Book Review: ‘Tending Iowa’s Land: Pathways to a Sustainable Future’ ed. by Cornelia F. Mutel

While contemplating Tending Iowa’s Land, a poignant story returned to mind. A good friend of mine and his wife, several years ago, lived very near the Iowa River. During a hot, dry spell, he decided to put a pump into the river and use river water instead of well water to resuscitate their parched garden. The plan worked perfectly — the moistened plants promptly returned to vegetal lushness. By late afternoon on the third day, however, the leaves curled, the stems sagged, and the plants drooped earthward. Within a week every vegetable in the garden was brown and dying.

On one hand, this dead-garden story invokes a folksy humor characteristic of good storytelling. Beneath that humor is the tragic reality that the Iowa River, in that circumstance, was toxic. How could river water kill a garden in the middle of one of the most agriculturally productive states in our country? The answer is, most probably, the profound ecological alteration that, since about 1830, has been degrading our Iowa landscape.

Tending Iowa’s Land: Pathways to a Sustainable Future (edited by Constance Mutel from University of Iowa Press) explores the history and status of, and possible solutions to, this relentless phenomenon. Each section in the book (titled Soil, Water, Air and Life) includes chapters written by recognized experts in their field; between each chapter are perceptive personal essays written by Iowa farmers or environmentalists.

In addition to the book’s structure and content, Mutel made another key decision: all contributors would write in a first-person storytelling form. As a result, the wide-ranging content is rendered stylistically and tonally unified, approachable and amicable — literary features that are so important when addressing potentially controversial subjects like land usage and agricultural practices. Plus, all the chapters and essays effectively serve a central goal: to provide the scientific foundation for a back-to-the-basics sourcebook that explores the human-caused alterations in the soils, hydrology, climate and ecosystem that have degraded Iowa’s environment.

Tending Iowa’s Land offers a rich educational experience, exploring concepts such as biochar, neonicotinoids, roller crimping and detritovores. Perhaps more importantly, the book develops two broad, critical concepts. First, our soil, water, air and native biodiversity are all inextricably interdependent in the ecosystem that is Iowa. The improvement or degradation of one influences each of the others. Second, Iowa’s history is showing us that our present land management practices are unsustainable. Fortunately, those practices are being slowly supplanted by regenerative agriculture and the restoration of native biodiversity. The success of this evolution is dependent upon a collective of farmers, other agricultural interests, concerned citizens and environmentalists pursuing political, legislative, technological and educational solutions. Further, Mutel suggests that our success will require the cultural transformation of our personal values; herein lies the opportunity for Iowans to literally lead the world away from monocultural wastelands toward a future of sustainable, biodiverse ecosystems.

This article was originally published in Little Village’s February 2023 issues.