“Do people care to read about nature?” Connie Mutel asked on Saturday morning at the Loess Hills Prairie Seminar. We were discussing a book she is writing to her granddaughter. It’s a climate change memoir, and in between science writing she will weave in observations from the woods she frequents in eastern Iowa.
It’s a question I often wonder about myself. As a nature writer and reader of nature writing it pains to me say it, but to a certain extent I believe the answer is no. I think nature writing is largely writing for nature lovers. Sometimes I think it’s for an even more select group of people: Other nature writers.
Conferences like the Loess Hills Prairie Seminar, while they’re meant to be inclusive, are largely filled with members of the choir. As someone who cares about prairies and nature but does not have a science background I enjoy attending and listening to people who are specialists in these areas. But they don’t have to convince me. I already know climate change is real and think conserving prairies is one of the most important things in the world.
Do the people who live on Blue Lake in Onawa, Iowa, know that? What about my neighbors in Des Moines?
I got a fishing license this week for the first time in my life. A friend of mine, Andrew, started fishing in odd spots along the Des Moines River and after hearing his stories of run-ins with squatters and catching giant catfish I had to give it a try.
To be honest, I’ve always been kind of sickened and afraid of fish. I never thought I would buy a $10 fishing pole and hook a nightcrawler, but that’s what I found myself doing on a Thursday night. We didn’t catch anything, but we still had fun. Andrew said, “That’s when you know it’s a good hobby. When you’re not even successful and you still have a good time.”
That describes my passion for nature exactly. I know very little about prairie ecology and can rarely identify plants. Sometimes I go out birding and don’t see anything but robins or black capped chickadees. I’ll never be the fastest trail runner or the most accomplished hiker. These things don’t matter to me, they aren’t my priorities. My priority is getting out in nature and understanding the world around me.
Unfortunately, I think I am in the minority. I would like to change that but I’m not sure how.
Nature can be a painful place to visit. On Thursday morning I found three newborn baby bunnies in my front yard. No nest in sight, just hanging out in my yard. They were adorable and sweet rolling around in the grass. I watched them for so long I was late to work. But I knew they would be dead by the time I got home, and sure enough when I came home in the afternoon those sweet baby bunnies were laying on their backs completely gone.
After I found them I was riding in the car with my dog and mom and I started to cry. Not because the bunnies died, but because we will all die someday. Including me.
While I was chasing sunsets in northwest Iowa my friend Liz was watching a documentary about assisted suicides, which she deemed “a good thing.” We both agreed that if we were diagnosed with a terminal illness we would want to just end it. I wouldn’t want to have money and resources put into keeping me alive when I could just as easily die. What makes me so special, after all?
Of course I kind of think I am special. I don’t want to die, and the more time I spend in nature the more I realize that I will die someday and I don’t like that thought very much. There is so much of the world to see, so many things I want to learn and accomplish. If it all ended today then what was the purpose of my life. What have I really done?
I would like to say at the end of my life that it was long and happy, and that I helped others live full, sustainable lives and deepened their connection with nature. I can’t say that today. Not with any real confidence.
One of the most commonly loved scents is fresh cut grass, but what many people don’t realize is that smell is the plant trying to save itself from injury. Once cut the plants release organic compounds to close wounds and prevent infection, which results in that fresh mowed grass smell. Think of how many people go to their graves not knowing this about grass. Think of how many people die not knowing grass at all.
Deb Lewis, a botanist, said she had studied plants for years before she realized she did not know them. She did not know the grasshoppers and she did not know the relationships between plants and their environment.
Humans are meant to be a part of this. They’re meant to be a part of the Earth. We are meant to feel the sunset on our faces and watch the oak trees grow tall. We are meant to touch turtles and put our feet in the river. Yet we set ourselves in silos, away from nature. Often when we are in her we don’t really see her at all.
I feel hopeful about the future. Perhaps stupidly. I just cannot give into cynicism yet. I’m not ready to be crotchety. I think we can make people care about nature. I think we can get people outside and in touch with the world around them.
I think we must do this to save our planet.
It honestly brings tears to my eyes to know that someday all of this will be gone. That the world as I know it will cease to exist. That humans were put on the Earth to care for it and we have been selfish and greedy. I believe all humans are born with good intentions but are corrupted by society. I want so badly to take society and turn it on its head. I want so badly to pull the fire alarms in all the schools and send the kids outside. I want so badly to pull the fire alarms in all the offices and send the adults outside.
I want us to be a part of our environment again. Not in a primitive way. I just want us to be understanding. I want us to feel kinship with the Earth, and not ownership.
I can’t afford to get depressed about the state of the Earth. If I get depressed I will just stay in bed and never come out. And then who will do something about it? I must take responsibility for my time on Earth and try to do some good.