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Baby steps in prairie grass

By James C. Schaap

James C. Schaap

James C. Schaap

It took me thirty-one years of Iowa life to take my first steps on real native prairie, the kind my great-grandparents must have set foot upon when they arrived in northwest Iowa in the 1880s. Thirty-one years. Seems like a lifetime.

But then, real native prairie goes at a premium here. One might stumble on a few sloped patches along the Big Sioux River, but for decades the land has been drawn-and-quartered by row crops that, come summer, turn the whole region into a gargantuan garden. People who can’t see beauty in interminable echelons of corn tassels should have their eyes checked. No matter how you dress it, this is beautiful ground.

The state of Iowa, I’m told, has the most fully transformed landscape of any of the fifty states. What was once the tall grass prairie that grabbed Lewis and Clark’s breath the moment they set their eyes on its limitlessness is now almost entirely corn and soybeans. Prairie grass once could hide a six-foot man, the way hybrid corn can today. What was here, once blossomed kaleidoscopically all summer. What was here used to blaze, literally.

Schaap captures morning in the Loess Hills, a unique land formation in southwest Iowa that is found in only one other place in the world.

Schaap captures morning in the Loess Hills, a unique land formation in southwest Iowa that is found in only one other place in the world.

Quite simply, what was here is gone.

Not long ago, I took some visitors on a bus trip around Siouxland, showing some out-of-staters the haunts of northwest Iowa’s writers Frederic Manfred, Stanley Wiersma, and Jim Heynen. I told those tourists what I’ve been told: not only that Iowa’s prairie is the most altered landscape of any state in the union, but that Sioux County is the most altered county of any of Iowa’s 99. Later, I couldn’t help think that if I’d been taking those folks on a similar little jaunt fifty years ago—a group of fine Calvinist folks, most of them Dutch-American—I would have said what I did with a brimful of ethnic and even spiritual pride.

After all, the Dutch, of whom I am one, dyked and tiled and drained the sea itself to make productive farmland. My people came from Holland to northwest Iowa with a penchant for subduing the earth. I would have been singing a song of triumph.

But not so today.

Today, for better or for worse, any recitation of the facts of the altered landscape comes out a bit more sour, even out here, where the descendents of Dutch immigrants likely manage their land as lovingly as any in the state. It’s difficult to put a positive spin on the truth of what’s here: “Isn’t it wonderful how there’s nothing left of what was?” But let me describe those baby steps I took just last week.

Dawn came bewitchingly, thick August haze running like some mystical, gossamer river through the land’s low spots, masking the brilliance of the dawn, casting the whole broad setting in darkening layers of mellow gold. I stopped the car at the side of the gravel road, took out the camera, and looked over a 140-acre chunk of land called Steele Prairie State Preserve, one of Iowa’s largest remnant tall grass prairies outside of the Loess Hills, a place lovingly maintained in nearby Cherokee County.

There are no parallel tassels, no shimmering bean leaves. The place doesn’t look at all managed. It’s wild, the sedge meadow and marsh vegetation growing hither and yon as if answering to no one. It looks like a classroom out of control, a chaotic caucus of plant life.

But those first steps into the patch of grass made me aware that if this wasn’t some kind of hallowed ground, it was at least a whole different walk than anything available on ordinary Iowa farmland. In five steps—no more—my shoes were wet, pant legs soaked. Fifty feet into the Steele Preserve and I had a whole new vision of those prairie schooners moving west. Those folks weren’t walking on concrete; they were slugging through thick prairie grasses, taking their own baby steps on a natural mess, bumpy land that hadn’t been plowed and disked, planted or harrowed. I’d be lying if I’d say the footing is treacherous; let’s just put it this way: the earth is not at all subdued and so much heavier than I would have dreamed. The place is one gorgeous knee-high jungle.

And I couldn’t help think, as I walked, totally alone through that museum, that out here in the bountiful northwest corner of Iowa we’d all be better off if somehow we were capable of giving something back to what was, of reinvesting in this area by divesting ourselves of some of what we’ve done. If our children could, on some Saturday morning in August, take a walk in the thick, restored prairie and look over a couple of miles of the great ocean of grass that once lay here, wouldn’t they treasure more of what they have? Wouldn’t a restored piece of land like that help all the descendents of those hard-working Calvinists see their Maker more vividly?

Wouldn’t it be great if, in this great expanse of rolling prairie in a faraway corner of Iowa, we’d all just try a few baby steps towards a future that more fully remembers—and honors—what was?

James C. Schaap teaches English and gets up many mornings before dawn to capture Iowa sunrises with his camera. The photos are from his collection of prairie shots.