The subtitle to Craig Childs’s latest book, Apocalyptic Planet, is Field Guide to the Everending Earth. It’s a phrase that tips the usual notion of apocalypse on its head in its suggestion that the process of ending—of change—may in fact be the thing that defines our planet. Indeed, documentation of the earth’s dynamism is Craig’s project: we follow him through landscapes as diverse as ice fields and lava fields—a reading experience that pulls the planet’s mega-scale cycles of creation and destruction into view.
In a chapter that’s typical of Craig’s curiosity, adventurous spirit, and ability to immerse the reader in a physical experience, we follow him and his companion, Angus, as they walk for days through an Iowa cornfield—a landscape that’s closer to desert than a functioning ecosystem, and which, somewhat frighteningly, may represent a possible future for earth’s ecology:
I crouched, pinching the ground. It felt like dirty shoe polish, moist enough to hold a boot print. This was not the soil that farmers were pinching a century ago, nothing like it. This was now a created substance, an anthropogenic substrate. Beads of clear water formed along cornstalk seams and dripped down ribbed staffs as smooth as plastic. Each landed in the next leaf sheath down. I try to avoid humid geographies during hot seasons. I’d choose Greenland’s ice sheet over this any day. But hothouse earth was having its say, harkening to other times in earth’s history when humid forests stretched from pole to pole. Only this was very different. Other hothouse periods have been generally accompanied by high levels of biodiversity. (The early Eocene, in which mammals rose to prominence, saw global forests expand from pole to pole, with redwoods and cypress swamps in the Arctic.) In this cornfield, I had come to a different kind of planetary evolution. I listened and heard nothing, no bird, no click of insect.
A thrashing sound finally came from behind, quiet at first but growing louder quickly. It was Angus. He sounded like an ox. He was breathing hard.
Monocultures, it seems, do not make for good hiking. And it didn’t help that the stretch of July days during which Craig and Angus made their trip were among the hottest on record: the heat index in Iowa was 129 degrees Fahrenheit.
Here’s Craig, speaking last year to an audience in Colorado about the book and his hot, sticky trek through the nation’s breadbasket:
Learn more about the Orion Book Award here, and stay tuned this week to the Orion blog for more on the year’s finalists.