What Do You See?
The mother and daughter were shopping for the young teenager?s first camera. As the sales woman showed them as assortment of point-and-shoot cameras with various zoom capabilities, the mother rejected the longest zoom with this comment: ?That would be good in the mountains where there is something to look at, but we live here in Iowa.?
We overhead this comment recently, just as we were organizing our thoughts to write this essay about really seeing the beauty of the Midwest. We are here to say that there is something to look at in Iowa and the Midwest. Perhaps some of the problems we environmentalists have in helping people to protect the environment in which they and all else lives, is because they do not see the beauty which must be looked for and not just passively looked at. Both locals and visitors are too quick to apologize for or dismiss the visually gentle landscapes that make up most of this country?s midsection without looking closely at exquisite details one finds here. True, there are rushing streams and wild Lake Superior shores, but prairie expanses, cool quiet woodlands, tiny wetland pockets, and meandering rivers are the fabric and the essence of the beauty which is felt as much as seen.
When in conversation with strangers, who learn we are nature photographers, we are often asked where we go to find subject matter. Friends and acquaintances still ask about our next photo trip knowing we take several long trips each year. Both groups seem equally surprised with our usual responses ? ?Well we are going out to Rock Island Preserve this evening? or ?Wickiup Outdoor Education area is lovely early on a Saturday morning? or ?There is a preserve in Northwest Iowa which is supposed to be in full blooming glory next weekend? or ?While Linda attends a meeting in Chicago Bob will explore the suburban preserves.? We enjoy looking and seeing wherever we are and there is so much to see right here in the Midwest.
We love to travel and find, or make, the images that are there for the making or taking. The desert and the rainforest are special places that we respect and love. While in the desert, we come to know again why the prophets of old went to the desert to clear their heads and sort out their thoughts and beliefs. It is hard not to be both lulled into introspection while being keenly aware of the power of the elements in a desert. The sky is in sharp focus and events that are marked clearly on the landscape are quickly erased by wind or may stay an eternity. The desert invigorates and refreshes with its uncluttered displays where one must pay attention to the details of the scene to really see and understand the whole picture.
A temperate or semi-tropical rainforest acts in a different way but achieves similar results in creating feelings of wellbeing and revival. It is harder to see the details when entering the lush green confines of a rainforest than in the apparently sparser desert landscape. It takes a period for the body and mind to adjust and absorb the tempo of the forest. Pulse slows, muscles relax, hearing and eyesight become more acute and focused, sorting the trees from the forest, so to speak. The forest is the whole and is the ecosystem that sustains the trees, and the speckled slugs, fluorescent fungi and patterned bark found on them.
What has this to do with an Iowa landscape? There are elements of both the desert and rainforest right here. The rolling hills (whether prairie or row crop) are monochromatic with shades and tints of tan or green. It is a background on which events happen and are recorded. Humans often write indelibly on the landscape and nature is not able to erase as it does more easily in the desert. The pocket prairie?s and the wider expanses like Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge are places to clear one?s mind and see the prairie, and life in general, in closer focus. The quiet and watchful calm created by rainforests is replicated for us in a visit to WildCat Den State Park. As one descends into the canyon, an almost eerie green stillness wraps around the visitor and the incessant sound of Iowa traffic disappears. It is one of the few places in Iowa where constant road noise does not intrude. The lack of a hum is at first startling but as one adapts to the quiet other sounds and their makers become the details deserving attention.
The Midwest has many natural areas of beauty, wonder, resilience and perseverance. We made a pilgrimage recently on one of the hottest Saturday?s of the summer to one of these resilient places. It was the sort of day when one knows full well that the Upper Midwest is half way between the Equator and North Pole. Summers are scorching hot and winters can be bitterly cold. These extremes create the landscape and wide range of occupants in all the habitats. John and Beth Ross discuss the extremes of the Midwest in their 1998 book Prairie Time: The Leopold Reserve Revisited.
One rarely reads about pilgrimages in the Midwest. The sacred places of pilgrim journeys are to mystical places with views of high mountain ranges (the places the mother in our beginning anecdote thought worthy of a long lens), or the soul renewing shimmering desert, or exquisite temples hidden in jungles, or to mossy grottos beside rippling streams. The high Sierra from which this organization gets its name is one of those places. John Muir may have named the organization after the mountains but he was a Midwesterner who learned his love of nature?s beauty growing up in Wisconsin about 20 miles northeast of our destination this day.
The place we visited on our pilgrimage was a tiny wooden building with a view of granite hills, along a quiet flowing river in the mythical but real county of Sand. This quiet and peaceful setting is far from grand, but it is the landscape that inspired and sustained one of the patron saints of the land ethic to which many of us subscribe. We sat on a bench looking at the Baraboo Hills where Aldo Leopold wrote many of the essays in the Sand County Almanac. We walked in the woods and along the Wisconsin River where the remains of a turtle?s nest lay strewn like shreds of paper under our feet, probably enjoyed by a raccoon. The breeze had already obliterated the tracks. Nature is a tidy housekeeper. Dr. Leopold spent the latter part of his life seeing the beauty and necessity of the details and the relationships of the parts of the whole. Each small feature contributes to the larger whole and is necessary for the whole to be successful and beautiful.
He did not always think and feel that way. Leopold advised and made what were environmental mistakes but he changed, partly because he came to see the beauty of details and their importance physically to the ecosystem and spiritually to himself and to humans in general. He did not develop those ideas and graceful ways of stating them looking at tall mountains or vast seascapes. He walked and worked, watched and wrote, absorbed a wonder and respect for the land and saw the beauty on what might be called a very plain sandy piece of ground. One might say that the farm and the Shack are a source of what we all feel because we read the Sand County Almanac, when we see dew covered dragonflies on sedges, waves of Shooting Star blossoms on prairies, or woodlands carpeted with Spring Beauty. Our hope is to truly see what we are looking at, and to look for the subtle, surprising beauty that is never really hidden but for all of us to find and appreciate here in Iowa.
This brings us full circle to say to the mother, and all other doubters, that there is always something to look at and be inspired by. There is much to photograph (or sketch or paint or sculpt or write about and appreciate and protect) here in Iowa and throughout the Midwest. Paddy Pallin, the late dean of Australian bushwalkers, once said ?The best place is here and the best time is now.? May we never confuse altitude with beauty and may we know that we live in the best place and at the right time to know its beauty and work to protect, rehabilitate and create so it is sustained and sustains all generations to come.
? Linda & Robert Scarth, 2001.
First published in Iowa Sierran, 31 (3), 6, 2001. Reprinted in NatureScape News, 1 (2), B6, 2006.
All images are copyright protected and may only be used with our permission.