The Halfway Point

This post is a “Thank-You” to all of the readers of the blog, and those who have supported me on my blogging adventure. I recently passed several milestones; it might be a good time for some retrospective.

Last week I posted about visiting a wetland in county number 50 of Iowa’s 99 counties. The halfway point in my journey comes just after the one-year anniversary of my first post. So far, all is on schedule, and I’m having a great time. More importantly, I have met some wonderful people, visited a lot of Iowa and learned about this State, and (hopefully) started a conversation. We really should talk about our connection with nature, about valuing our environment and playing our part in it. Let’s think about how we can make better decisions about the land, water, and life around us.


How I get this done

Upon hearing about this project, many wonder if every Iowa county has a wetland (yes!) and how I might find the wetlands; a topic I have considered before.ย  I find those wetlands in several ways, listed here in decreasing number of sites identified:

Guides to natural areas. These include The Sportsman’s Atlas, DNR web pages, or the Federal Government’s National Wetlands Inventory Mapper

Tips from friends and readers. Nothing like a personal recommendation. I especially enjoy that I also will hear about the story behind the wetland and its management

Scientific or technical literature. Obviously this provides some of the story—my predecessors have studied the ecosystem, or some aspect of it! But it is also valuable to revisit and ask “what, if anything, has changed?” Usually something has.

And what do I look for in a site? How do I choose? Obviously, I need an accessible wetland to visit (these are mostly on public ground). I try to group together 2-3 adjacent counties on an outing to make my travel more efficient. Sometimes I know a site has a story I need to tell, but mostly I rely on serendipity (and, my scientific training and background in nature interpretation) to discover the lesson this wetland can teach us. My overall strategy is to present as many facets of wetlands as possible—and I have 99 chances to tell those stories. Natural history of animals and plants, the business of how science is done, human history and land use, services and ecosystem functions, and even some beauty and fun…I want to touch on all of this, along the way.

I’ve been asked about the images I include in the blog. Other than the occasional old aerial photo or Google Maps image, everything is mine. Almost all the photos were taken using a camera I bought at the start of this project: a Nikon D3400 digital SLR. The “kit” came with two lenses (Nikkor 18-55 mm f/3.5-5.6G VR and 70-300 mm f/4.5-6.3G ED) and I can swap out SD cards at will, although most cards will hold hundreds of snaps. Pause for a moment, and consider that someone with almost no actual photography knowledge, no elaborate staging, and using a $350 camera, can take shots of this quality (usually just set on Auto, and no tripod). We live in an age of miracles! It’s true that I could fuss with the images on the computer, but I haven’t yet—only now and then will I crop a photo to draw attention to one feature.

Sometimes I have friends on my trips. And everyone loves to snap pictures!

Lessons Learned

As it turns out, people are responding positively to my quirky little adventure! Maybe it’s “Iowa nice,”ย  but…people “get it,” and are encouraging; not once have I got that “what’s WRONG with this guy?” response. That’s really helpful, because I sense much animosity to science lately, and ambivalence about caring for the environment. I appreciate the interest and support. And of course, partly this project is a morale-booster for me, and just being out in the swamp feeds my soul. This has been therapeutic.

It’s also been a great learning experience for me. I now know…

  • Explicit instructions and a quality map won’t overcome innate lack of geo-sense. And your GPS won’t necessarily save you.
  • Iowa has diversity. We overflow with “typical Midwesterners” and flat farmland, sure. But we also have people of color, recent immigrants, different cultures and aesthetics and ways to earn a living. Our land has amazing places to visit, if you know where to look. And yes, some of those places are wetlands!
  • Our choices matter. We can do amazing things with our time, energy, and passion. We can reach out to others and make something profound. Preserving our wetlands is on the list, but Iowa also has innovation in arts, technology, business, and yes, politics. We need to make our leaders (from the crowd of presidential candidates to local officials) understand that caring for our land, and the life around us, is urgent. We need to look beyond winning elections, to real leadership. Our citizens do amazing stuff. We have it in us. Our leadership should both reflect and support what makes us great.
  • Sure, Iowa exports a lot of grain and other agricultural commodities, but it knows how to set the table for you!ย  And you better save room for dessert. (My next blog: “99pies: the road to diabeetus“).
Oh, the irony…can’t access the wetland because of flooding

Join me…49 more to go!

In future posts, I will again profile amazing Wetland Heroes who preserve, study, or share our wetlands. Watch for posts about how we decide what a wetland is and isn’t, and how our legal protection works, or doesn’t. We should look a bit more closely at the plants and animals of course, but how about hydrology, and the special soils found in wetlands? The topic of wetland loss and replacement (“mitigation”) will need several posts: how do we decide if our replacement wetland succeeds or not? How do we even define that “success” in an ecosystem?

A goal in all this is for me to formulate my next research question. I want some important but manageable research topic that I could explore (preferably with my students). Will something I see out there capture my interest??

Of course, your questions and suggestions for sites to visit, or blog topics are most welcome.

The wildlife have room and board all set. I need to make my own arrangements…

And after 99…what then?

When I started this project, I contacted my friend and noted news analyst, Dr. Robert Leonard. He interviewed me for the local radio stations, KNIA/KRLS. And then he made a terrific suggestion: think about this project as a narrative. In other words, I’ll have 99 blog posts on many different themes. But overall, the project should tell a story, complete with beginning, middle, and end. And what’s the “moral of the story?”

I’m still working on a good way to articulate this, but the essence of wetland ecosystems is the essence of the project: the place where things come together…the ecotone. Wetlands are interesting to study (and sometimes hard to understand) because they straddle two ecological conditions, aquatic and terrestrial (“wetland”). This makes it challenging to draw a line around a wetland, or categorize it neatly, or have a one-size-fits-all prescription for ecosystem care.

And so the wetland is an in-between world, transcending our neat little conceptual boxes. And, my job is to move in that space, literally and figuratively. I want to do science, and also help my students learn science. I feel a calling to engage in a conversation about the role of science in society, about how we talk about important things (that we don’t completely understand) and make wise decisions today and plans for tomorrow.

I think it’s a story we all live in, and that it’s important to tell. For now, it’s my blog. Maybe later, I’ll write a book or give some lectures. But I truly hope it’s our journey, and that we all learn from this. Those wetlands can teach us a lot!

Author: Paul Weihe

Associate Professor of Biology at Central College, traditional author (Textbook of Limnology, Cole & Weihe, 5th ed.; Waveland Press), and now...blogger!

6 thoughts on “The Halfway Point”

  1. Congratulations on reaching your halfway point! May your next forty-nine wetlands provide more fascination, good stories, and good photos. The photos in today’s post are great, especially those beautiful flowers.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You make me want to visit our local wetlands afresh. I have never been drawn to them, preferring mountains, hills, cliffs, meadows… drier spots, in short! But now I see there is so much to observe.


    1. Great to hear! Maybe I should write a post about why wetlands are misunderstood. They CAN be beautiful, but have a bit of an “image problem,” to be sure. Happy exploring ๐Ÿ™‚


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