he loves. And so we the pioneers have killed our wilderness”. 

For a more formal discussion of why states are “red” and “blue” due to geography, I highly recommend Steven Pinker’s recent article in the New York Times

- Alexis Mychajliw