A sense of place
by Nan Fawcett
I do better in life when I can step back and see from a wider perspective. When I was suffering from the isolation of this pandemic, it helped to think about cultures and peoples down through the ages that suffered similar situations, and yet life went on for enough of the population that civilization continued. I spent much of the winter reading about the evolution of this area. Now, after all this research, I have a deeper sense of place here in this eastern Iowa town. I am aware that I live on a changing planet. Huge geological and atmospheric shifts that have taken place in the past often occurred over thousands or millions of years. The land I stand on was once the floor of an ocean, once under a glacier, once the home of mastodons.
First evidence of humans
The first evidence of humans found in Iowa is from around 12,000 years ago. The glaciers were retreating and the evergreen forests were changing to prairie grasslands and scattered hardwood forests. The climate was cooler and wetter than we have today. There is evidence that giant ground sloths, mastodons, mammoths, elephants, bison, and saber-tooth cats lived and died here, as well as smaller and less dramatic animals such as deer and elk. It is believed that humans in the early Holocene era were mostly hunters, traveling seasonally, following the retreating glaciers of the Ice Age. They hunted the large mammals of the tundra. I wonder whether they had a winter camp at the top of Prairie Hill. Or maybe that was their hunting ground. As time went on and the climate warmed, the Native Americans extended their diet to more plants, while continuing to hunt bison, deer and elk. By a thousand years ago, they were growing corn and other crops, were developing technology that simplified their lives, and were often gathering in river valleys to harvest fish and clams. As far as we can tell, their lives had been relatively stable for thousands of years until the 1700's.
And then the Europeans arrived. First French trappers and Spanish explorers. And then the English. After the War of 1812, a number of treaties with the native people eliminated all their claims in Iowa. By 1860, the entire state was divided up. The Meskwaki (Fox) and Sauk (Sak) had been the most recent native groups to live in eastern Iowa, and they and all other Native Americans were moved outside the state, though later the Fox and Sac bought back their land and are still our neighbors in Tama. From early records written by European settlers, the relationship between the settlers and the native peoples was at least somewhat friendly and cooperative at first, but as in the rest of the country, Europeans intended to claim all the new world and gradually they did do that through violence and treaties. It is a sad history, and one many or most of us regret now. Yet it happened, and the consequences (as in other conquered nations) have been far-reaching. Since my focus here is on the land, I will not write more about the banishment of the native people from their homelands, but it makes my heart ache.
Iowa prairie and woodlands
We have a description of the eastern Iowa landscapes in the 1800's and early 1900's written by Thomas Macbride, who was alive during at least part of the time he writes about. He describes the Iowa that the first settlers found, a land of prairie to the horizon, interrupted occasionally by small patches of woods along ridge tops and along streams. He describes the prairie grasses blowing in the wind like an ocean of waves. Along the streams grew wild plum, wild cherry, box elder, maple and elm. White oak flourished on the ridges. Occasionally a lake would appear in the prairie that filled with marsh-loving vegetation. There were annual prairie fires that would sweep across prairie and forest alike. Macbride says no one knew what started the fires. Some thought it was Native Americans, some thought it was careless trappers, and some thought it was lightning. Whatever the cause, the prairie grass in late summer or fall was like a tinderbox, and all it took was a spark.
It is from personal accounts like Macbride's that we can get a glimpse of a more natural Iowa. A century ago, eastern Iowa was much wetter than it is now, and in low places in the prairie it stayed wet. Every valley was a bog. The original prairie plants included only species that could endure annual fires, hardy perennials that could grow up again each year as well as a few annuals whose seeds weren't bothered by fire. In the lowlands, sedges covered thousands of acres. In higher areas, upland prairie grass, purple flowered red-root and wild roses thrived. In moister meadows you could find green-fringed orchids and wild lilies. Everywhere grew lobelia, wild parsnip and hemlock. Later in the summer there were sunflowers, liatris, and compass plants. It was only after Europeans moved in that plantain and dandelions began to be seen. Deer were abundant. Prairie hens were common, and you could hear the rustle of their wings all day, and in the winter, their trumpeting. Their abundant eggs strewn across the prairie were appreciated for a quick meal in those early log cabins.
And then came the plow
I could say here "And the rest is history..." When the plow came to Iowa, the prairie was turned under and crops took over the landscape. The fields were drained of their extra water. Permanent buildings and fences were added. Roads connected towns and cities, and the population grew. Wheat was the crop most grown in those early days of the new state, though eventually it changed to corn, which could be used to feed animals as well as shipped to other places. The rich Iowa soil was famous throughout the country, and still eastern Iowa is known for its fertile ground.
Though the prairie is almost gone in the 21st century, individuals and groups have begun planting plots of native prairie in small and larger areas, and even Prairie Hill has the beginnings of a prairie on the hill above our homes. We and others have realized the importance of perennial native grasses and flowers, and our landscape here at Prairie Hill is dotted with them. Our agriculture in the state has evolved into a monoculture system, mostly of corn and soybeans. And huge tractors, planters and harvesters have taken the place of the horse-drawn plow. High speed highways traverse the miles between towns and cities, and we lead lives far more complicated and technologically-based than our ancestors a hundred years ago. Yet we have preserved many beautiful areas in the form of national, state and local parks and protected acreages. Thank goodness for that. Even if we live in the city, we can go to natural areas to remind ourselves of what was once here, and find peace as we root our souls in nature.
The historical experience of the earth is vast, and the life that has come before us has evolved through widely varying conditions. We don't know what our own future will be like, but there are signs that current changes in our climate may herald another big shift in our world. Only time will tell.
Read more on Nan's blog