Meridian of Fertility


Reid Fellenbaum, Student Affiliate ASLA | Graduate | Faculty Advisor: Rania Ghosn | University of Michigan | Ann Arbor, MI


With current models predicting aquifer depletion as early as 2050, the Great Plains region approaches a critical threshold that will test the resilience of its productive landscape. In response, this project challenges the Jeffersonian grid by speculating that the future landscape will be annually reorganized by hyper-local climate prediction that responds to microtopography and soil typologies. A series of dynamic landscape infrastructures collect and interpret data to define a Meridian of Fertility where short grass prairie ends and insurable productivity begins.


Upon his return from a government sponsored expedition of the Arkansas Territory in 1820, Major Stephen H. Long wrote that the region was “unfit for cultivation and of course uninhabitable by a people depending upon agriculture.” Long decisively labeled this region as the “Great American Desert” on his influential federal survey map. This uncontested, official government label would trigger over a century of private, even federally sponsored, counter-myth’s aimed at dispelling the American public’s image of a waterless, infertile West.

These counter-myths flourished in the 1890s fueled by American optimism and faith in the machine. The various actors, instruments and rituals of climate modification took advantage of the wide gap between science and uncertainty by filling it with ideologies and illusions that suggested a rationalized control of nature. These instruments and rituals of climate modification have persisted in the faith and folklore of the American Great Plains since its inhabitation by man.

Nearly two centuries later, the ‘desert’ Major Long described, now known as the Great Plains, has become one of the World’s most productive agricultural landscapes. Yet its history as a productive landscape began long before Major Long ever set eyes on the ‘Great American Desert’. Research and analysis concluded that there have been three major stages of productive landscape organization in the Great Plains:


Plains Native Americans were nomadic dry-farmers whose simple instruments, the digging stick and bone hoe, limited agriculture to the soft floodplains.


Early pioneers were sedentary dry-farmers whose sturdy plows could upturn the hardest prairie soil and whose organized gridded landscape put few restrictions on settlement.

AQUIFER (1960-2050):

With the discovery of the High Plains Aquifer and the invention of the pivot irrigation system in 1960, sedentary irrigation farmers were able to substantially increase crop yields and were no longer tied to the volatile threat of drought.

However, the relentless mining of ground waters, primarily for agricultural irrigation, is forcing the High Plains Aquifer to rapidly approach exhaustion. With current models predicting depletion by 2050, and climate models warning that the precipitation lines will gradually migrate to the East, the Great Plains approaches a critical threshold that will test the resilience of its productive landscape. At this moment, the post-aquifer agriculturalist will once again be at the mercy of the uncertain climate, forcing yields to decline dramatically and faith in the landscape’s fertility to falter. The region will have two options:

1. Return to Dry Farming:
resulting in a 50% decrease in yields and increased vulnerability to drought.

2. Abandon the Great Plains:
A concept introduced by the Rutgers professors Frank and Deborah Popper in the 1980s as ‘the Buffalo Commons’, who proposed the eventual depopulation and restoration of the Prairie (both of which are dramatically occurring today)

This project responds to these options by envisioning that the next stage of productive landscape organization will break from its rigid sedentary practices to embrace hyper-local climate prediction and a return to the nomadic sustainable agricultural practices of the Native Americans. Current climate modeling predicts that the realm of land suitable for dry farming will steadily migrate to the Northeast. By deploying and utilizing a shifting infrastructure of playa, shelterbelts and climate stations, hyper-local prediction outposts, the climate model inscribes a new line, the Meridian of Fertility, across the Great Plains, defining the edge where insurable productivity ends and short grass prairie begins.

PLAYA (Climate Data Extraction + Seed bank):
The playa is the keystone of the hydrosphere, a subtle ephemeral wetland that functions to infiltrate 80% of the water falling from the clouds above into the great aquifers below. Each playa functions as the runoff collection point for a localized watershed and as such, its distinctly clayey soil is highly sensitive to minor fluctuations in soil saturation. A soil core sample from a playa reveals clay stratifications that can provide decades of hyper-local climate data. The moisture maintained in a playa also contributes to its function as the largest and most diverse seed banks of the Great Plains. Western Kansas alone contains over 22,000 playas that persist despite regular abuse from farmers who ignore their quiet importance to the region.

SHELTERBELT (Climate Data Extraction + Wind break)
An infrastructure of Shelterbelts are planted with the anticipation that certain species are also migrating to and from the region. The Shelterbelt serves two purposes, first slowing the migration of the Meridian by preserving microclimates of soil moisture and second through its hyper-localized climate records that are preserved in its growth rings. The science of dendrochronology can extract highly localized climate data from tree core samples that will further refine the model. In a sense shelterbelt establishment is planting future data.

CLIMATE STATION (Climate data harvesting and interpretation centre + Wind break)
The main organizational node securing the Meridian is at once an instrument harvesting and feeding data to a climate model and an interpretation outpost disseminating model conclusions to the land owners and public. Through a constantly refining climate model the Meridian of Fertility and the nomadic agriculture that follows is annually updated with the latest harvested data by annually siting itself on a playa. Before each new year’s planting, the new line is determined and the stations reluctantly coordinate in a ritual of Eastwardly retreat, a sign of the advancing climate model. The stations leave their embedded core behind, now just a scar in the landscape, to continue to extract localized data and to establish a visible record of regional changing climate.

Like the trees of Roosevelt’s Great Plains Shelterbelt, which provided the migrant farmer with a reassuring mark of sub-humid fertility in the semi-arid landscape, the Meridian of Fertility and its infrastructure of climate stations provide the technologically credulous American with a reassurance in their perceived fertility of this important productive landscape.

"The analysis drives the solution in a really significant, clear, and meaningful way. Really makes a leap and is beautifully resolved."

- 2014 Awards Jury