When the plane banks sharply to the left about an hour and a half into the flight from Chicago, I know that we are starting our long descent into New York's LaGuardia airport. Looking down, I can see long, wooded ridges running diagonally from the southwest to the northeast, alternating with wide stream valleys between them. This part of western New Jersey is beautiful from the air. In summer the deep green of the oaks and maples on the ridge tops forms a striking contrast with the lighter greens that make up the patchwork quilt of fields in the valleys. At first glance, this landscape of cropland, farmhouses, roads, and streams seems timeless, little changed over the centuries.
Of course, the landscape is not natural but almost entirely manmade, and it was created relatively recently, mostly within the past one hundred years. Even from 15,000 feet, moreover, it is clear, if you look carefully, that a great deal has changed very recently. There are many more houses in the valleys than the small number of people who still farm there could possibly occupy, and it is possible to make out through the dense tree cover of the hillsides many other houses that clearly have no connection with agricultural production. This is not at all the completely rural scene that it might appear to be. All the evidence suggests that most of the people living here have little to do with farming or any other traditional rural activities.
It is difficult, at least at first glance, to imagine what all the people living in these houses do, where they work, shop, and play since there are no office buildings, shopping centers, or movie theaters in sight. It is possible that some of them work from their home, relying heavily on the phone, Internet, and express delivery services to keep them connected to the urban world, and it is possible that others drive to jobs in small towns nearby. The substantial number of houses, however, suggests that the majority must commute some distance