The Earth and the Airport
Updated: Jun 29, 2021
Our neighbour rolled through our gate in a gleaming white dually pickup pulling a tracked skid steer on a flatbed trailer. Late morning on a brilliant July Saturday and the sky was a pale cloudless blue. The kind of dry that cracks earth and hands both, already hot and growing hotter as the sun’s eye looked down lidless and unrelenting, rising steadily and gaining strength as it rose. The soil and the air hold no moisture and so are hard-edged and resistant.
It was the kind of day best spent at the lake or on the porch, either seeking the sun or fleeing from it, embracing it or shunning it by turns. But we had other uses for the day that paid no homage to the strength of the sun on our faces nor considered the dryness of the air on our skin nor regarded the hardness of the soil under our feet. Our purpose was laid against the contours of the earth like a ruler, not to measure but to level, unbending and resolute though the whole creation groan and our backs glisten and quiver with the strain. We had a task and a timeline of our own making which no cycle of the planet could dissuade.
Chuck was here to help us drive posts for a new fence and he had brought with him a tremendous machine to assist in the task. In reality, the machine was not augmentation but only replacement of our own futile efforts. the ground was baked and hard, and to have attempted to beat the five-inch-thick wooden posts into the compacted clay by hand using our cylindrical driver would have taken a day of hard labor for every post. The skid steer is a compact machine but impossibly strong and heavy — driven by a 75 hp diesel and weighing twice as much as an SUV. The tracks turn together to propel it forward or backward slowly but inexorably or in opposition to turn it completely around in its own footprint. An experienced operator can make such a beast of a machine appear beautiful and nimble as it pirouettes and glides about its task — piling or spreading material with precision and intricacy, the implement moving as deftly as a hummingbird at the mouth of a blossom. Together we loosed the chains holding the machine in place, folded down the heavy triangular ramps and Chuck drove it slowly backwards off the end of the trailer as the deck lurched and tilted under the shifting weight. He drove around to the side and after a similar procedure unchaining the implement, he extended the arm of the skid steer and lifted the angular complication of metal block and rubber tubes off the wooden blocks to which it was secured.
The implement was compact and very heavy. It latched to the machine on a steel plate with hydraulic hoses connecting and extending down the articulated arm of the loader to the body of the machine. The face of the implement was smooth except for a circular fixture like the end of a pipe, extending downward and designed to fit over the end of the post.
We determined the spot where we wanted to begin the line of the fence, at the corner where the drive branches up the barn, and set out to drive our first post. I took the thick, seven-foot post and fitted it’s blunt end into the cup of the implement. As Chuck activated the hydraulics the implement lurched to life as the mechanism inside it caused a violent vibration.
As if by magic, the tapered end of the post disappeared into the hard ground as the weight of the implement and the weight of the skid steer itself leaned into it and the hydraulics fed an endless volley of short blows down upon its head. Chuck paused for me to check the level of the post and its depth, adjusted the machine and began again with a deafening, rattling howl of steel on wood on ground. The pebbles danced at my feet several strides away. Where the post made contact with the ground, you could see reverberations travel like liquid waves through the parched clay. The front edge of the tracks lifted off the ground as thousands of pounds of trembling steel awkwardly leveraged itself onto the top of the post. I wore safety glasses and earmuffs to insulate me from the flying dust and the tremendous mind-numbing rattle, but still I felt the machine’s power through my feet and into the core of my body. I remember thinking as I watched that one touch of such an implement to a living body would have brought a swift death.
After two or three adjustments, the post was in, but it had taken ten minutes. Too long considering the hundreds of feet in either direction which we hoped to drive. Perhaps the next one would go in easier. We formed a gentle curve in our minds and with the toe of our boots and then began again. It went in a little easier. The ground softer or perhaps the post a little thinner? Six minutes this time. Maybe more like eight. We relocated a hundred feet up the slope and drove another. Much better. Maybe five minutes.
Tie a long line between the two posts at a few inches from the top. Tighten the line. No, it needs to be a little tighter still — see the sag between the posts? Pull out a foot of slack. Another foot. Ok, now mark each post at the same place a few inches from each top. That’ll be the mark we drive it to. Bring the marker board — 9 ft, 9 inches to allow for a mistake or two when cutting ten foot fence rails — and lay it at the middle of the last post to tell us where the next one needs to be. Place the end in the cup. Check the level of the post when the edge is touching the line. No, don’t make the line bend — just touching, not moving, then the line’ll be straight. Level? Nod. Yep. Stand back. The earth shakes. Still level? That way. Check again. A little more. Good. Thumbs up. Stand Back. The earth shakes.
We drive twenty posts that afternoon. Maybe twenty-five. Even the machine is not unscathed: the pounding and vibrating has sheered a bolt, has cracked a plate. Steel, but even steel is also from the earth, and eventually bends, and eventually breaks.
Our neighbor Fred Findley has lived here a long time. In this valley along this road. In the spring, he stands at the side of the road and watches his cows give birth to new calves. He doesn’t want to intrude, but If they have trouble, he helps. He watches the migratory birds in this lowland follow the seasons — flying south in the fall, north in the spring. He watches our cows too, and even us as we learn slowly and fitfully of what we are to do with a piece of land — with grass and animals and fence posts. We are glad for his watchfulness. If we have trouble, he helps. With the sensitivity of a therapist, and the disclaimer of “I don’t want to intrude…”, he suggests another way to accomplish the same thing. A way which causes no harm to man or beast, or to the earth. He speaks gently but clearly, with the precision and conviction and humility of long experience. When Mr. Findley drives by our home, he drives slowly and cautiously even though the road has been paved these many years. He drives slowly as if he is watching the day change the light on the mountains, but always seems to arrive anyway to where he intends to go. Fred told us to wait.
Wait until the ground is moist and soft, and then fence posts will be no trouble. You can push them in with your tractor and if they are not level you can make them level. Wait and it will be easier. He has pushed a lot of fence posts into the soil of this valley and would know.
The rain returns in the fall and the soil of our lower field soaks it in. It is lowland with nowhere for the water to go and so it stays. The grass is always green from where the plain starts all the way to Otter Lake — even in summer, but especially now. Now that the air and the earth hold moisture and both are soft and pliable.
We are building another fence. Driving more fence posts. But this time we have no special machine. Nothing built for the task at hand other than a handheld driver built of a six-inch cylinder and two handles welded to it’s sides. That, and an old tractor. But no purpose-built implement nor the machine to wield it. No power but what we have on hand and in our hands.
We haven’t waited long. Fred said to wait until spring when the ground is moist through and through. But we are learning our own land and its seasons and think perhaps for this corner, we might find an exception — that, and we need a fence to keep the cows away from the hay shed.
I drive the first post by hand. A big post for the gatepost. Hard work, but it goes in. Working human muscle and not machinery. Lift, drop, lift, drop. Get up under it to lift, arms close to the body. Don’t lift too far or it’ll lift off the end of the post. Shift my weight suddenly down and pull to accelerate. Thunk. An inch further into the ground. Maybe a half inch. Probably more like a quarter, maybe even less. But not nothing; it’s going in. Ten more strikes with the drive. Twenty. Thirty. Fifty. Measure the post. Level the post. More strikes. Good enough.
I’m tired. The tractor’s worth a try. place the bucket on the top of the next post and drop the bucket. Pick up the front end of the tractor on the end of the post. A thousand pounds? A couple thousand pounds? But no pounding or vibrating, no special implement. I pick up a scoop of gravel in the bucket to increase the weight. Now the posts are sliding in, especially where the ground is saturated and spongy. Mr. Findley was right.
Spring has come to our valley. A little early this year, almost a month ahead of schedule. Its arrival here is not ambiguous. It is marked clearly by the melting of the snow, the rude undressing of a brown, sullen earth that has lain dormant and frozen for months. Usually this comes at the end of March. The last three springs the snow has melted in the third week of the month. This year it has melted in late February here in the lowest part of the valley and is moving it’s way uphill. By late June it will have reached the highest of the surrounding mountains and by late July even many of the craggy peaks east of us will lie bare.
The days are getting longer. In the deepest days of winter the light shown for only eight hours on a cold, clear day and on many of the warmer, mist-draped days it seemed as though the day began to end at the same time its beginning ended. Now the light begins at 6:00 AM and stretches for twelve hours. There is even some little light remaining after an early supper.
The combination of these two events propels us into action. Spring does not mean merely longer days and flowers and green hillsides. It means the possibility of new life, and preparing for this life requires new work. We have fences to build and to mend, gardens to clear and til and plant, machines to oil and tune, a new calf to welcome into the world. While the snow lay thickly, all of this lay below our thoughts, but as it melted, it brought all of these possibilities to mind. The days lengthen as we have more to fill them with as though the day were made for the work and the work were made for the day.
Our patterns as a family are only slowly adapting to the particularities of this place and to it’s patterns. I noticed patterns before, and — to a certain extent appreciated them — but they largely did not matter to us. I drove into the office every day at 7:30 no matter the weather, and the office, no matter the availability of windows, is a cocoon from the elements not an adaptation to them. My work, too, was of a kind that was far removed from any consideration of season. Not outside, but inside. Not hardware — at least theoretically connected with the elements of the earth — but software: mined from human thought and superimposed upon the silicon substrate of its existence by a long-abstracted strata of boolean logic. Not even software — the computer code arranged in carefully organized stacks of interconnected statements — but the strategy and marketing of software — the ideas and abstract notions in the minds of our customers (who did their work indoors at their computers) which we must sort through to find an available gap. Thus the reverberating heartbeat of the earth felt through the soles of our feet is muffled and then nearly silenced by layer after layer of dense material and then by layers, denser still, of closely-spaced human thought.
It is true that when I travelled, which I did often, it was nice to travel to someplace like Boston in September rather than someplace like Boston in January. Or San Diego at any time of year. But regardless of the weather outside, the work proceeded apace inside: inside a plane, inside a car, inside a hotel room or conference room, or convention center, or restaurant, or auditorium or cubicle. Or inside an airport where, despite its auspicious role as the leaping off point of transport through the earth’s atmosphere, the atmosphere is always and everywhere the same. The same in Amsterdam, Phoenix, New York, Minneapolis, Vancouver, Denver, Paris, San Francisco, and Atlanta. Every major airport in every place is designed to look the same, feel the same, be the same. Follow the same conventions, offer the same kinds of food and shopping day in and day out, year after year.
Especially Atlanta. The Atlanta airport is the industrial prototype of all airports everywhere and it is the central feature of the city despite being out of the way from almost anywhere. It’s aspiration is not to be beautiful as a bird is in flight, nor deep, distinct and diverse (scarred by joy and tragedy) as are the faces moving through it, nor emblematic and inspiring as is the prospect that a human might fly like birds, nor welcoming as should be the meeting place of the world’s peoples. No, its most apparent aspiration is to be ruthlessly and increasingly efficient — to move more people from one plane to another in less time than anywhere else on the planet and to increase this number and decrease this time every year. Another way of expressing this ambition is to say that the airport aspires to be progressively less human — more and more systematically flawless with every turn of the integrated camshaft which drives its central mechanism, less and less sensitive and dependent on the people and personalities which travel through it, which must man the storefronts and sort the luggage, direct its traffic and serve its pre-flight meals. It aspires to the metaphor, indeed something more than metaphorical, of a machine. And like most of our modern machinery, care has been taken to disguise the ugly twisting of metal parts with a sleek skin of personalization and warmth. The seating is nicely upholstered and the carpets match, the storefronts blend and flow between the gates, and windows abound to give its passengers full view of the soul-uplifting spectacle taking place at the edge of each terminal. In case a person fails to pick up on these aesthetic flourishes, the speakers overhead repeat in the soothing and practiced tones of the city’s mayor how each individual is welcome here no matter where they are travelling from or travelling to, how each cherished person is invited to enjoy and appreciate all that Atlanta has to offer — to explore its cuisine, stroll its boulevards, befriend its people. But this invitation is not a true one and it has no genuine intention to bestow value on the individual sojourner. It is part of the machinery, that is all, and in all of my traveling through ATL, I have never seen the expression of any of the tens of thousands of faces change on hearing this welcome. I have never seen anyone’s eyes lift at the description of the city’s beauty, nor aspect brighten at the promise of friendship, nor lips moisten at the invitation to a sumptuous meal. Not once.
It is not altogether surprising that Atlanta the city has begun to take on the character of Atlanta the airport. In the old neighborhoods — which cluster around the still-warm core of the city and feather their way outwards following the old railway lines to once far-flung little towns which have now been consumed — you can still see traces of human eccentricity and motive. Here and there you may also see an old field which appears to be still used to some ancient and articulate purpose, who’s value has not been assessed in square meters minus roads, sidewalks, and common area. But these are islands within a great sea of encroaching airport. The new neighborhoods and the new shopping centers are all the same in systematic and predictable fashion and all just as predictably different. They share the same structure, amenities, basic layouts. Most of all they share the same concern for the parking of cars — of which Atlanta must have more than any place on earth — with their two, three, four, eight bay home garages, vast paved lots and multi-thousand space, multi-story concrete behemoths stacked outside Atlanta’s vast and soaring office parks. The aesthetic qualities of these homes, strip malls, and corporate headquarters are all carefully calculated and specially designed to be distinct, enticing, pleasingly elegant, but not off-putting to any segment of population or taste. Restaurants, of course, are permitted to be avant garde to the extent that this gives their food and atmosphere the flavor of authenticity, but most homes and businesses are not for the simple reason that this would reduce resale value by limiting the number of potential buyers to those who share the same abstract ideals. All of this is to say that aesthetic qualities have been painted on top of new Atlanta construction like a veneer, painting these culturally naked structures with a thick layer of uniform beauty. The climate within all of these buildings is pleasant year round — 73 degrees Fahrenheit, moderate humidity, with filtered and circulated airflows. An abundance of natural light streams through wide windows which are never open. Where natural light cannot penetrate, artificial light is available in abundance. This is no history and so there are no layers, appendiges, dead ends, miscalculated hallways, or closed-in garages. The bedrooms, bathrooms, meeting rooms, living rooms, offices, cubicles, and reception desks are all in sensible and predictable locations, as are the fire escapes. In the very real potentiality that one is dropped from the sky out of one’s own location and culture through the airport portal into an Atlanta home or office, one need only glance around once for a complete orientation.
The building manager of an office complex or the foreman over new residential construction would be the first to admit — or rather proclaim; there is no secret — that new construction is a system: plumbing, electrical, HVAC, insulation, sprinkler, security, audiovisual, network. Not to mention the foundation, framing, cabinetry, trim, windows, doors, and a dozen other details each handled by its own subcontractor. In a large office, the air conditioning units alone are the size of the small homes in developing countries, there fans the size of aircraft propellers emitting a constant drone. All of these systems, interlaced and integrated, form one large house-sized or office-park-sized or mall-sized system: Immense machines churning out human climate and habitat like factories. Atlanta restaurants appear the least mechanized, but this an optical illusion. The illusion is formed from the necessarily organic nature of the food itself and the sumptuous preparation and plating. Behind the scenes every care has been taken to anticipate, identify, and eliminate variation in all its forms so that New Zealand rack of lamb with potatoes au gratin can be delivered with precise consistency and impeccable timing day in and and day out whatever business traveler from whatever warm or cold, wet or dry corner of the world happens to appear and demand it. It must be predictably delicious in the expected manner and it must arrive in time to be consumed without haste before the taxi arrives to take him to the meeting.
The airport connects these machines together and forms their model and prototype. While the lineage is not as obvious, the airport is itself modelled from the vehicles — aircraft, trams, trains, and automobiles — which constantly inject and exhaust people into and out of cylinders of varying shapes and potential for explosiveness. The atmospheric conditions inside an airplane at 35,000 feet are necessarily contra-posed with the atmosphere outside of it. Inside, the stewardess apologizes for a little “bumpiness in our ride today” but outside the winds swirl at a hundred miles an hour as the aircraft is propelled through them at five hundred. Inside people laugh, talk, sleep, read, in varying states of discomfort with the conditions of confinement but outside the barometric pressure is less than 4 PSI (a quarter what it is at sea level with a correspondingly low oxygen concentration) and the temperature is negative 55 degrees Fahrenheit — conditions inhospitable to polite conversation. Relative humidity inside the plane’s cabin is the one measure which has stubbornly defied the engineer’s attempts to conform it to ground level specifications without compromising safety due to nasty issues with condensation.
The collective mesh of these interrelated (if not actually interconnected) machines for transportation, for working, for eating, and for living is laid down across Atlanta like a ruler, not to take the measure of the earth, but to level and subdue it.
Of course it is not only Atlanta. Atlanta is merely an emblem. It is emblematic because before the airport the city was relatively small and now it is relatively big and so the airport’s influence on the place is relatively greater. Its proportion of airport to place is greater. Elsewhere the proportions are different but everywhere the proportions are shifting — shifting toward a pleasant homogenization of season, topography, climate, and soil. The proportions are shifting and our work is shifting and even our entertainment and recreation are shifting. With all this shifting, one couldn’t be blamed for thinking one was in British Columbia when one was actually in Texas or forgetting that the season was changing because nothing important in one’s daily life changed when the snow melted. It is all shifting but its shift is toward no shift, no change, no season — to quell the oscillations and violent swings perpetrated by the movements of violently swinging and oscillating planets around a violently burning sun. The irony is that this quelling requires a violence of another kind: a violent scraping smooth and smothering of the life of the earth in the minds and bodies of its inhabitants, the violence of synthetic progress in the face of organic obstacles through the use of more and more powerful machines.
Yesterday my friend and I talked as we sat on the porch. He had been to Mexico once for a week in the fall. The nights here in BC are always cool, usually cold, but there, looking out on the Caribbean, the nights were warm. The room had air conditioning to bring the temperature into an acceptable range, but he did not turn it on. He opened a window on the side of the room facing the ocean and opened another window on the side facing the land and the warm, humid breeze flowed through the room. Just enough. It was still warm, but it was a warmth which matched the place, fit the place, was the place. “If I had turned on the air conditioning” he said, “I could have been in a hotel room anywhere. Anywhere! But with the windows open, I could be in Mexico all night.”