A few years ago, I was invited to speak at a prairie science conference in central Iowa, a couple of hours from where I live. Attendees consisted mostly of state and county-employed scientists in charge of reconstructing, restoring, and managing the narrow strips of prairie habitat along the roads and highways throughout the Midwest. To appreciate the challenges these people face, one needs to understand that, in Iowa, less than one-tenth of one-percent of native habitats remain, the worst percentage in the Union. These roadside shreds—otherwise known as “ditches”—are vital, ecological lifelines (for monarch butterflies for instance), which also control harmful invasive species and reduce the use of herbicides, but the conference atmosphere did not convey this significance. The presentations were held in a dim, windowless banquet room at a non-descript hotel on the edge of Interstate 35—I could hear the roar of the semis through the walls. The audience for my reading was a scattered, late-morning 40 or so who had just sat through a seminar on “Stormwater Interception & Infiltration” and who I knew were dreading yet another go round with the hotel’s pasta buffet. I also knew, because my room had shared a thin wall with the conference courtesy room, that more than a few in the audience were hung over from late night partying. A man in the front row had his head resting on his arms, apparently asleep.
Here was the latest in a series of invited readings I’d given for prairie scientific groups during the last year, including a keynote for an international grasslands conference and a number of regional symposiums and prairie dedications. I felt honored to participate in every one of them, and because the sponsoring scientists had continued to invite me back, I’d begun flirting with visions of myself as an interdisciplinary ambassador for the Arts, a bridge over the troubled waters between the sciences and the humanities.
As I waited to be introduced at the ditch conference, however, I thought I saw the real truth of it: I had become the lounge singer of the prairie scientific community.
This minor epiphany led to larger questions about who I was as a nature writer, questions you’d think I’d have had a handle on by then, such as: For whom do I write, and why? Then again, ignorance and confusion were nothing new in my relationship to the prairies. While growing up in Iowa, in the heart of what used to be the tallgrass wilderness, I couldn’t have identified a native stalk of bluestem at gunpoint. That didn’t change until the Iowa floods of 1993, when I was a newly married, 20-something grad student living in a rural town. As the abandoned fields and unmowed ditches near our house erupted with native wildflowers and grasses, I bought a field guide and searched hungrily for their names. The enthusiasm I felt for this little bit of prairie wildness carried me out across the region where, during the next year, I hiked and camped in the prairies of South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas, and talked with people committed to healing them. That journey became the subject of my first book, Not Just Any Land, and it would end with my first participation in prairie reconstruction efforts in my home state.
Presented this way, my inner transformation from indifference to activism seems simple and complete, but that was not the case. While drawing me into a shaky commitment to the prairies, that initial journey also exposed me to the almost unimaginable extent of their destruction. The grasslands wilderness I had naively imagined encountering no longer existed and never would. Likewise, I confronted the disappointing fact that I would never be one of those writers who enjoyed a full-fledged love affair with the outdoors. I in fact hated, and still hate, camping. I made serious mistakes during that first trip, such as igniting my kerosene stove, several times, in the middle of all that dry grass. As I realized later, this was the intellectual equivalent of Yosemite Sam striking a match in a shack of dynamite. I should’ve been killed or, at the very least, incarcerated.
I also made serious mistakes on the page. In one of my earliest efforts at nature writing, I’d casually mentioned that birds have no sphincter muscles and thus cannot control or direct their excrement. This is something I’d actually heard and which, given my experiences with birds, seemed a reasonable assumption. The piece had been accepted for publication in a national magazine, but on a whim, I sent it to a writer friend for a final read-through. He immediately zeroed in on the sphincter claim, and took the liberty of running it by an actual ornithologist, something I perhaps should have thought to do myself. Shortly after, I received an email from the ornithologist with the subject line: “Gross Blasphemy!” He wrote that although birds may not have sphincter muscles, anyone who has ever tried to retrieve and tag turkey buzzard chicks on a cliff, while fighting off their parents, knows that they can aim and shoot their shit with deadly accuracy.
I was more careful with my facts after that, but the sense of myself as an environmental amateur, a fool, a screw-up waiting to happen remained unchanged.
Thus my early evolution as a nature writer was, like the prairies themselves, fragmented, compromised, and constantly threatened with extinction. My moments of blissed-out communion with wildness had been just that—moments—less like the literary nature shamans I’d worshipped, and more like the ignorant and wayward Christians in a Flannery O’Connor story, who find their right orientation only through fear and violence and humiliation and shame. The surprising thing, however, was that this process had worked; I had grown to love the prairies, no matter how diminished, and at some point I stopped fighting that process in my life and in my writing.
In the title chapter of my next memoir, Man Killed by Pheasant and Other Kinships, I recounted how during that same flooded summer of 1993, while barreling down an Iowa highway, a pheasant flew out of a ditch and into my open driver-side window, almost causing me to flip the car—a near-death experience that, like the confrontation with the Misfit in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” forced me to reconsider the seemingly safe, domesticated landscapes of home. As did the experience of being swarmed by a herd of wild donkeys on a prairie in South Dakota and being attacked by a supposedly domesticated rabbit hiding behind a neighbor’s toilet and watching my first son being born and all of the other unexpected moments of “kinship” with the natural world I recounted in that book.
At some point while writing Man Killed by Pheasant, with the support of my brave Boston editor, Merloyd Lawrence, I abandoned all pretense to a consistent voice and consistently linear narrative, the standards of commercial memoir, in favor of a form that came closer to the Midwestern landscape as I’d experienced it: segmented, divided into plots, some a little wilder than others, some smaller or larger, each observed from slightly different points of view, but all interconnected. I also stopped repressing the gallows humor I’d actually used to cope with environmental reality. It was a humor that arose out of my own sense of inadequacy and powerlessness and weakling hope, but which had also allowed me, in turn, to get beyond all that and actually apply whatever miniscule talent I had to serving the land I loved.
Even inside this new personal aesthetic, however, the intent was to connect with readers like me. People who were not scientists, not fully inside environmental commitment, but rather still struggling to find the door. I was pleased whenever Midwesterners told me that something in my writing had inspired them to care about the prairies, or some other unlikely sliver of remaining wildness, and to become involved in recovery or preservation efforts. That was the primary purpose of my literary work, I thought.
But what did that work have to offer those who weren’t in need of any more reasons to care? The scientists and others who were already on the front lines of restoring and reconstructing the prairies, bit by bit—harvesting and planting the seeds, studying and recording the results, writing the grants, and conducting the difficult, often soul-crushing negotiations with private landowners and corporate farmers and government bureaucracies, including those that controlled the paychecks on which they (and perhaps their families) depended. The people who were in fact sitting—or sleeping—before me at the prairie ditch conference in central Iowa.
What did I really know about them? I had talked with some of them individually at other events, and the stories of their work never ceased to inform and amaze me. I knew they came from both inside and outside the academic community, from the city and from the country, and that many of them had been working for years to heal native prairie ecosystems the majority of us living on this continent had never seen or known. I also knew that they did not enjoy the luxury of thinking merely in terms of those years. Their vision had to carry a place across decades and centuries, well beyond the boundaries of their own lifetimes. That’s how long it would take for their efforts to come to fruition, if ever. I considered this a kind of faith, as important as any other; and perhaps best described in the biblical book of Hebrews: “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
This got me thinking about the evangelist who used to visit my college campus every spring when I was an undergraduate. At some point during his animated rant, his wife would inevitably step forward to confess that, until she’d found the Lord, and her husband, she’d been a disco queen who enjoyed casual sex. Perhaps that’s the role I was meant to play at this conference, and others, to serve as witness, because in fact it was true, I had once been a disco king. But it was also true that I had once cared nothing for the ravaged prairies of my home and that it was not a prairie entire or even one-tenth of one-percent of a prairie that had turned that situation around, but the ragged threads that these people had, against all reason, charged themselves to restore and protect.
When the conference director first invited me to participate, he requested that I read my pheasant essay, which he and a number of other attendees had heard and enjoyed at previous events. After sizing up the situation, however, I decided to begin by telling the audience, somewhat awkwardly, how much I sincerely loved ditches and how often they appeared in my books. There were, for example, the ditches where I first learned to identify native plants after the floods; and the ditches where that doomed pheasant had lurked before charging my car; and the ditches outside the farmhouse we once rented, a grassy wilderness sheltering bobwhites and snakes and the occasional pack of beer-drinking teenagers. I asked them to consider all the people who were, at that very moment, driving by their restored roadsides, people who were pausing for a second, in their minds, to admire the wildflowers and grasses, to feel what we always feel in the presence of natural beauty—wonder, wholeness, joy—before continuing on their way. Like the margins in a photograph, their memories of those prairies would fade, but as most of us know, once a little wildness is allowed into a place, and into the human heart, it cannot be easily extracted. We carry it with us always, and no matter how far we roam, it calls us back to a community we no longer entirely define by the artificial boundaries too often used to divide us from each other and from the earth. When it is possible to return to the ecological community, even briefly, even when barreling down a highway at 70 mph, we return, as Wendell Berry puts it, not only “to a renewed and corrected awareness of our partiality and mortality, but also to healing and to joy in a renewed awareness of our love and hope for one another. Without that return we may know innocence and horror and grief, but not tragedy and joy, not consolation or forgiveness or redemption.”
“For many of us living here in prairie country,” I told them, “you are the founders and stewards of that redemptive community and on behalf of its citizens, I thank you.”
The audience stared at me blankly, apparently unmoved, except for the man in the front row who rolled his drowsy head from one arm to the other. So I surrendered and began, once again, to read the story of the pheasant that flew into my car, a story which, to tell the truth, had started to bore me, but one which these scientists kept requesting at their gatherings and who laughed at it harder and longer than any other kind of audience. They did so again this time, even the guy in the front row, and afterwards the conference director asked if I would consider speaking to them again in the future. The whole thing was beyond me.
Driving home, I didn’t pay much attention to the roadside prairies, which were undoubtedly in full summer bloom. I was too busy trying to stay awake. I had, as mentioned, been up late the previous night, listening to the scientists party in the neighboring room and in the hallway. A shared door was located near my head, and through the music, I overheard pieces of loud, increasingly passionate conversations about shrinking budgets and swelling bureaucracies and indifferent or tyrannical administrators. About frustrating scientific riddles and debates about the answers and the needs of this or that prairie place versus another. About losses and failures and hard-earned successes and wondering if any of it would make a difference or if they’d ever fall in love with someone who was worth a damn or, at the very least, gave a damn. The evening’s festivities were punctuated by someone vomiting just outside my room.
As I’d listened to the retching the night before, I hadn’t thought much beyond how gross it was, but now, in the car, I saw it as a sign that whatever else these people might be—a people of science or faith—they were also a people in despair. Unlike most of us living here, there were no ecological facts or depressing statistics or cataclysmic predictions or naïve and sentimental hopes these people hadn’t already confronted. They weren’t in need of that kind of nature writing, from me or anyone else. What they were in need of, finally, was a little laughter. A little song and revelry.
And I think they knew just the fool to give it to them.