Iowa Alumni Magazine | December 2006 | Features

Wild Iowa

By Michael Clark

From my study window, I see the ancient white pine and relict skeletons of those trees and animals whose lives have passed. In winter, I peer through frost that accumulates on the window of my 150-year-old Iowa farmhouse. But today, it is warm and the thaw-dampened soil smells richly of earth, wet grass, and decayed leaves. In weeks, the spring air will smell green as grasses sprout, flowers bloom, and the buds of maple and oak burst. For now, though, the red tail hawks wear winter down instead of their usual mottled red and brown plumage.

They spend their days among the pines, calling "qluii..." like banshees to drive prey from secure grassy nests and burrows. Climbing to where they are just visible, hawks plummet into a hundred-feet-per-second dive as rabbits zigzag across open fields. A successful hunt ends in an explosion of gray-brown fur. Today, the hawks soar on thermals, rarely moving more than a left or right wingtip to bank in and out of the spiraling air currents.

More often than not, such views from my window lead me outside. As spring approaches and as the last of the snow melts, I leave my writing early for the day to saunter through the pines with my dog, Vishnu. As we pass through the stand of decaying pines—moss covered, with toadstools and ear fungus clinging to shaggy bark—I notice great horned and barn owls roosting in the lower branches. Downy woodpeckers and flickers peck through the corium for grubs and tree borers. Soon, titmice and wrens will feed on seeds, making the forest floor dance. Vishnu pokes curiously at the scrub trees, sniffs at the nests hidden among the box elder and chokecherry. The moss growing on rotting logs is different from its counterpart on the upright pines. A thick, lush, waterlogged carpet, it sluices underfoot, recording our path.

Vishnu leaps over the rusting barbed wire fence in a single bound. Moments later, I push the wire down and step over it carefully. I have crossed this threshold many times without goals—only curiosity. Today, I hope to discover something that I've never noticed before—possibly an answer to questions I haven't asked yet. For me, the land is a koan—a paradox that helps me shift my vision to uncover answers both large and small.

A heavy December frost made this Cedar County pine tree sparkle.

Beyond the pines, the open fields undulate across the horizon. Their soft rolls and sinuous curves were left thousands of years ago by glaciers that advanced and retreated across Canada and to the southern tip of Iowa. Taking a journey, whether across the rolling Midwestern fields or anywhere, holds as many answers as it does questions. That is the nature of a koan. One can't look too directly for an answer. It's a matter of looking out of the corner of one's eye, squinting at what is known, only to discover the unknown.

Like the land—last dragged some 10,000 years ago by glacial shift—the people of rural Iowa move slowly, parking four-wheel-drive pickups along dirt roads to talk about the old neighbors who left for somewhere else, usually somewhere warmer. Few people I remember from boyhood still remain, and even fewer of their 19th-century wooden framed farmhouses still stand. North of my farm are 1990s prefab ranch houses and paved roads. To the east is a burgeoning housing development—half-million-dollar homes plunked down in the middle of shapely bean fields. Having witnessed the urbanization of eastern Colorado's front range and the development of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, I almost regard the transformation of Iowa's rural landscape as a natural transition. But it also seems odd, since Iowa's agrarian hills share nothing of the scenic beauty of mountains teeming with trout streams, elk, and mule deer.

The glacial remnants, moraine hills, and terminus that formed this eastern Iowa farmland barely exist now. Plows and tractors that sculpted, carved, and leveled the land almost eradicated the past. Records remain only in unconsolidated horizons. Nothing is left for the casual observer, although mysteries remain to be uncovered by those with patience and the time to observe.

Two years ago, I spent my spring tracking an albino fox. We had a strange affinity. Though we never approached each other with confidence, we were friends. It was by accident that I spotted her ghostly frame as she lay resting on the sedge beside the thawing creek. As I stopped behind a willow, I thought she was a small dog who had strayed from home. Whether it was my breath or scent cast into the air, she spotted me. She sat up, sniffed, then twitched her ears and jumped across the water. She eventually came to accept my presence, though she never moved too close. We would look at each other for hours, briefly thinking each other's thoughts.

A common squirrel seems to be asking what the photographer finds so interesting.

I didn't mention her to anyone at work, because I reasoned that academics are usually too fussy and self-consumed to bother with nature. Nor did I talk of her to anyone who lived on the gravel road, because I've found two types of people within these new rural communities: those who revel in nature's beauty and want to capture it, and those who find nature a haunting abomination within suburbia. Those people are tied in knots when a raccoon or squirrel rummages through the garbage. When a bear or mountain lion appears outside their door, they are terrified, demanding that authority figures resume control of nature and take it away—preferably very far away. And while I must proclaim the whitetail deer a nuisance, its reintroduction brought back to Iowa a species I didn't see until I was 20. However, Department of Natural Resources staff forgot to include a predator or two when they restored to the Iowa plains the gentle whitetail with its ravenous appetite. I suspect that it was a kindly oversight.

At work, I am faced with other writers, who say I don't read nature writing. It's boring—an old man's hobby, a lost romance. You should get current and write about something that interests others. Why do you spend time playing amateur naturalist when what you are is a teacher of writing? So, I don't tell them about my walks across the farm, any more than I mention my vacations to northern Ontario or the Pacific Northwest. Instead, I save those stories for my class, because my students are still curious.

One day, my students peer into the past, a limestone outcropping with distinct bedding plains, and fossils. But, first, they look at the Styrofoam-like "foambergs" floating in the nearby river. I ask how many students washed their hair before class, and I tell them that the "foambergs" don't lie; they carry with them the record of washed laundry, washed hair, and of fields washed of their natural nutrients and impregnated with phosphorus.

In 1993, floodwaters washed over eastern Iowa, causing the Iowa River to overflow the dam at Lake Macbride north of Iowa City and to scour away centuries' worth of soil covering these fossils.

I show my students fossils—a brachiopod, rugose coral with its wrinkly crenulations, and a nautilus shell with shattered chambers—and I explain the past glaciations, the extinction of the dinosaurs, and the similarities to today's climate shift. Do these indicate a cycle, a potential for change because of things we've done, or the whim of a great creator to rebuild the world? I want them to think about what they see, the past evidence and those things that they have witnessed. The answers are all there, if they look around.

A quiet voice asks, Were there dinosaurs then? I reply, You'll have to find out. Two weeks later, the girl who asked the question produces an essay that ties the land to her past: the Iowa farm she grew up on and the possibility that a family of mastodon walked through what is now her parents' garden—and the very real possibility that we could bring dinosaurs to the plains if enough DNA is located. Her story doesn't stop there; she wonders what would possibly stop them from trampling Des Moines, and what predators are needed to control the population of mastodon. She has solved her koan.

Vishnu continues along the creek, rustling the remnants of last year's grasses as he pushes through the big bluestem, Indian grass, and the shrubby masses of partridge peas. His feet part the damp and fragrant soil, its earthy smell filling our lungs. I feel alive and alert, and I see things I fail to notice any other day, like the bark of a mulberry chafed with velvet from a buck's antlers. Our feet rest on the bank, where roots of foxtail and meadow sedge hold the upper horizons fast even when the melt water flows downstream as it has for 500,000 years. Though floods carry the soils from the bank farther downstream, they also bring things: rusted cans, nails and screws, enormous planks of wood, and plastic toys.

A curious raccoon watches the activity on the forest floor beneath his perch.

Standing in the creek, I can see reordered layers of time, thousands of years stored in fractions of inches. At the top are the sprouting grasses and last autumn's dark brown decay of humus, roots, stems, twigs broken down over each season. Beneath that lies the clay-like yellow-brown ochre of oxidized rock soil and organics. The next layer, a blue mass of gleyed soil, clings with tenacity to my fingers, an anaerobic remnant of wetlands that covered most of the state before the land was tiled and tilled. Even farther below lies the unconsolidated glacial remains, where I might find mastodon or mammoth bones from the last Ice Age.

I unsheathe my Leatherman, unfold its blade, dulled and dirty from earth and rock, and begin digging into each layer. I imagine those who walked before me thinking of time. When they looked into the bank, what did they see? In the first inches were the bones of animals they had taken earlier, while deeper still were the footsteps and charcoal of fires from generations of parents and grandparents. Did they think of the fossil remains of coral, the pill bug shape of trilobite, and the winged shell of brachiopod as remnants before humans walked the earth? Or did they believe that we had always staked our claim here?

When the floods came, what did they carry to and from those people? Digging into the humus and clayey layers, I find flint, crockery, glass and wire, an arrowhead, a clamshell button, and a Silurian-age brachiopod. I clean the brachiopod in the creek and turn it over between my fingers. A borehole in its shell tells of its death. I press the shell into a layer of earth where it doesn't belong. I tell myself there are more answers for future explorers, if they ask the right questions.