Preserves Project

An Exploration of Iowa

Iowa is home to 80+ state preserves, and I'm on a quest to visit all of them. Below you'll find a gallery of snapshots from my travels and snippets of the essays that accompany them. My state preserve quest is multi-fold: to get to know this beautiful, fragmented, diverse landscape, to discover what these places mean to me, and to learn stories about the people who study, love, and protect these "wild" places. If you have a story about a state preserve, want to take me on a tour, or know someone who would, please don't hesitate to contact me.

Year One

{Travels Between Two Rivers}

At Brushy Creek, stars litter the sky. I step from the car and the wind engulfs me—if it were visible its swirls and tendrils would form auroras of color. The wind sends snow skittering across patches of ice and I hear icy flakes like mice feet on a wooden floor. The trees creak and a flock of Canada geese honk high and clean as the cold air. I think I hear a single, staccato hoot from an owl down in the ravine below, but I can’t be sure. On this darkest day of the year, I have come to see a luminous speck, the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. The two planets, bright pinpricks of light, hang between the naked branches of an ash tree.


Hoffman Prairie is just half a mile from my parent’s house, and my father has joined me for this early evening walk. He and I read the landscape differently. While I stop often to test my skills at winter plant identification, he shows me tracks and game trails, pointing out that the deer prints are crusted with ice—they haven’t passed through today. He is impressed by the trails, worn and well-traveled like the grooves left by a cross country skier. He points to deer scat and to prints that likely belong to a dog, but we briefly entertain the idea that a coyote made them. We scare up a pheasant and watch upwards of fifty Canada geese fly overhead, their formations brush calligraphy on the blue-gray evening sky. We hold our breath to hear their whoosh of their beating wings.

Doolittle Prairie. Wind. A warm wind, buoying the scent of earth, plows over the newly-thawed ground. With it flies dust. I taste dust in the air; it coats my mouth like bitter sugar, lingering—gritty—no matter how many times I swallow. The dust is loess, chaff, husk, the sloughing skin of last autumn. Like one does in the desert, I suddenly appreciate the moisture carried unprotected by my body, liquid eyes, damp nose, wet mouth hidden behind my lips. In these hollows the dust muddies; my body becomes the ground from which new soil might spring.

At Mossy Glen, I turn my attention to sighting crimson cups and hepatica. We leave the wide path and head to the bottom of the ravine where a clear stream flows below a slope of grayish blue clay. Burdock and bitter dock leaves spread through the loose gravel on the bank. Its windy, but still somehow calm and quiet. A woodpecker hammers on a tree somewhere out of sight. The ground is supple, loose, and pliable beneath my feet and I slide as much as I advance when we turn back up the slope. I find a log turning to fresh red loam, rich umber and new, suspended in limbo between wood and earth.


The hogsback at White Pine Hollow breathes cool and steady like a sleeping giant. I sit opposite the rock wall on a hunk of stone partially submerged in the clear stream and the air is as cool as the interior of the cave I hunched inside at Bixby state preserve two days ago. Insects swarm around my body, newly hatched from eggs laid in the pungent mud. This bend and bluff are the earth’s mildewy basement exposed. The language describing the topography here is rich. “The terrain is typical of the Silurian Escarpment,” my field guide reads, “with numerous large rock outcrops, slump blocks, cliffs, sinkholes, caves, algific talus slopes, springs, and steep-walled valleys…a ‘rock city’ of separated massive slump blocks occurs just north of the hogsback.” I think this is my favorite of all the Iowa ecosystems—pale beige rock faces limed with mosses, ferns, spring-fed streams, gorges and tight passageways between rock walls.

"Come look," I call to my husband who hasn’t taken to the steep path with the same eagerness, "I found Dutchman’s breeches!" In a clump of almost carrot-like leaves, fingernail-sized white flowers, tinged with pink, hang from a bent stalk. They are upside-down pairs of fairy-sized trousers. They are pointy angel wings with a yellow-flared skirt. Who could dream up such a flower? (Turkey River Mounds)