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Linear Humans in a Complex Landscape

November 4, 2010


Last week, I was scheduled to fly to Denver during, as it turns out, the most intense storm ever recorded in the midcontinent of North America.  Our flight was cancelled because the wind-driven weather had apparently damaged some control systems as the plane sat on the tarmac over night. All plans had to be shuffled and adjusted, and I eventually arrived in Denver 12 hours late.

It seemed to me that this was a classic example of a linear human schedule meeting a complex natural event. Whenever this sort of thing happens (and I have seen my share of flight cancellations), people’s reactions are always interesting to observe. Some of them stolidly take it in stride. Others sit back, observe, and take quick advantage of the first opportunity to re-book and move forward. But many, perhaps a solid third, get  upset, stressed, and confused.

Subdivisions form tidy patterns on the outskirts of Denver. This photo and the subsequent ones are ordered to provide an aerial view of my return flight from Denver to Winnipeg, in the clear weather that followed the storm.

Striped and gridded field patterns northeast of Denver

 I was talking to the fellow beside me in the queue, and his reaction was, “How can this happen?  How can the airline do this to us? Why are they messing up the schedule?”

He had, apparently, never had  experience with calamitous natural events, and thought that it was some fault on the part of the airline that was keeping him from getting to his business destination as he had carefully planned.

This caused me to think about human nature, and how it relates to nature itself. Most civilized people are accustomed to order, we like to organize the world, and we tend to think that we can understand things by classifying and categorizing them. Sometimes this can work very well: so much scientific progress has come from classifying organisms and patterns, but good classifications only come when we learn to appreciate and try to understand complexity.

Our domination of some landscapes can produce pleasing geometric patterns,as shown by these irrigation systems in western Nebraska.


Dendritic river drainage in South Dakota

 At its worst, our urge to classify can lead to the mindless red tape and pigeonholing associated with many bureaucratic systems. Airplane schedules are, it seems, somewhere in the middle, as they must be carefully thought out based on sound economic models. But the best laid schedules cannot account for events associated with complex weather systems, not when the most advanced Global Climate Models are not yet capable of that feat.

Our urge to simplify and dominate complex natural systems is also demonstrated by our modification of so many of Earth’s landscapes. The fractal forms of natural landscapes are, in general, far less productive economically than the Euclidean geometric forms we usually impose upon them. We have a drive to subjugate the land so that we can profit from it, thus making it “useful.”  Rugged landscapes can only be dominated so far: we appreciate mountains and badlands for their beauty, but in general we have not had great success at making a living from them.

To my untutored eye, these badlands along a river in South Dakota seem to form almost a pure fractal pattern.

This creek in northern North Dakota downcuts through the gridded fields of the Pembina Hills.

On the other hand, our organizing instincts moved to the fore when we were given what is, to many of us, a blank canvas: the flat prairies and plains of west-central North America. Over one hundred years ago, the prairies were surveyed into mile-square sections by both the American and British/Canadian colonizers, prior to being settled and ploughed under. This becomes entirely obvious from 30,000 feet, as we see an endless expanse of tidy checkerboard reaching almost to the horizon. The prairie was relatively smooth and tractable, and we tractored it.

In so doing, we turned its diverse and complex tall grass and short grass ecosystems into much simpler monoculture. We drove the bison almost to extinction, and drastically reduced the ranges and populations of many other prairie organisms. Yet we barely recognize that anything has been lost. We seem to only notice and treasure natural systems when they refuse to be controlled, like the badlands farther west and the great boggy boreal forest to the north. If a landscape is easy, then we do not respect it after we have had our way with it.

Square mile sections on the North Dakota and Manitoba prairie have a geometric perfection when seen from great height.

This river cuts across the sections southwest of Winnipeg. After the extreme heavy rains, it can be seen that there is still some natural dendritic drainage, despite humans' best efforts to channel and arrange the systems.

For modern city people, the same goes for weather and climate. When we have the power to ignore it, then we don’t respect it.  But we do not have a coherent response if it suddenly and shockingly veers out of our control. Our simplifying urge is partly or largely responsible for major problems like water shortages and global warming. This urge allows us to readily solve practical local problems, but may well be the opposite of what is needed when dealing with complex systems.

North of Winnipeg

Cloverleaf, Perimeter Highway, Winnipeg

Cloverleaf junction on the Perimeter Highway, Winnipeg

Truck depot, Winnipeg

© Graham Young, 2010
Note: In order to clearly illustrate the landscape patterns, it is entirely probable that I edited some of these photos rather heavily.
5 Comments leave one →
  1. November 5, 2010 11:45 am

    Illuminating post, Graham. Sad but so true.

  2. November 7, 2010 1:17 am

    Great post and fantastic aerial photos.

    I’ve always been struck by the images of the terraced rice field in mountains of SE Asia — a good example of how we superimpose our patterns on the landscape.

    • Graham permalink*
      November 7, 2010 9:34 am

      Thank you. That’s a good point! I was thinking so much about North America, and forgetting how we impose ourselves on more complex landscapes elsewhere.

  3. Gwyneth Evans permalink
    November 29, 2012 12:38 pm

    Thank you for sharing your blog and photos. I particularly like the aerial view of the Nebraska irrigation fields…. I’m researching images that convey a technical complexity that requires explanation (to illustrate the work of a technical writer) – please let me know if I might be able to reuse your image with your credit information/link back to your blog.

    • Graham permalink*
      November 29, 2012 11:37 pm

      Thank you, Gwyneth. I have sent you a reply by e-mail.

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