About the Flatland Project

By Bob Morrissey

Flatville, IL
Flatville, IL

In spite of its apparent variety, flatness serves as a consistent spatial concept, with an underlying unity of meaning. Whether positive or negative, literal or metaphorical, the essential element of flatness is the notion of invariance. This is not the same thing as being uninteresting. Further, it is clear that metaphorical and literal meanings of flatness overlap and interact, sharing always the essence of the term as an indicator of invariance, thus ensuring the coherence of the idea across varied contexts. Indeed the idea of flatness obeys the ‘invariance principle’ applied in linguistics to the portability of terms used in both everyday communication and more refined conceptual metaphors."

                                          --B.W. Higman, Flatness (2018), p. 11

It is fitting that a university community in the middle of North America would spend a lot of mental energy thinking about flatness. Founded in 1867, the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign is a land grant University situated in the East Central section of Illinois, a state in the center of North America’s Central Lowlands Province. As described in Robert Bailey’s Ecoregions of the United States (1976), this ecozone’s most important formative events were the Pleistocene ice ages (2.5 million -10k ybp), when giant glaciers scoured the surface of the earth and left behind a starkly flat terrain, upon which glacial till and loess deposits over thousands of years made for one of the richest agricultural regions on the planet.

The Morrow Plots at U of I
The Morrow Plots at U of I
College of Agriculture at U of I
College of Agriculture at U of I

Ever since the early days of the University, flatness has been a central problematic on the minds of University students and faculty. In the 1880s, when this was still known as Illinois Industrial University, students and faculty worked diligently on the question of flatness in a literal sense. The glaciers of Illinois endowed the state with amazing soil, it is true, but as early agronomists and engineering students understood, this glaciated landscape’s flat aspect was a liability, and not just in an aesthetic sense. The key result of flatness of this rural landscape was revealed each year in the spring, the region’s typical rainy season, when big storms dumped the bulk of an annual allotment of 42 inches of rain. Would-be crop farmers then realized the most important consequence of the glaciers: water does not move across flat lands.

Combined with the already dense quality of the glacial mollisols that accumulated beneath the tallgrass prairies, the pre-settlement vegetation complex in much of the Central Lowlands Province, the shape of the landscape ensured a perennial problem: water just sat there. Drainage was so poor in fact that row-crop agriculture would fail in much of this region without radical engineering in the form of straightened and channelized streams, as well as millions of miles of tile drains buried beneath the plowland.

It was this problem that occupied so many of the mental energies of early University of Illinois students and professors in the fields of agriculture and engineering. Volumes upon volumes of their work, for example engineering student William K. Mason’s undergraduate “Thesis on Drainage” from 1881, now collect dust in the University Archives, a testament to a bygone preoccupation with this literal problem of flatness. It may be fair to say that our University forebears spent a good portion of their energy attempting to destroy flatness, or at least eradicate its consequences.

They engineered new contour into the landscape in the form of straightened rivers, and they buried tiles to carry water to new depths, literally digging new dimensions into the flat surface. In doing so, they also promoted a different kind of engineering, unflattening not just in a physical but in a social and political sense.

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Early midwestern political scientists adapted a peculiar quasi-governmental entity, the drainage district, to manage the collective but often jealously-controlled infrastructure of drainage engineering. Resulting legal questions about stream alteration, flood control, and downstream consequences of environmental alterations called for the creativity of University law scholars who attempted to understand the complex legal entanglements that water engineering created. Like the arid West, much of the midwest’s social and political power structures were defined by questions of who controlled the water; losers were stuck with the adverse consequences of flatness. Interestingly, if the region told itself a Jeffersonian myth about its relatively flat and egalitarian agrarian society, in fact East Central Illinois, with the University’s help, became dominated by a few extremely wealthy and powerful landowners sitting on top of a large class of rural wage laborers and tenant farmers. The University helped unflatten this place in multiple dimensions.

More than a hundred years later, we humanists at the University continue to resist flatness, although surely in different ways. Our studies have collectively led us to explore processes of flattening in a figurative sense, attuned for instance to the ways that concepts like “the anthropocene” or biosphere flatten vast social and economic differences in articulating “the human” impact on the planet and geological processes. We have also considered how discourses in literature and knowledge-making traditions like urban planning tend to flatten out complexities of race and class, limiting the ways these knowledge traditions can address questions of justice. Remaining hostile to flatness and flattening, we see some continuity in our contemplations and those of our distant University predecessors.
And yet, what about a word in favor of flatness? Although its metaphorical connotations are surely negative, as B.W. Higham explains in his provocative new study, it does not take much thinking before the positive environmental implications of flatness begin to present themselves. As Aldo Leopold wrote on his famous bus ride through Illinois, our environmental problems stem not so much from the flatness of our landscape, but rather from our refusal to understand its inherent complexity, and to appreciate the unique consequences of flatness.
As ecologists know, flatlands like ours are special places in part because they often bring together--as in the wetland assemblages they create--different ecological communities in edgy patches and mosaics. Those flat spaces where different ecological communities interact in tension are defined precisely by their lack of boundaries and obstacles, and they often—for instance in the case of the pre-industrial-agriculture vegetation of the prairie midwest--contain a sharp uptick in biodiversity, relative to other ecological assemblages. This has been a key insight for biodiversity studies in places like Florida, another landscape where a misguided hostility to flatness and its consequences has produced a productive backlash in the form of wetlands and swamp protection. Flatness ironically sometimes makes diversity.

So, at least, has it been for us. Coming together and contemplating the environmental humanities from our various disciplinary perspectives, we have created a rich mosaic of intellectual diversity in this flatland. Just like the edgy vegetation in the wetland ecotones that once dotted this flatland landscape, our ideas have met in productive tension, and the result has been a vibrant and enlightening group study. In this collection, you will find some of our individual and collective thinking about the meaning of flatness and the human relationship with the non-human world.


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