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!!

Number 99 at last!!

HOME AT LAST, to the final visit in my tour of Iowa’s 99 counties: my home for 20-some years, Marion County! In fact, this wetland is right on the campus of my home institution, Central College, where I’ve worked since moving to Iowa.

It seemed fitting to profile a site in my own backyard, as a sort of homecoming. Better still, I can turn over the blog to my students for this one! They’ve worked hard at the site, an old farm pond on the west end of campus, and I will let them tell the story. Please visit the web page they created as part of a group project for my colleague’s class (link below). But first, let me add a little background for context…

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The environs near the wetland/pond, part of the athletic complex. Service Day started with a rare October snow…melted off as the day warmed.

This pond has been used for years, by myself and other profs, for aquatic ecology activities. When we did bathymetry in Limnology class years ago, we found the bottom to be fairly uniform, with firm footing and water depth of about 60-70 cm throughout. Obviously siltation has occurred since then, and it is shallower and more “squishy.” However, the notched outflow on the berm (earthen dam) has eroded a bit, likely to decrease the maximum water depth as well.

As far as I know, runoff from surrounding grassy fields—combination golf practice area and cross-country course—provides the sole water input aside from direct precipitation falling on the surface. During dry weather, no water flows out; however I haven’t seen the pond actually dry.

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The pond is visible in the right half of this photo. It is almost completely covered by the tiny duckweed plants. Extensive trees and brush surrounded the pond before the crew got to work

The pond has minimal emergent macrophytes (cattail, bulrush) around the edge. Filamentous algal blooms in early Spring are followed by a thick covering of Duckweed, so an impetus for the project was my observations that the duckweed diminished both the habitat quality and our ability to use the pond. I suspected that clearing the dense plant growth from the slopes around the pond might help reduce the duckweed, and facilitate access for visitors.

Link to the student web page:

https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/6cd2c0ff4997425d8063650c97589e34

Pretty great, isn’t it? They did an outstanding job with both organizing a Service Day project (and follow-up extra work day), and then all the additional analyses. The web page tells the story, although there’s yet another product of their labors (I’ll share THAT, next week).

This is the last of the 99 wetlands for my epic trek across Iowa…but this is certainly not the end of the story. This campus wetland will allow this coming semester’s classes, and many well into the future, to learn more about wetlands and their inhabitants and functioning. I’m looking forward to that. But beyond this, I believe we need to step back and review the journey, and consider what it all means. Come back next week for my musings on 99wetlands, and beyond. Thanks for visiting!!

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TEAMWORK. I really do appreciate the student’s hard work and the willingness of my colleague to “loan” me her Environmental Studies class…

Ecosystem Sales and Service…

In days past, at the end of every email I sent out was my name and address and the tagline “Ecosystem Sales & Service…at Reasonable Rates!” I thought I was pretty cute and clever, but it also served to prompt the question: why do we build wetlands, and how will we know if we’re doing it properly? It’s a type of question that is both obvious and yet far more complex than at first seems. It’s also imperative to answer, and worthy of the efforts of many smart, hard-working wetland scientists.

And so I found myself last August in Winnebago County with Paul Bartelt, a colleague  at Waldorf University. He is familiar with my interest in how wetlands function, especially how the presence of different plants may be important.  As it happens, Paul has for years been studying animals in wetlands, and as we chatted recently, we realized we both were curious about amphibians such as frogs, toads, and salamanders.

DSC_0493Amphibians seem a good candidate to show us how wetlands function: they spend their entire lives, or at least their most vulnerable juvenile stages, in wetlands. Breathing through and absorbing toxins across their skin, being “cold-blooded” and responding to changes in weather and climate, being sensitive to various pathogens…amphibians may be “the canary in the coal mine” for wetland stresses, or strong evidence for success when we do things right. And Paul knows amphibians and wetlands, even tracking the movements of individual animals with telemetry (radio transmitters). Tricky work.

DSC_0487As we visited several field sites together, we were discussing population-level questions: how do amphibian numbers and diversity compare across wetlands of different ages? How does the type and structure of cattails or other plants affect amphibian population ecology? In general, how can we better understand the function of Iowa wetlands? I’m fortunate that Paul has access to a group of sites restored up to 30 years ago, and that some have multiple basins. Even better, Paul is a personable guy and referred to conversations with local landowners—knowing and working with them can make all the difference.

Perhaps in future posts, I can detail specifics of the research. I do hope that Paul and I find some way to collaborate, perhaps with Lakeside Lab classes. His previous work has provided fascinating insights into Iowa animal life. I’m hoping that we can not only better understand the population ecology of amphibians, but also use that knowledge to help us better manage our lands and water. For example, during our conversation in the field, I learned that small but thoughtful actions by a landowner can greatly increase the ability of frogs or toads to move between sites, find food or safe spaces to rest, and in general avoid a fate Paul referred to as “toad jerky.” (yes, it’s what you’re imagining…). If I learn such helpful strategies, you’ll hear about it here at 99wetlands! Thanks for reading.

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In Good Hands…

DSC_0131Last year, I visited The Land of the Swamp White Oak Preserve, in Muscatine County. This 4,000-acre (1600-hectare) facility is truly outstanding, and open to the public. I recommend a visit! Let me tell you why this place is so special, and show a few photos and stories. We start with some Oak…but note that it blends with Willow, sedges, and glorious, sticky  mud.

DSC_0149As I’ve explained in past posts, the concept of “public land” varies widely. Who owns a property, who may visit, various uses and maintenance of the land can all differ. My observations suggest that the Nature Conservancy is a most pragmatic organization, focused on preserving the ecological integrity of the land forever. That goal still allows for a variety of ownership, partnership, care, and use. For example, I’ve stayed on a facility that had a beautiful cabin for groups (like my Ecology class) and yet is also was a working ranch. Other sites may allow only very restricted use. Land may be privately owned, and even worked, with the conservation goals nevertheless achieved through partnerships and various legal arrangements.

This particular property has a focus on wetlands and savanna habitats, and the amphibians, reptiles, and other animals found there. Dale and his crew from the local office showed me around, answering questions and explaining their work. It’s impressive! Let’s start with a look at some of those “herps,” the amphibians and reptiles.

Perhaps the variety and abundance of reptiles and amphibians tell us more about the quality and health of the wetland ecosystem, than any other indicator. These animals are exquisitely sensitive to disruptions of water dynamics and chemistry, weather patterns, alteration of structures in the habitat, etc. I’m delighted to report the presence of many such species, a few of which I got to see close-up! Check out the Newt with its bright yellow belly, or the fancy scutes (think treads on an armored vehicle) on a snake.

Care for some Arthopods? I’ve got some photos from around the site. Land, water, or…both? Check out the Mantis, some Odonates (Dragonfly/Damselfly nymph). Dale had a dip net, and we sampled slough, fen, and pond waters.

These habitats (and nearby uplands) are ideal for Crustaceans, and I love this duel of the great pincers. (Hey…what do YOU call these guys? Leave a comment with your preferred common name.)DSC_0217

This place is fun, even if you never see that wildlife. Just a nice walk along a stream, a bounce on the quaking peat, beating through a “reedswamp,” or rolling logs in a floodplain Bottomland Forest. This is time well-spent, and an amazing beauty to linger and appreciate.

I’m gladdened that The Nature Conservancy will protect this unique, ecologically-important site. Even more, I was delighted to interact with such dedicated, energetic young conservationists. With friends like these, our wetlands are in good hands.

 

 

Looking in holes for rattlers!

DSC_0094Yes, my idea of fun is squishing around a wetland looking for venomous snakes! But, where to even look? Well, “I know a guy.” Dr. Steve Main, a retired colleague from Wartburg College, spends time at Lakeside Lab every summer. We’ve enjoyed many chats about Iowa nature (and wetlands!), and he invited to host me when I visited Bremer County. Turns out, he showed me around two different wetlands, and he and his wife were kind enough to put me up for the night and feed me, too. I had a great visit!

DSC_0071Full disclosure: I seem to be the “Anti-Dr. Doolittle.” I should have warned Steve before the visit: people taking me out to view nature all too often mention that on similar trips—without me present—they find the (bird/blooming flower/butterfly/whatever), but with me present…no luck. Such it was with the “Swamp Rattler,” the Massassauga Rattlesnake (Sistrurus catenatus) at a site near the Wapsie River. Such a wetland has a soggy meadow dotted with “mud volcanoes” made by crayfish (crawfish? crawdads? I’m ecumenical regarding Crustacean names). These holes in the ground lead to a tunnel suitable for overwintering by the snakes. And those (imperiled) snakes are found in these wetlands.

This isn’t the big, noisy rattlesnake sunning on a rock, familiar from Western movies. It’s likely to be in dense vegetation, and hard to see. And unfortunately, there aren’t too many to see—they are endangered in Iowa. It causes quite the excitement when seen.

DSC_0088No worries, we still saw plenty of wetland beauty: an excellent population of Pickerelweed (Pontederia cordata), various Bulrush, Smartweeds, water-lily, Dock, and more. And really, wetland conservation is a package deal: protecting and managing habitat for a snake also benefits the other reptiles, and amphibians, and birds and insects…you get the idea.

Steve generously took additional time and showed me a large nearby DNR wetland complex, Sweet Marsh. We enjoyed the birds, butterflies, and frogs. But I was especially excited to see my beloved tall wetland plants. A healthy stand of Common (Broad-leaved) Cattail, Typha latifolia. We so often see the narrow-leaved species (T. angustifolia) or the hybrid between them (T. x glauca). Even more exciting was a stand of Wild Rice (Zizania sp.)! Despite the various waters named “Rice Lake” you may know, I don’t see it growing in the wild in Iowa too often. I’ll be sure to discuss this when I teach Ethnobotany next semester. I was also pleased to pass this along to some practitioners of traditional plant uses. (Wetland networking at its finest!)

What a great time I had exploring these wetlands, talking shop with a colleague and friend, and celebrating these special places. And now, you’ve joined the fun. Please join me on my remaining wetland adventures, won’t you?DSC_0109

Remembering and Anticipating

DSC_0001This blog project will cross the finish line soon: I have only a handful of Iowa’s 99 counties remaining to profile. I’ve been on a bit of hiatus lately, but my intention is to finish posting the remaining profiles in the next two months.

I’m in a contemplative mood! Actually, my visits to wetlands almost always both evoke memories, and invite speculation and planning for the future. Certainly my time at Beaver Valley Wetlands in Blackhawk County in August had me both looking back, and looking ahead.

It began as I walked along a backwater surrounded by trees. Perfect spot for Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) nesting, and sure enough I saw a female with her fledglings paddling through the duckweed. I watched her lead them away from me, and later circling alone, keeping herself between me and the young. Was she glaring at me with annoyance? You read her expression and decide for yourself. Anyway, a wildlife family is a hopeful sign for the future.

A short walk brought me to a well-constructed boardwalk/viewing platform. The air around it was busy with swallows diving, darting, and swooping about. Tough to photograph on the wing, but I did get a shot with a Barn (Hirundo rustica) and Tree (Tachycineta bicolor) swallow perched near each other. Nearby an Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) surveyed the situation from a lofty perch, and Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) noisily landed on a section of large open water. I took the opportunity to birdwatch a while and eat lunch.swallows

DSC_0056I reflected on the legacy before me. My predecessors loved this place enough to preserve and manage it as a natural area; better still, to provide amenities like this sturdy platform and comfy bench. And I pondered the names of donors or their families and friends carved into this “Tom Carter Memorial Walkway.” I’m truly grateful for people who, like me, love wetlands and work to preserve these amazing places.

I wondered about the future. A few more wetland wanderings for me, some blogging, and…then what? Hopefully, continuing this conversation at the very least. Presenting my own research, or reports on what others are doing to/for our wetlands. Musing about how best to protect, enjoy, learn, and teach about these amazing ecosystems. Hearing your questions and thoughts, too. And, most of all, I wish for a future where we, together, protect these wonderful wetlands…DSC_0061

Dragonflies Common and Rare

DSC_0312Is it just me, or are there more dragonflies around lately??

Quite possibly, this is merely a sign that I’m becoming more aware, and fascinated, by these amazing insects. I owe that awareness to readers of this blog, and to several friends and colleagues who share their knowledge passion with me. I’m convinced that after the fanatical birders and the ardent butterfly enthusiasts, the dragonfly lovers are the next most dedicated animal observers. (Check out IowaOdes or Odonata Central webpages, for example).

One such observer, and successful researcher of the Odonata (Dragonflies and Damselflies) is my colleague at Iowa Lakeside Laboratory field station, Bob Cruden. He’s been associated with Lakeside for decades, probably working there longer than anyone else. I love visiting with him every summer and learning about…just about everything, really. He’s a trained botanist, published expert on insects, and a dedicated academic and conservationist. Recently, he took time to look at photos of dragonflies I spotted at Nelson Park in Crawford County. He kindly identified* two species for me, and remarked that I had encountered one of the most common species in Iowa, and one of the most rare. I believe I also saw a third (related) species.

DSC_0327Calopteryx maculata, the Black Jewelwing, was abundant and active. The striking, shining blue body and black wings would make a hot-rodder envious of such a body color. The wings flashed at me as the insects surrounded me.

Calopteryx aequabilis, the River Jewelwing, certainly is photogenic: Bugguide.net has about a million images for your enjoyment. Sorry, I don’t have a great photo of this one.

According to the Iowa Odonata Survey, Argia tibialis, the Blue-Tipped Dancer, is known from 61/99 Iowa counties…although Crawford is not among those listed with a record. Have a look at my photos, including several joined together for a group shot!

DSC_0326At Nelson Park, I was delighted to find a streamside wetland just upslope of the small constructed lake (reservior). The habitat was a mix of stream channel with various depths, widths, and substrate (sand, gravel, silt) with a mix of herbaceous vegetation and downed woody debris (logs and snags) in the adjacent bottomland floodplain. In a short walk, one can visit dense wooded slope, floodplain wetland with a stream snaking through, the lake, and a mix of physical structure and organisms throughout. Such variety (habitat heterogeneity) is ecologically valuable. Better still, you can enjoy the beauty and learn a little something—there’s an app for that! Ah, the wonders of technology: we live in an age of miracles.

DSC_0301I was content to just enjoy the dragonflies zooming around me in great numbers. Hovering, diving, racing past and shining in the sun (many are iridescent and brightly-colored). Their beauty and fascinating, lively behavior might explain their great popularity. My inner scientist began to needle me, however. I began to wonder about what these insects need in their habitat. Specifically, I was revisiting the questions I’ve asked lately about the consequences of plant “architecture” on other organisms. Would different sorts Cattails, for example, present different cover in flight or for nymphs swimming in the water? Could eggs be laid as well, or mature nymphs emerge from the water to molt as readily, on different emergent plants? Would water shading or temperature or wave action or litter accumulation affect these animals (or others)? So many questions!

In any case, wander the trail and cross the bridge at this wetland, or a wetland near you, and enjoy our lovely Odonata. Perhaps I’ll see you out in one of Iowa’s amazing wetlands!

*Note: I am not a professional photographer, and Bob had to work with my vague descriptions, too. Any mis-ID is on me, surely.

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What I Did On My “Summer Vacation”

DSC_0062Hello, friends and fellow wetland enthusiasts!

Soon, I will resume my regular blogging activity—I’m excited to resume my journey across Iowa!! To date, I have profiled wetlands in 85 different counties. I also wrote essays on topics of general interest, and most recently a few profiles of wetlands in the Yucatan Peninsula (Southeast Mexico).

In addition to Mexico, I’ve spent time in northwest Iowa (The Iowa Great Lakes). On the shores of beautiful West Lake Okoboji is the field station of the State universities, Iowa Lakeside Laboratory. A remarkable aspect of Lakeside is the Artist-In-Residence Program (Lakeside AIR). A recent participant, Jeremy Eichenbaum, made videos. I encourage you to check out the Aquatic Ecology mini-documentary he made. I’m honored to be featured. I’m amazed at how he gives the viewer an amazing overview of my class and my teaching style in a minute and fifteen seconds!! It’s amazing.

DSC_0280One day I took Jeremy, other AIR participants, and my own class to the bog at Dead Man’s Lake, Pilot Knob State Park. I profiled the site already in this blog, but I have an update: WE FOUND THE ELUSIVE SUNDEW!!! We were unable to find this carnivorous plant during my last two annual visits, so it was delightful to see it again. And who spotted it first, but one of our artists. How cool is that!!

DSC_0264Thanks for your past support of the 99wetland project. I hope to visit the remaining Counties in the coming months, and post more-or-less-regularly, so please visit regularly. You can also subscribe for automatic updates.

“But Paul,” you say. “What happens at County Number 99?” I suppose an appropriate celebration will be in order. Contact Me if you have ideas. And please, spread the word—wetlands are beautiful, hard-working ecosystems worth protecting and enjoying. Join me, please.

Clean-Water Factory (with ducks…)

dsc_0369Before visiting an area on this 99wetlands quest, I sometimes read a technical note or scientific journal article to provide some context. Before visiting Kiowa Marsh in Sac County, I found a 1917 study in the Wilson Bulletin by J.A. Spurrell, described the condition of the County before settlement by Whites. The eastern half of Sac County had been covered by the Des Moines Lobe, a giant glacial surface coming down from Minnesota, the Dakotas, and Canada, and looking like a giant tongue. In eastern Sac County it formed a classic pothole landscape, prairie dimpled with shallow water features and wetlands. To quote the article,

“Correction pond, Lard lake, Rush lake, and many smaller ponds are now farm land.  …The drainage from Wall lake, the only one remaining, flows into Indian Creek.”

dsc_0371And this is where we have good news: a large wetland restoration at Kiowa Marsh, part of the Indian Creek watershed. The marsh is owned by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, but the restoration was a cooperation withUS Fish & Wildlife Service, and Ducks Unlimited and used funds from the Environmental Protection Agency. That link takes you to an Ammoland.com article, and yet other than the headline, only a passing mention of wildlife is made. However, statistics about the wetland and water quality are provided:

  • Indian Creek is part of drainage leading to the Raccoon River…which provides critical drinking water for more than 450,000 Iowans—or roughly one-sixth of the state’s entire population
  • ditches that empty into the marsh…drainages have for years served as a superhighway for soil particles and nutrient runoff that enter Kiowa Marsh and eventually flow into downstream creeks, rivers and reservoirs.
  • the restored wetlands will reduce sediment delivery to Indian Creek by approximately 652 tons/year and will help trap and recycle an estimated 847 tons of phosphorus per year
  • total cost of these restoration efforts was nearly $300,000 and will pay back significant dividends to Des Moines area water users
  • …and so, once again we face the clear truth. Yes, these wetlands WILL provide valuable habitat to waterfowl (and thereby, to hunters or birders). But the reasons wetlands are protected under the Clean Water Act, or the reason this particular wetland was restored using monies from the EPA, is that—whether they provide for the classic wildlife triumvirate of “Fur, Fins & Feathers,”—they first and foremost are about the water. No wetland is ever “isolated.” Our wetlands work to clean our water.

dsc_0365In correspondence with Clint from the DNR, he mentioned the considerable work in making sure that drainage from neighbors is properly incorporated, and that water storage and movement in the wetlands can be adjusted to attain project goals. Additional work on the north basin was in progress during my visit; this hard-working wetland will have even more benefits very soon.

The great thing is, in restoring wetlands for water quality benefits, we also support habitat for wildlife. A sign at Kiowa refers to the Waterfowl Production Area…AKA “duck factory.” That’s in addition to the restoration funding having the stated goal of being…a clean water factory!

Come back next week as I “connect the dots” of water quality in these three recently-profiled counties, and think about the recent news reports and legal action involving Iowa water quality, and the considerable work we still have to do. And I may have a suggestion to help with all this (spoiler: it involves wetlands!!). See you then.dsc_0363

What Ding Taught Me…

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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.

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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?

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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.

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