Looking out the plane window, westbound to SF from NYC, I am struck by my limited understanding of, and vocabulary for, the landscape I see. In Nebraska, what are those large, perfect circles in shades of brown and green, some with shaded pie-shapes? Across the patchwork of brown and green rectangles, why do the forests or hedgerows make such a strong, finger-lakes-like pattern? They look like Jack Frost, creeping across the rectilinear quilt. Could they be tracing the moisture in swales? Over Nevada, are the large, irregular, flat white areas dry salt lakes? As we approach San Francisco, I see large, seemingly shallow, irregular pools — or bays — or ponds — bounded by thin, curving strips. Are they manmade or natural? Are the boundaries roads? They look like natural borders, and some are busy with tiny fast-moving cars and trucks. I watch a small white car zooming along a curving path. It’s glinting brightly in the sun. Full of energy and seemingly purposeful direction, it looks as if it will glide off the path, ignoring the strong curve ahead, and head straight for a large, brownish bay. Then my stomach lurches. The car leaves the “road” (or snaking pool-boundary) and goes soaring over the water! Horrified, I wait for the splash. The glinting white object was a white bird.
I knew my mother, an amateur landscape-viewer, could help. She reminded me that the perfect circles over Nebraska are the mark of center-pivot irrigation rigs. The brown and green patchwork is made up of plots, each six miles across, about 160 acres, often split in two four, forty acre parcels — hence the Back Forty of American farm lingo. Though square, the 160-acre plots look like rectangles, she explained, because of the perspective from the plane.
As we approach SF, the characteristic golden-topped, knobbly hills of the Bay area. What would grow in California without irrigation? Not lawns, not lettuce, not giant, white-centered strawberries.
Edited to add: On my way through the Portland airport, I came across a gallery of magnificent photographs narrated by James K. Earle, a professor of English at the University of Oregon. The photographs, and Earle’s captions, answered all my questions about the View from the Window Seat, as he calls it. And the photos are beautiful. See them here.