We drive north on Highway 12, the Big Sioux out our left window, loess bluffs and the entrances to Dorothy Pecaut and Stone State Park out the right.
A dead wild turkey rests on its side in the northbound lane. The six of us travel on, five students and me, until we reach the Broken Kettle Grassland Preserve, the largest tract of prairie in Iowa, “the last stronghold.” The Preserve feels the pressure from all sides, Conservancy Director Scott Moats says: “scale, climate change, invasion, politics, and ultimately a monumental failure of imagination can hold us hostage, can rob our inertia to act.”
I too know this feeling of being robbed. I felt in my conversations with my grandmother before she died, in my interactions with my dad, with my kids as I watch them grow in size and distance, and I feel it in those quiet moments all by myself when I look inside and see my own shortcomings. I’m unprepared for what’s next.
We all are.
At Broken Kettle, prairie sage and thistle and lead plant and leafy spurge abound. There’s an annual yellow mustard, bird nests made of buffalo hair, the white flash of a coyote’s rump, a raccoon looking both ways before crossing the road.
Scott Moats knows everything and revels in getting us to ask the right questions about cedars and sumac and how a cottonwood reveals a symmetrical star when you break open its branch. I tell Moats this must be evidence of a God. He doesn’t comment. He goes on about how the Conservancy uses a controlled burn for rejuvenation.
As Moats speaks outwardly I wonder inwardly how I might rejuvenate myself: as a husband, a father, a son, a teacher, a man. In the past it was easy: break up with a girlfriend, go on a road trip, eat some mushrooms. These options aren’t available anymore. There’s no magic pill to take, no trail oozing elixir. So I look to the past, to the masters: books of my heroes, models by the experts. Up to now, though, all answers have expiration dates.
I know I need a new way to live.
We learn lots about buffalo as we talk with Moats: that August is mating season, and that they feed into the wind and take midday siestas. We hear about buffalo socializing and how they walk about five miles a day. Some run sprints. A little calf flies down a ridgeline.
We come closer to answers to some deep questions simply by being here at the Preserve, by bearing witness to the spectacle of these buffalo. We learn about the prairie and our place in it.
The prairie matters because it teaches. It shows us that to maximize biodiversity we mostly just need only to get out of the way.
Prairie shows us interdependence. The buffalo wallow and voila, skinks and prairie rattlesnakes and songbirds have habitat.
Prairie shows us resiliency: in the successional plants sprouting up on a hillside within days of a burn, in the killdeer who return within a week, in the shamrock green loess ridge three weeks post-fire.
Prairie shows us scale. There have been over a 150 birds documented here and a square yard of prairie contains 20 miles of roots.
Prairie shows us promise. The Pasque flower has been used to treat rheumatism, boils and burns. Prairie violets have vitamin C. Navajos chewed the roots of the hoary puccoon to treat coughs. The Meskwaki made a tea out of Prairie phlox to treat eczema. The Dakota gave Snow-on-the-mountain tea to mothers without milk. We have no concept of what we’re destroying.
Prairies protect us. Because of the porousness of the loess, these prairies offer flood control. Prairies help to cleanse soils and air and water of toxins and waste. And they do it for free. We don’t need multi-billion dollar Army Corps managed dams or lobbyists in Washington, D.C. to keep the Missouri in check. We just need more prairie. Who needs Congress when we have the forty foot roots of yucca?
Finally, prairies help reveal our own potential. They show us where to find the reset button, how to resurrect the best of ourselves from within. That for new parts to grow some old ways have to die.
This is the advice I have to learn to take.
To live, there’s a lot in me that needs to die. I feel it: the anger, the self-loathing, the,
well, a lot more. I don’t have enough time.
I just know there’s some things inside that I don’t want there anymore. And I’m like all the rest: I don’t want to suffer to get to the Promised Land. I don’t want to do the hard work of looking inside myself and seeing what my true Self sees: that to be a good father I’ll have to make peace with myself as a son. That
I can’t be a good husband until I become a better man. That I’ll have to let go to live.
At Broken Kettle I see how much I’m in need of repair.
I’m a walking self-help cliché.
I bring home a pocketful of souvenirs: a tuft of buffalo hair pulled from a patch of little bluestem, a clipping of smooth hoary vervain, a successional weed pulled soon after fire.
A couple of students have asked me why the prairie is so special and why it should be saved. Then, after getting out in it and seeing bull snakes and Virginia waterleafs and indigo buntings, deer trotting and a buffalo herd, they see it’s special and know it must endure. But then they ask another question. Or maybe it’s an observation: in evolutionary time, the prairie will come and it will go. And maybe this is the time it will be gone and that this is the natural course of things. If I believe this then I think it means that I believe what humans are doing to the Earth is natural. I’m in the other camp. I’ve always been with John Steinbeck, who asked “why progress looked so much like destruction.”
But now I may see something else. Yes, progress is still apocalypse. The old houses eventually fall down. We haven’t yet learned to build forever. Which is all just saying the oldest truth in the book: I’m going to die.
I don’t know if the buffalo hair can go with me. A priest once told me you never see a U-Haul following a hearse. So I put ink to paper, data to drives. I make love to my wife. We make children.
We create things to outlive us.
We can try to do this on our own. Or we can do it with help. We look to our own pasts, to our families. We read books. We bow our heads to the earth.
In Sioux City, Iowa, we bend down and rub our fingers through loess and touch over 10,000 years of life, which means we are touching all of existence because everything is one thing: all the world in a grain of loess, all of me and all of you and all of heavy metal music and Labradoodles and roller-blading and all of the other things I can’t know or understand.
The prairie shows us how to remake the world. Fires burn and birds make nests. Wildflowers sprout from ash. When roots are deep plants survive. New seeds arise from old earth.
So I water mine here—in the Loess Hills, at Broken Kettle, within myself. The earth isn’t the only place a flower can bloom.
Ryan Allen is an associate professor of English and writing at Briar Cliff University where he also serves as a nonfiction and Siouxland editor for The Briar Cliff Review. His work has appeared in a variety of magazines, alt-weeklies and academic journals. He is the co-owner of Lumin Therapy, which promotes the therapeutic integration of the mind, body and spirit through the practice of yoga and mindfulness with special populations. He lives in Sioux City with his wife, three kids and dog.
Ode is a storytelling series where community members tell true stories on stage to promote positive impact through empathy. The next show is 7 p.m. Friday, July 27 at The Marquee, 1225 Fourth St., in downtown Sioux City. The theme is “Lessons Learned.” Tickets are $10 in advance; $15 day of show.