The River Underground examines the impact of agriculture on the land, our climate, and most importantly, its implications on our environmental future. With this project, I start a conversation about the consequences of our actions, particularly the use of drainage tiles, to expose the invisible and find a more sustainable way forward. To call attention to this subject, I have created a series of aerial images of drainage tiles in farm fields that are at once seductive, painterly, and troubling. 

The dark lines in the photographs are evidence of where the soil has been disturbed, and the drainage tiles are buried. Millions of miles of hidden tiles make up a network of underground rivers flowing beneath farm fields in the Midwest. The tiles help drain water off the flat farm fields faster, decrease soil erosion in the field, and increase crop yields. They also create a four-fold increase in Nitrogen pollution in rivers, harming water quality and increasing greenhouse gas production in waterways. Microbial denitrification converts the Nitrogen into Nitrous Oxide, which is 298 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, therefore, having a more significant impact on Climate Change. Agriculture accounts for ten percent of our greenhouse gas emissions. 

Drainage tiles are complicated; they have positive and negative environmental effects. More research is needed to find the best solutions for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from our food production, and with The River Underground, I hope to begin the conversation.

"These unseen infrastructures need to be dug up and viewed in the light of day, lest they fool us into taking the monocultural and industrial landscape around us for granted..." Robert Michael Morrissey

To understand their history, see the fascinating essay by Robert Michael Morrissey below the thumbnails.

The Drains Out of Town: The Invisible Environmental History of a Flatland

Robert Michael Morrissey, Associate Professor, Environmental History.

"One invisible story of connection and disconnection in the eastern prairie region is arguably more fundamental than any other to it's ecological history. It is the story of water. Although most of us in the midwest are not accustomed to thinking about water as a central factor in the environmental circumstances of our place, it is nonetheless true that one of the most important paths out of town is a river. And not just any river, but something of a cyborg river running ramrod straight through the cornfields. This is a river fed by thousands of miles of PVC tubes (still known as drainage "tiles" in local parlance) buried underneath the rural landscape, totally out of sight. This is a river periodically gushing with massive springtime floods and their associated agricultural runoff, including importantly topsoil and agrochemicals. This is a river that embodies one of the most profound landscape changes perhaps in all of North America, and a river whose destiny is intertwined with a key symbol of the Anthropocene: the dead zone of the Gulf of Mexico, which grows bigger each year.

Here the engineering problem is flatness. Perhaps even more so than ecological changes in vegetation cover, the changes that landowners wrought in combating the flatness of this landscape were profound, severe, and irreversibly permanent. If it is true that the prairie peninsula is one of the most radically transformed ecological assemblages in North America, measured from the beginning of settler colonialism to today, surely drainage is a— if not the—most central aspect of that transformation.

Flatlands can be disorienting, especially since so much of their history is invisible or even buried. Unflattening the image of the midwestern landscape reveals a complex environmental history featuring a massive engineering project that left little trace on the land and even less in our consciousness. These unseen infrastructures need to be dug up and viewed in the light of day, lest they fool us into taking the monocultural and industrial landscape around us for granted, an unquestioned example of what William Cronon calls "second nature." Following the paths of connection across this flatland can restore a sense of the contingencies involved in how this place came to be, and perhaps give us a sense of how to live in it better. 

And in a larger sense, restoring contour to a flattened historical narrative helps us know how to act in the world. Modernity itself acts as a flattener, attempting to hide complexity, connection, disconnection, and loss beneath a clean surface of Progress. Environmental humanists are in a good place to question these flattened narratives and restore unseen connections."

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