Went to the swamp; found myself

Last week, I described what I found out on the land during my tour of Iowa’s 99 counties. That entry, and this whole blog, is about wetlands. But with your indulgence, I’d like to engage in a bit of self-reflection. I’ve learned about more than just wetlands, as it turns out. While slogging about these past three years, I’ve come to understand three truths: the value of being myself, of being in community, and of being connected to place.

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Student artwork, inspired by a lesson on “modular growth” of cattails

To be myself

We scientists (at least, those of my generation) were trained to conduct science in a dispassionate, disciplined way. Our goal is to ask questions and seek answers mechanically, avoiding bias as much as possible. Even the dry, stilted writing we employ when describing our work (“data were collected…” “…these results may reasonably be interpreted to suggest…”) encourage us to pretend to be science-robots.

Although this approach has noble intentions, it is still flawed in two important ways. First, it suggests we might somehow avoid bias (we can’t), thus avoiding the difficult and messy work of actually confronting our bias. Second, it places an artificial barrier between scientists and others (young would-be scientists, or the general public). Why are we are then surprised that science is seen as elitist and out-of-touch?

This 99wetlands project was an acknowledgment that today, society needs scientists to remember to be human beings, and to make a personal connection with non-scientists. We need to share our passion as well as our knowledge, and to engage in important conversations. Time spent driving to the slough or writing a blog entry was also time spent asking what’s really important to me, and why, and how to convey that to my readers. I hope I’ve done that in this blog.

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Tour of Bee Branch project, Dubuque

Living in community

I don’t own a wetland. Every site I profiled belongs to a private landowner, or is public land. It was important that this 99wetlands story include stories about the people who own, love, work in, and enjoy wetlands. I was delighted that in sharing their ecosystems, they shared their stories: what makes this place special, what should my readers know about it, how do you care for this place, what are we learning through this work? Getting to know the wetland meant telling the stories of my fellow wetlanders, and I loved it!

Including my students in my forays was both natural and a delight. These young people bring such energy and enthusiasm. Their questions and observations make me think about my work in new ways. Teaching brings great meaning to my life, and introducing young people to the beauty and the business of the ecosystem is truly a privilege.

And where would a writer be without a reader?? Almost 10,000 viewers from 60 different countries…that’s worth my effort! The blog format encourages readers to post comments and questions, and that’s the best part. I enjoy hearing additional points of view, examples from others’ experience, and the occasional gentle correction when I make a mistake. Much like my media interviews, I hear a comment from time-to-time out in The Real World, about how someone learned something new, or that I shared something that brought a little joy to their day. It means so much to me.

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Landowners invest much thought into wetland construction and management

Connected to a place

I’ve lived in Iowa for over 20 years now; Iowa feels like home. What better way to get the “sense of place” every environmental scientist needs, than to explore? So now, I have a better sense of Iowa geography—river to river, woods to prairies, farms and cities. I know more Iowa history, even pre-history of ancient peoples. I’ve met a few more Iowans—from ranchers to scientists to photographers. My wanderings and adventures make me love the place even more!

This quest was part of the inspiration for a class I’ll be teaching in a few weeks called, “Iowa: A Sense Of Place.” It’s one of those first-year college seminars where we introduce students to the academic life, to many ways of learning and knowing. You better believe I plan to have a good time with the class! Like this blog, I want to tell lots of different kinds of stories. Like this blog, I want it to be interactive. Like this blog, I hope it is life-changing.

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This rustic sign ifts right in, don’t be ofFENded

Some Final Thoughts…

I finish the 99 wetlands in a tumultuous time, indeed. As I write this, our country grapples with racial injustice in a most public way, perhaps more directly than at any time since the 1960s. It suffers from an economic depression not seen since the 1930s. We’re living through the worst pandemic in a century.

I haven’t exactly enjoyed these past six months, to be honest.

One of the things that has proven a comfort at this time, is the joy I feel when I’m in nature. I encourage you, if you can, to go find a pretty spot and just be still. You can find all sorts of studies about the mental-health benefits of spending time alone, contemplating the natural world. You can experience the aesthetic of nature-inspired art. You can reflect on the spiritual writings of ancient mystics and prophets who communed with Nature. Or…you can just go, and have that time away from the stifling oppression of the stresses and demands of everyday life.

Maybe you’ll choose to go to a wetland in Iowa. Maybe you’ll see me there.

I plan to keep exploring the wetlands, but informally and intermittently. I’ll still blog from time-to-time. Maybe I’ll make some videos. I’m told I should write a book, and maybe I will. I’ll keep you updated on whatever crazy shenanigans come next.

Until then…thanks again, and stay squishy!

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End of the Trail…at least, the 99 quest is completed…I hope the fun continues!!

Author: Paul Weihe

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

2 thoughts on “Went to the swamp; found myself”

  1. Great post. I too find solace in just being still, being outside. And if you don’t write a book, you should definitely write a field guide to wetlands in Iowa! With depictions from students too or something…I bet that would be fun to read even for people from out-of-state.

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  2. Thanks for the encouragement. A field guide would be cool. Since the project is a science outreach, I’m also considering a memoir…some humor and behind-the-scenes details.

    Like

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