Under The Road

Let’s Stop Farming Pavement and Let Other Things Grow

by Elisabeth Nicula

The nine-banded armadillo is ancient, a slow and steady traveler. Their forebearers were in North America 2.5 million years ago, but these days they are considered an invasive species in the southern United States, the current population expanding north from Mexico over the last 150 years. European invasives enabled the armadillo migration by bending the landscape to suit our agricultural practices: disrupting waterways they would have found difficult to maneuver, devastating their natural predators, replacing grasslands with brushy farmlands, and making everything warmer. The armadillos, biders of time, just walked here on newly favorable throughways.

For a few summers in the early 90s, my dad and I drove southwest on I-85 from Norfolk, Virginia to Gulf Shores, Alabama to go to the beach with my Michigan-to-Mississippi grandparents. It was a long way on a busy road and we had analog means of entertaining ourselves, mainly variations of gazing out the window. Around the Georgia/Alabama border, we passed into armadillo country––we knew because we started spotting dead armadillos on the side of the road. We kept sharp eyes on the shoulder, and were often faked out by curled, castoff 18-wheeler tires, which we called rubberdillos.

Armadillos have terrible eyesight and can’t run very fast, whereas we humans move too quickly and have terrible foresight.

I understand the road’s individuating narratives of freedom and self-discovery in the American canon, but I tend to think about its collected violence. The road trip armadillos, two beloved family cats, mountain lion P-61 of Bel Air. A raccoon I struck myself and witnessed in its death throes, a neighborhood kid on his skateboard, the older girl who taught me how to make friendship bracelets as we sat together on the schoolbus. 

Strange that a metric of this multivalent disaster is I used to see great clouds of insects in my headlights and now I don’t. I used to coat the grill of my car with dead bodies at night.

Pavement, romanticized (the open road) is the site of countless violent events (romanticized). The overt brutality of undiscerning machinery and error-prone operators, sure, and also the web of related injustices: fossil fuels extracted and burned; petroleum extracted for asphalt; private land seized and public land used; widening; the hidden apparatus of logistics, lots of paving there; exurban arrays of tire store upon muffler store, each ringed with parking; the drive-thru. I don’t like to think about it, this methodical desertification. This impervious heat sink.

In a work¹ of city planning scholarship from 1935, I read about soothsaying road futures: “Street widenings do not always provide the remedy expected of them. This is not to suggest that all street widening is bad. A great many such projects are not only desirable but virtually essential to community growth and well-being.” I guess. I’m in the library trying to read about pavement, which I hate, but I would rather read about the armadillo.

An interesting thing about the armadillo is that it is born soft like us and soon cures in the air. It ossifies². Thus it can roll into a self-protective posture, which is still no match for the average road user. I can see how I-85, with its wide, brushy clearings on either side (for what?), could have facilitated the armadillos’ travel. We all follow instincts to unanticipated consequences.

Whenever I walk home late at night in San Francisco, I notice that the pavement serves no one well. Few drivers of cars, the supposed beneficiaries, no nocturnal animals, no plants, no possibility of plants. The sidewalks are stingy, too, with occasional squares cut out of the concrete for strangled-looking trees (male, with no fruit to drop on the beloved surface) and dusty holes where trees died. I pass the squares and say, how generous. I fantasize about hospitable grasslands and thickets. Plants grow in the cracks sometimes and you know what we say and do about them.

At present, the city is upside down with its pandemic response. Most everyone has noticed the fundamental imbalance of public space because it’s difficult to maintain two meterssix feet of distance along the edges of the road. Human life trundles along without our essential productivities, and we have received a vital bit of information: slowing down isn’t enough. Carbon dioxide levels are down, but not enough to balance out our existing, astronomical accumulation. As a matter of urgency, we require less of everything, not just as a collective of individuals but as a haphazard arrangement of brutal systems that we must unmake.

I think pavement’s honest narrative is one of communal binding to an anti-social system. We paved the connections between ourselves and each other. I’m told the Earth’s band of aridity is spreading. What if there’s dirt underneath? I think we should pull it up and see.