Falling in love with Iowa prairie

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An Iowa prairie flower. — photo by Thomas Dean

Over the past year and a half, I have grown to know and love the Iowa prairie as never before. I am in the final stages of a project with my co-author, Cindy Crosby, that involves writing about and photographing the tallgrass prairie. While I have always relished visits to a prairie, this project has obliged me to make regular sojourns to Iowa tallgrass sites. In so doing, I have been able to experience the prairie much more for what it truly is: a dynamic ecosystem full of constant change and surprise.

Since at times I was making at least weekly photo expeditions to various prairies dotting eastern and central Iowa, I could observe the succession of growth and bloom in a more coherent way than ever before. Doing so not only gifted me with a wealth of visual delights as shooting star gave way to spiderwort gave way to compass plant gave way to the tall majesty of bluestem in full vigor, but it also gave me a new sense of time and place as the markers of prairie life marched in succession before me. My sense of the transmuting round of the year was enriched well beyond the changes in tree leaves and garden plants of my backyard, and my sense of connection to my home ground was deepened.

My experience admittedly was nothing profound. My co-author, Cindy, as a naturalist sees the daily changes on the prairie and the spectacle of gradual transformation as everyday life, though still wondrous. And incorporating more regular, focused observation of the natural world around me hardly made a Leopold-level phenologist of me.

Iowa-born Aldo Leopold started building his conservationist chops in his backyard on the banks of the Mississippi in Burlington, recording in observant, accurate detail the daily life of birds and plants on his family’s grounds. Observing and recording the cycles of life in this way is phenology, which became a lifelong practice for Leopold, who passed on these phenological habits to his family. Leopold died in 1949, but his daughter Nina continued her phenological observations and recordings at the legendary Shack in Wisconsin until her death in 2011. The Leopold legacy is bound in Aldo’s classic A Sand County Almanac and the tremendous conservation work he and his family accomplished across the decades of the 20th century.

Photo by Thomas Dean

Yet perhaps one of the Leopolds’ most profound and valuable contributions to our understanding of the natural world are the volumes of notebooks that they kept, recording the arrivals and departures of migrating birds, the behaviors of native mammals and the blooming and fading of plants on that small patch of ground on the Wisconsin River. Through these decades of meticulous records, a story of place — and of changes in the landscape, including both the bounties of ecological restoration and the vitiating effects of climate change — has been told in ways rarely seen.

We — and our local place, even our planet — could all benefit from a little phenology in our lives. I suggest giving it a try. It needn’t be burdensome, and you don’t have to keep decades of notebooks for it to have an important effect. Maybe choose just one thing — say, a favorite tree or a particular type of bird in your yard. Make a daily habit of observing it, noticing both the subtle and profound changes it goes through as the days pass and as the seasons turn. If you have more time and ambition, make some regular treks to one of our local prairies or woodlands, especially those with native plants, and tune into the changes from week to week. I can guarantee your relationship with the natural world will change as well as your perspective on the cycles of life.

Ultimately, the fate of our environment depends on the ecological integrity of our local places, and the integrity of our local places depends on our deep understanding of and emotional connection to them. As Wendell Berry said in the title of his 2012 National Endowment for the Humanities Jefferson Lecture, “It All Turns on Affection.” Paying attention and regular connection are the sources of this essential affection in which lies, truly, the fate of the world.

Photo by Tom Dean

Thomas Dean is excited about the arrival of Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit, co-authored with Cindy Crosby, coming in spring 2019 from Ice Cube Press. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 244.

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