hereverThe sun is barely up, everyone else is asleep, and I’m ducking out the backdoor of my brother-in-law’s house for a run up Peavine Mountain overlooking Reno, Nevada. The 8,000’ peak bears the scars from thousands of all-terrain-vehicle-assisted adventures. The arid climate never washes those scars away, and the nearly-naked hillside has only a scattered assortment of shrubs to divert the rugged rock-crawlers from going wherever they want.
As I pick my way up the first rocky trail I find, the effect of altitude on my lungs seems to be overcome by the sheer excitement of exploring a new ecosystem for the first time since the pandemic put limits on my wanderlust. Almost instantly, I’m stopped by the brilliant yellow blooms of an old familiar face from my brief stints working as a park ranger in the southwest. Woolly Mule's Ears! I remember you! I stoop for a picture.
Further up the trail, I see a few more familiar faces from a past life. But as I huff and puff my way towards the radio towers on Peavine Peak that never seem to get any closer, the trail starts to feel more like a treadmill. My interest in the new ecosystem quickly waned as I realize that the entire time I’d worked for the park service – don’t tell my old bosses – I’d suffered from plant blindness.
I was and am a curious person, but my time under the flat hat never inspired much in the way of botanical curiosity. I could certainly rattle off the most likely candidates for a “what’s that” question from a visitor – rubber rabbitbrush here, sage there, and if I was stumped the old standby “some kind of aster,” but I never really sunk my teeth into it. I’d like to think I have a good excuse. Take a walk in the desert in January, and you’ll find the same cast of characters that you do in July. Sure, there might be a few more cactuses blooming in spring and summer, but most of the plants remain easily identifiable – and not terribly plentiful – year-round.
Add on to that the fact that seasonal work has rangers pick up and move to a new biome every six months or so, and it’s easy to see how I never developed a taste for binomial nomenclature or the subtleties of various glumes, lemmas, sepals, pistils, and the like. That is, until I came home to Iowa and actually had time to grow a decent taproot into the local ecology.
Here, the floral community shuffles in and out like stagehands changing sets. The spring ephemerals don’t just stop blooming, many of them seem to disappear entirely until their 15 minutes of fame begins anew next year. Come fall, most of the non-woody vegetation senesces to a melancholy brown, laying down in the driving winter winds to become a pile of skeletons through which new green shoots will emerge the next summer. Year over year, the same parcel can manifest entirely different plants depending on the whims of the weather, burn regimes, or even whether or not a bird pooped there after a hearty meal. The Rattlesnake Master went gangbusters last year. A Cream Gentian I found at Motor Mill in 2018 has slipped away from me every year since like a skink fleeing approaching footsteps.
In the short half-decade I’ve lived in and worked for Clayton County, I’ve found myself more and more enamored with the subtle details through each passing season. It’s something I always try to explain to transplants relocating to Iowa after a little time out west. If one develops their naturalist passions among the craggy peaks of the Sierra, or the ochre hues and labyrinths of the four corners, the monocropped horizon of Iowa can create sincere feelings of panic.
But Iowa was never meant to be enjoyed for long vistas or pulse-pounding hikes. Indeed, the prairie in mid-July with its towering grasses can make it very difficult to see far at all. It’s an indicator that to enjoy Iowa, you need to look close.
To learn an ecosystem is to learn a language. While all are capable of complexity, some are simply easier to learn. The endless horizon of a Canyonlands National Park is as easily understood as a stop sign in Switzerland – you may not know the words, but the message is clear. Others require a little more attention to detail. A slight alteration in the lexicography of Chinese script might change the meaning dramatically.
Some places yell. Iowa whispers. I’m ruminating on this concept as I make my way past the same 5 or 6 plants for two hours rambling up Peavine Mountain. I’m reminded of what it was like when I learned to read. At first, I had to concentrate for the letters to become organized into meaningful words. If I didn’t focus, a street sign was just a jumble of white lines on a green background. But after a while, it becomes impossible not to see the words in a collection of letters.
Likewise, these days I can’t turn off botany brain. Originally, looking through the windshield on my commute, I’d simply see colors and shapes. Purples here, yellows there, lots of green… If I stopped to closely examine a plant, key it out, suddenly the disorganized colors gave way to individual species, until eventually I developed some degree of fluency. Nowadays, my brain spends the drive time checking off a never-ending plant list – crown vetch here, birdsfoot trefoil there, asparagus, brome, hey, is that a lupine?
On the trail in Reno, I’m feeling like a kindergartener again. I can’t read anything. The language feels coarse compared to my native tongue. I’m realizing that, despite the novelty of the environment, I’m not nearly as engaged as I am on a walk through the prairie at Osborne, a walk I’ve taken a thousand times and hope to take a thousand more.
My feet were itchy again, as they were when I ranged park, anxiously looking for a new adventure, except now they were itchy for home. I wonder what plants had begun to bloom while I was away. The savannas at Bloody Run were putting on quite a show when I left – what am I missing up there while I’m here emptying sand out of my shoes amongst burn-scarred junipers along an old fire road?
There is endless novelty here on the Paleozoic Plateau. Armed with an eye for the little things, a new plant appearing in a familiar place stirs an intoxicating desire to explore more, to come back tomorrow, to tack a sticky-note with a date into a well-worn plant guide.
One can travel through space, and one can travel through time (though unfortunately only in one direction). To truly love a place, you have to do both. As an NPS ranger, I mastered the art of traveling through space, bagging peaks, snapping photos, and swallowing whole states in a day’s drive. But I never got the chance to travel in time, to watch a place develop day by day.
Iowa’s is truly a unique and sophisticated tongue, difficult to master, and perhaps that’s why so few seem interested in mastering it. Our diversity is astounding, even compared to the most celebrated natural wonders. One single species, the Lodgepole Pine, makes up 80% of Yellowstone National Park’s vast forest canopy. All told, the one-million-acre park has about 12 tree species in total. I can knock that out in a five-minute walk along the Pony Hollow Trail. And that’s before I even start looking in the understory.
The whole experience gave me a whole new perspective. The beauty of our ecosystem lies in the potential to travel in place, to scratch one's itchy feet without a plane ticket.
Looking Back June, huh? Okay short and sweet... Short and sweet... Here goes... While schools may be out, learning was still very much in last month. From a half-dozen field trip groups, to Nature Kids programs, to day camps hosted in partnership with the ISU extension office, young ones traveled from far and wide to see what's blooming in the woods, croaking in the pond, or munching on the milkweed.
Our overnight Junior Naturalist Camps got kicked off with the "Gateway to Adventure" camps geared towards introducing young outdoor enthusiasts to everything from archery and canoeing to karst topography and even trout grilling.
Summer is of course meant for sitting at the water's edge with a fishing pole in hand, so for free fishing weekend Clayton CCB took Backbone Lake for the annual fish derby hosted by the Friends of Backbone.
Elkader celebrated it's 175th anniversary, and we did our best to help celebrate in style, with a guided hike along the pony hollow trail and pioneer games hosted by CCB staff.
The O.W.L.S. had a chance to explore the Kleve-Schneider fen complex, one of the largest intact examples remaining of this unique "always wet but never flooded" habitat characterized by groundwater flowing to the surface creating a spongey, bouncy soil harboring an array of unique plant life.
Friday June 25th offered opportunities to explore inside or out as Osborne played host to the "Nature All Around Us" art series and the Becker West Wildlife Area played host to our monthly field day exploring the habitat work we've been at for the last few years.
And of course, the biggest news, the paths through the pioneer village and wildlife exhibit got paved! The new hard-surface paths will dramatically improve accessibility through these beloved features. Many thanks to Fettkether construction for the hard work on this project.
On July 16th, art lovers will have another chance to hone a new craft. In the next installment of the Nature All Around Us art series, participants will learn the art of Eco Printing with Naturalist Abbey. Using simple and natural plant materials, we will transform fabric using eco-dyeing techniques, a method discovered by Textile Artist India Flint. We’ll discuss bundling methods and wrap our own fabric bundles. The bundles will be heated to release the colors from the plant matter. Open to adults and teens, all art materials will be provided and participants will leave with a finished project to take home. Participants are encouraged to bring snacks and beverages to enjoy while they work.
On July 17th, the kiddos will have their own chance at nature art with the Nature Kids program from 10-11 AM.
On July 30th, habitat afficianados best strap on their hiking boots for Field Day Friday at Bloody Run! This park has a thousand stories to tell, but for this program we'll focus on the restoration of the remnant oak savannas, the development of the Well's Hollow hiking trail, and the importance of Bloody Run Creek.
Or, if you're a history buff, that same day will have the O.W.L.S. getting a taste of the Voyageur life with a paddle on the Mississippi in authentic voyageur canoes! Thanks to Clinton County Conservation for helping organize this amazing and unique opportunity to get out on the water the old fashioned way.