What Ding Taught Me…

Unknown author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
A giant of Iowa wetlands, Jay N. “Ding” Darling, came to Pella’s public library last week…sort of! Actually, the actor Tom Milligan performed a one-man play (The Art of Conservation: A Visit with Ding Darling) in character as Ding, followed by Q & A about this noted artist and conservationist, as well as Tom reflecting on his acting craft. This is part of a Humanities Iowa series of performances bringing historical figures to life. It was a lot of fun, and I especially enjoyed learning about this Iowan who did so much for wetlands and for conservation overall. In some ways, Ding is a predecessor to this blog, and frankly many of the Iowa wetlands I visit wouldn’t exist today without his efforts. You can learn more details about Ding by reading an Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation blog entry here. Suffice it to say, he was more than an amazing (Pulitzer-Prize-Winning) political cartoonist. Ding did ground-breaking work for wetlands, and showed us how to do the same. Let me describe some valuable lessons I learned from Ding Darling.

Look Honestly At The Situation

I see hints of sentiment in Ding’s work, and he certainly had a streak of idealism. But he was a keen observer of the people around him, and the conditions of the land and the body politic, and he was ready to paint an honest picture of what he saw. In his cartoons, he called out Iowa’s terrible roads and poor government agricultural policies and other challenges of rural life. And no politician, great or small, was beyond his criticism or ridicule. He faced all the challenging issues of the day.

And he was in the right place at the right time to see a breathtaking transformation: a landscape converted, before his eyes, from a diverse native grassland to an intensely-cultivated, citied “breadbasket of the world.” In particular, he personally witnessed the squeezing out of the last pockets of native ecosystems—the lower, wetter spots—being accomplished with haste and fervor. Ding recognized the alarming disappearance of waterfowl associated with this activity, and took up the cause of saving and restoring the wetlands, and protecting their feathered life.

I hope that we, today, can be similarly clear-eyed and honest about the problems we face, and what it will take to meet our own challenges.

DSC_0250Partner Up

Ding was also realistic enough to understand that saving the waterfowl and wetlands would take a group effort. Attending conferences, meeting wildlife biologists, approaching VIPs, and lending his name to worthy efforts was a start. Helping found or foster new groups like More Game Birds in America Foundation (later called Ducks Unlimited) or the National Wildlife Federation, was important to aid communication, coordinate the work  and to built enthusiasm.

Surrounding yourself with like-minded folk was a good start, but Ding reached out to government agencies and their leadership. Frankly, it was difficult: the Federal government had a Bureau of Fisheries and the Bureau of Biological Survey within the workings of the Agriculture bureaucracy, whose philosophy and procedures were misguided at best; and an office too small and disorganized to accomplish the work. So Ding, against his better judgment I imagine, took on a reorganization into what we now know as the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS), with much success. He led the agency, reporting to an ultra-liberal Democrat (FDR) while Ding himself was a conservative Republican (and good friend to Herbert Hoover). So, it appears that Ding found a way to work with government, and political adversaries, in a productive partnership.

Saving the wetlands will require trained workers, and a system for identifying and cultivating the talent. So Ding worked with a preeminent wildlife biologist and educator, Aldo Leopold, in his efforts. Ding also looked in his own back-yard, reaching out to the leadership at Iowa State College (now Iowa State University) to create a program for educating our future environmental professionals.

I’ll give myself a mixed review on the task of partnership—I surely enjoy teaching our students, and take pride in their subsequent successes. But today more than ever, it’s important to find productive ways to work with government, private landowners, conservation organizations, the media, educators…we must team up to complete the work Ding started, to write the next chapter in Iowa’s wetland story (and give it a happy ending!). I’ll try harder to make that happen…and I hope you’ll join me.


You’ll Need Money!

Let’s be honest: useful knowledge, willing partners and good intentions will only take you so far. We need to invest funds in these efforts. Ding realized that, of course, and donated his own money to worthy conservation causes, and encouraged others to do the same. Beyond that we also need to reach for the public purse.

Even though his political instincts worked against it, Ding nevertheless realized that taxes raised and spent on worthy public programs was necessary. He believed studying and protecting our wetlands was one of those worthy endeavors. Ding worked the political machinery to get funding for the new USFWS so that it could accomplish its work—because an agency existing on paper alone was useless.

Challenging stakeholders to financially support the cause was also key. Several ideas for taxes (such as on ammunition) to fund wetlands conservation were proposed; Ding instead supported a more direct appeal: hunters would simply pay a fee to fund work providing for their sport. Thus, the Duck Stamp was born. And the very first stamp featured artwork by none other than…Ding Darling. It’s quite beautiful, isn’t it?

1stDuckStamp (1)
The first ever Duck Stamp was designed by Ding Darling!

Art Makes Things Better…

The Duck Stamp is a fine example of Ding’s artistry. Famous for his political cartoons in newspapers, Ding’s political and social commentary is regarded highly. But his cartoons also included environmental themes, encouraging us to notice and protect our natural resources…including, of course, wetlands.

Art can also be richly symbolic, and Ding understood this power, using it to support the cause. He personally designed one of America’s great conservation icons, the Blue Goose logo for the USFWS. Its clean lines and sense of movement are modern and evocative; the subject matter says “we care for wildlife.” The logo looks great on letterhead, or a shoulder patch, or a sign along a refuge boundary. It’s just really, really good design.

OK, here’s the thing: I’m no Ding Darling! But I, and you, should enjoy art too. We all need art in our life! So take some creative photos at the fen. Sketch the cattails and red-winged blackbirds at the marsh. Write a poem about your walk through the floodplain forest. I’ll keep loving these Iowa wetlands, and encourage you to love the wetlands wherever you are. And while you’re there, take a moment to think of Ding Darling and his legacy. You’ll be honoring that legacy.


Author: Paul Weihe

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

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