This February, on the first day barely warm enough for it, I took off my shoes and set out on the cold, hard mud of a trail through the loess hills in Iowa. I was helping plan my April wedding, sometimes losing sight of the celebration and seeing only tasks to be done. And as excited as I was for the wedding, I knew that there was a good chance my wife and I would become temporarily long-distance in the fall while I finished my master’s program and she began working. That afternoon, I wanted to be transported for a while, to be ensconced in a place that felt elsewhere. The park, called Hitchcock Nature Center, isn’t quite out of reach of the Omaha skyline across the river. It’s bordered by pastureland, hayfields that spend half the year as short as a lawn, and by cornfields. Jets headed for Eppley Airport howl at low altitude overhead. In other words, human development encroaches on Hitchcock from every side.
But once you’re in the borders of the park, like passing through the gate of a besieged city out of Tolkien, you’re in a sanctuary, a place set apart. The loess hills are sideways savannas, wave-crest slopes. They’re a geological anomaly that occurs only in western Iowa and China: steep, whimsical ridges built of loose, wind-blown silt – loess means loose in German. Loose hills are places of constant change. The eroding, nearly vertical slopes make it hard for trees to hang on, and historically fires dealt the coup de grace in favor of a community of grass and fire-resistant bur oak. At Hitchcock, conservationists have restarted the wildfires in controlled form, coaxing them and reigning them in. The loess hills therefore shift, from spot to spot and through time, passing from small groups of trees, to open-grown bur oaks with wildflowers below, to the rugged bunchgrasses of the eastern prairie—big bluestem, Indian grass, switchgrass. You might have a favorite tree and come back next week and find it with a corkscrew lightning scar, burnt to a crisp. You might have a favorite flower—get out while it’s in having its week in bloom. The expanses of grass are sweet summery green one day, deer-hide tan another, and blackened from fire the next.
It was on one of its charcoal-stained days that I saw Hitchcock in February. The western edges of the park had been burned just a week or so before. The litter layer that had built up in the understory of the grass served as fuel for a burn right down to the soil, leaving only the blackened tufts of the center of bunchgrasses, spiky underfoot. The ash covered the bare ground, and recent rain was seeping it into the soil profile, returning rich organic material back to the earth.
That makes it sound charming. Let’s play it straight: I looked out from a hilltop and saw a shorn, devastated landscape. Black ground under a cold gray sky. A lava field in Iowa. Used right, fires are good for a grassland’s health, a bit like the way that an emetic can be good for someone who swallowed poison. It’s not pretty, but it’s medicine.Yet burned grasslands have a kind of gothic glamour for those with that kind of taste, especially on gray, misty days. I tried to avoid the sharp remains of bunchgrasses and stay on the smooth, hard-packed soil of the trail. It was cold but not too cold, a just-habitable window of late winter. I took a picture from my favorite vista that looks out over a ridge reaching into farm country, a black volcanic slope in the cornbelt, a small grove of trees on the ridge just dark arms reaching out in supplication.
This outpost of the loess hills makes me wonder—how small can a natural place be and still be an intact place with an identity of its own, make you feel like you’re inside it, a space set apart from the built and altered places beside it? Not that we want nature to fit into a tiny box and not exist outside our boxes. But if we don’t understand and care for the smaller manifestations of wildness close at hand, how can we ever care for the great wildernesses?
One way I try to answer that question is by visiting small nature spots more than once, tracking their identity through time. If a place isn’t expansive in size, maybe it unfolds in another dimension—in the number of moods it takes on, the number of ways that light can transform it. Monet painted a series showing the same view of the River Seine across at least 15 mornings. The way I see it, it’s the closest a painter has come to being an ecologist.
When I came home I compared my moon-scape photo with other pictures of Hitchcock from September of last year. The difference was one of fairy-tale contrast. I had close-ups of purple gayfeather and vervain set against a fuzzed-out background of green grass. And the same view of the ridge from that last growing season: everything in Shire-green and easy mid-morning sunlight.It was a shock to my midwinter gothic mood. It bounced me right out of the wedding planning stress, back into a place where I could be excited. I realized that small prints of a watercolor painting might make a decent wedding favor. I got out a six-by-eight inch piece of watercolor paper and pulled up the September version of the loess hills on my laptop. On second look there was a dab of Sicily or Morocco along with the Shire: scrubby hillsides with olive-toned trees descending down to a hayfield, the paths the tractor took through the grass taking the place of breaking Mediterranean waves. I got to work roughing out the compositional lines in pencil, then early washes of pale green and brownish yellow, and the sky the softest blue I could make it. And that little triangular grove of trees clinging to the ridge, nearly being thrown off, like a rider from a horse, or a surfer from a wave.
I returned to the loess hills trail this September, now married but living long-distance from my wife as I finished the last semester of my master’s degree. This time my mood was midwinter but the landscape still summery and cheering. I felt out of joint, out of sync. I tried to think less analytically, tried to just absorb the color and warmth of the place. I put my shoes back on when I saw someone coming up the trail because I felt silly about walking barefoot. I was asking a different but related question from my previous one about small wild places: how little intimacy can I survive on? It can cause imagination to expand, or inversely to fit in smaller places. Hamlet: “I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” I wanted the park to act as my time traveling vessel, to connect me with a different era of my life.
Instead of continuing along the narrow ridge like I usually do, I took the descending trail toward the hayfield. It takes a wide curve and just touches the grove of trees from my painting. I realized I had only been up close to these trees once before, on that burned-up late winter day. In my painting they looked like a solid mass, like you could hardly hope to walk through them. I now moved towards them, now seeing the grove instead as a place I could enter. I felt like I was stepping into my painting. That watercolor was the lens through which I saw this place, a two-dimensional frame of reference that was now becoming a three-dimensional diorama. It tied back, also, to the golden glow of the wedding weekend, when my wife and I were near each other, when we celebrated with nearly two hundred friends and family. I put my shoes back on, stepped off the trail, and pushed through the tallgrass to get closer. It turned out that this grove wasn’t so dense. Though it had a thick outer wall of small dogwood trees and more than a little poison ivy, once I crashed through that, it had an open canopy allowing for an understory of grass and flowers now glowing gold in the late afternoon light. Goldenrod, purple thistles, white snakeroot. A place not solid but better understood as a room. Like a golden room of flowers with trees as a roof.
I was seeing Annie Dillard’s “tree with the lights in it,” one of those rare moments for a naturalist when the universe catches a holy flame. I insist they are rare, whatever else you might hear.There was a slumping barbed wire fence that kept me from the deeper interior of the grove. At least it would keep visitors from trampling the flowers, and probably wasn’t high enough anymore for deer. Not wanting to intrude any longer on the sanctuary, I turned back on the trail.
Now with the perspective of emerging from that refuge instead of seeing it from the outside, somehow the nearby hayfield did not look so out of place next to the grasslands and this grove. It was like the ocean lapping against a beach: always there but never overcoming the beach totally, a dynamic balance.
Amid change and human use, the park was still a kind of island, a holdout of what the Loess Hills looked like 200 years ago. And within it, it contained smaller islands: little prairies among woods, little woods among prairies. The irregular, rollicking slopes constantly changed one’s perspective about which habitat was most abundant, and which was a precious remnant.
Hitchcock suggested an answer to my question about how small a place could be and still feel like an intact place: pretty small. To look closely at nature is to change one’s scale constantly: from an appreciation of a horizon to a heavy bumblebee heavily stepping among goldenrod blooms, from an aster opening its flowers to the poised, rolling ridge on which it grew. A shelter can be as small as the creature looking for safety can allow it to be. There were days, when I was growing up in St. Louis, when a mother deer left a fawn in our backyard so she could go forage and make more milk. Just by placing the fawn behind a tree trunk, the neither five humans nor the middle-aged dog roaming the yard found the fawn until we saw them both leaving. A little fawn-sized depression in the grass marked where the infant had lain. To the fawn, it was a kind of safety.
But while animals, humans included, are clever at finding shelter in the small, we are also looking for the tremendous, the gratuitous sweep of a river valley, the ocean, the prairie without fences. There’s a value in the expanse that can’t be counterfeited even by the most detailed, magnified look at the small. We want not just to be comforted for today but without bounds. This dance between desire and compromise that is my daily drama being in a long-distance relationship. It’s why I didn’t look to stay longer than a few moments at the little golden grove. I was thinking about the Atlantic, hearing a jet go overhead and thinking of my next trip to my wife.