I rolled to a stop, feeling disoriented from the assault on my nose, and examined the buildings. That's when I began hearing the sound over the wind: The shrieking of angry chickens. That explains it. These buildings were industrial chicken farms. The tanks were water and chicken feed. The smell was tons of concentrated birdshit.
It was interesting to finally encounter one of these compounds, after hearing and reading about them. All the chickens I've seen have been in rural settings, or lived in small pens or houses built with care by families, or simply run around loose in a yard. They had their composure. The noise and the stink and the claustrophobia of the buildings now before me conveyed something totally different, and instantly objectionable. Michael Pollan declared in a lecture that any system of food production that must be hidden from consumers in order to continue is a flawed and unstable system. Seeing this row of putrid charnel houses in front of me, I had to agree with him. I was seized with the urge to find and confront the "farmers" who set this up.
But they were not around, and I was on a schedule. Sadly I rode on.
A few hours later I came across a food spill on the highway. These are very common around here. It's interesting to think about how these spills are the equivalent of dropping spare change on the ground and then being too busy to pick it up. It's a huge pile of calories and represents many meals for someone, somewhere, but here on the ground in Illinois it's essentially litter, useful to no one.
The ability to move this food from one place to another in bulk is such an essential part of the economy - of our lives - and to so many of us, it just happens invisibly. It's interesting to try and imagine alternative methods of transport, alternative production setups, that produce and transport food on a more micro-managed scale but still keep everyone fed. How large can a farm get, before plant monoculture is the only way to run it? How small can a farm be, before it gets too small to feed anyone but those working on it? What combinations of plants and animals work, in what environments? All these questions have relative answers, efficient answers for a given part of the country, and it will be interesting to see how people tease them out in this new information-rich era.
I think that farming has fallen out of favor as a way of life, or even as an activity, and people now prefer to make their money moving bits of paper around with clean hands. (It's certainly been profitable for me.) I'm not contemplating anything extreme - like we should all be hardcore farmers all the time for our own good. I'm saying that we should all have a hand in producing some little bit of our food, even if it's just digging a few rows in a community garden, and see what that pursuit teaches us, and where it takes us.
I remember the little garden in Santa Cruz, with the neat rows of lettuce and the impressively tall onions, and how nice it felt to turn those into a salad. Perhaps when I get home I'll do something with that big planter box in the back yard. But then again ... I'm planning to move out of that house anyway. The mold has done bad things to me.
Anyway, I'm totally digressing here. Onward!
Having run out of new podcast episodes, I decided to begin something longer, and I chose "Memoirs Found In A Bathtub" by Stanislaw Lem. I knew nothing about the book, and as it unfolded I got more and more disoriented and fascinated and involved. When it ended I immediately began it again, trying to make more sense of the early chapters.
What an amazing piece of fiction. Lem grabs us by the hand for an amusing walk in what we assume is normal spy-thriller-espionage territory but, unbeknownst to us, on the very first step we passed through Alice's looking glass and everything around us has been growing more twisted, and less sane, as we go. Where your average thriller is about a bunch of double-crosses, this book double-crosses what it is about, so many times that your brain gets pretzeled. The very plot of the book seems to spiral downward and then stab itself frantically. Totally awesome.
Anyway, I listened to this book and photographed some neat scenery as day passed into night.
By the time I got to Rantoul it had been dark and cold for a while. I chomped down two meals' worth of food at a local restaurant as I listened to "Memoirs Found In A Bathtub" for the second time. I had an enormous craving for curry and pho, but neither could be found. I wasn't surprised.
Next I went looking for a place to stay. All three of the large motels on the west side of the city were full, so I made a phone call and shot across town to claim the last room in a motel on the east side. The room was very foul. The shower ran only a trickle of cold water onto a filthy tile enclosure. As soon as I turned the water on, a cloud of tiny flies came brewing up from the drain. The internet was busted, and the heater was caked with ugly grey dust. There was no way I was trusting the bedsheets, so I threw my sleeping bag on top and crawled into that.
56 miles and 2900 calories burned, according to the GPS. I was feeling very worn out, and only barely keeping up with my schedule. The map claimed there was an Amtrak station here in Rantoul. Perhaps I should ride over there in the morning and see if I can cram by bike onto a train for Chicago...