The center never rests. Every time an elderly woman passes in Yuma, Arizona, or a
child is born in Caribou, Maine, the axis shifts.
at Mount Gerizim near the West Bank city of Nablus. Muslims plot
their center within a center at the Grand Mosque at Mecca. A;xed
to the Kaaba (the cube-shaped shrine believed by Muslims to be
situated at the center of the world) is the holy Black Stone, itself set
inside a circular hollow within an ornate silver frame.
These midpoints have remained sacrosanct—and in
place—for centuries. But here in the United States, there is no
omphalos, no Kaaba or Foundation Stone — there is only the open
road unfurling. Our diverse population is busy moving, being
born, and dying, changing careers and cities, pressing outward
into the ever-expanding arms of suburbs and exurbs. The center
never rests. Every time an elderly woman passes in Yuma, Arizona,
or a child is born in Caribou, Maine, or a young couple pulls a U-Haul trailer onto a busy avenue in San Francisco, the axis shifts.
Perhaps the author William Least Heat-Moon said it best when he
told a crowd assembled in Lowell, Massachusetts, for the fiftieth
anniversary of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, “I’ve always thought
that the fifty stars on the flag should be replaced with fifty tires.”
aT an in TerSeCTion flanked by wide fields, a cemetery, and
a gas station, Doyle locates an oxidized metal disc glinting in a
nondescript patch of grass. Before we set out to find the 2010
center, he has led our group into the tiny hamlet of Edgar
Springs, population center of 2000 ( 37° 41´49˝ N, 91° 48´ 34˝ W),
roughly 110 miles southwest of St. Louis.
As we revolve around the marker, snapping pictures and surveying the surroundings, a large man emerges onto the front
porch of a small wood-frame house next to the marker. He
waves hello, a crow call and whistle attached to a string around
his neck. His name is Junior Harris, and he grew up in Edgar
Springs, population two hundred and change. “May I help you
gentlemen?” he asks in a rich Ozark drawl. Doyle asks if he
knows about the marker. He nods. “If I walk to the east side of
my property the whole world shifts,” says Harris with a chuckle.
While the tide of Manifest Destiny was anything but glacial,
some in these small towns, like Harris, have retained an intimate
relationship with the local geography and a sense of the land be-
fore it was altered by progress. Harris describes the surrounding
tracts of farmland and rattles o= the names of the people to whom
they belong. He knows where the power lines cut over the roll-
ing ridges and where the water and sewage mains run. He knows
the swamps, the woodlands, the remnant swaths of elk grass — a
hallmark species of the tallgrass prairie that once grew so high and
thick that, Harris says, “two men standing two feet apart wouldn’t
know that they were standing right next to each other.”
Harris also knows that the marker beside his home is a mere
placeholder. (He’s willing to admit this even though the small
benchmark earned him the title “Mr. Middle America” in a Fi-
nancial Times article a few years back.) He points to the woods
beyond his property and tells us that the “real” 2000 centroid is
located out there, three miles east of the ceremonial marker, near
the spring where half a century ago his grandfather used to drive
his cattle during the hot Missouri summers.
doyle and hiS colleagues agree that the centroid will move a
little farther south and west, maybe even slipping out of Missouri
and nudging into northern Arkansas. There he thinks it will soon
come to rest — the axis of a population at last in equilibrium.
But such predictions may take one critical factor for granted:
a stable climate. Like the speedometer needle of a vehicle with a
stuck accelerator, average temperatures continue to climb. In the
last century, average temperatures across the continental U.S.
have jumped by roughly one and a half degrees Fahrenheit, and
the rate of overall warming has more than tripled since 1970.
Moreover, the top ten warmest twelve-month periods on record
in the U.S. all took place between 1999 and the present. A 2009
study from the United States Global Change Research Program
predicts that the average temperature in the continental U.S.
will increase by between four and eleven degrees Fahrenheit by
2100. The southern states are projected to see the most fearsome
warming, with the number of days per year above ninety degrees
jumping from 60 today to 150 by the end of the century.
In addition to unprecedented warming, the South has seen
the bulk of the nation’s damaging weather — from droughts and
hurricanes to floods and tornadoes. To visualize this pattern, one
can view a color-coded map published by NOAA showing where
the majority of billion-plus-dollar disasters have occurred during
the last thirty years. The striking feature is that the states of the
Southeast—North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and
Texas —are all rendered in shades of deep red, denoting a kind