We just drove out to western Minnesota from our home here in the Smoky Mountains, taking in our old stomping grounds in Milwaukee on the way. We needed face time with our children and our granddaughter. After rolling off the western flank of the Appalachians we stopped at Berea, Kentucky, where I taught at the college for a semester in the 70s. Its art, crafts, and mission to the education of Appalachia’s young people continue to inspire us. Then, crossing the Ohio River at Louisville we came upon the corn. A thousand miles of corn. It was dry, brown, and brittle in the October sun. The combines were beginning to march down its rows like giraffes, their long necks spewing kernels of grain into the waiting carriers beside them.
It’s not the corn you put on your table to munch off the cob like an old-fashioned typewriter. It’s mostly for feed corn and ethanol. That’s 70%. Corn for cereal, bread, sweetener and liquor constitute the rest. The rich loam and level land stretch to the horizon. It is a vast factory transforming sun and rain into bundles of energy for human use. American civilization arose from corn. Its concentrated energy gave us surplus labor to build our cities and the artifacts of modern life. But as I contemplated the convoys of trucks transporting food and manufactured materials, and navigated among the cars propelled by gasoline and ethanol, I also felt the rats of suspicion gnawing at me. The ethanol barely offsets the energy to produce it. The feed that goes to meat fuels a crisis of pollution, obesity, and possible disease. The ocean of corn has a dark and ominous side.
My negative reverie was soon interrupted by much larger blades above the plain in northern Indiana. Row after row of gleaming wind turbines turned slowly and silently in the steady breeze. Gesturing like semaphores of a new order, they stretched to the horizon on either side as we moved like ants among their towering presence. They march across the plains in thousands now, turning sun to energy above the factories of corn beneath them. Each turbine, they tell me, yields a rent to the farmer plowing around them of up to $7000 a year.
So the revolution proceeds, silently, gradually, a grass-roots movement of a new generation. The rows of turbines thin out in the undulating moraines of Wisconsin, their tidy, sturdy farm buildings clustered at the edge of fields and woods, built by immigrants from northern Europe a century or more ago. When we hit the plains west of Minneapolis, they began popping up again. When we reached Moorhead, across the Red River from Fargo, North Dakota, my daughter and her husband took us out to see their community solar and wind farm. They had bought some shares that would eventually defray their energy bill. Their names were even on a plaque beside the nest of switches and cables beside the panels gazing at the sun. It is an entrepreneurial revolution in energy as well as local control over its generation. They were the independent farmers, so to speak, of a new energy factory.
We humans, like practically all other life, exist in an immense energy cycle based on the sun. The mechanisms of this metabolism of the sun’s energy have changed greatly over the eons from wood fire to coal to oil and now to solar panel and wind, but we are still enmeshed in them, for they constitute the body of our life, whether of our physical bodies or of our artifacts, including the automobile that enabled us to cruise through these factories of the sun. So, my friends, this is more than “fly-over” country. It is a heartbeat we need to listen to.