What are your favorite natural areas in Iowa and the Midwest?
There are so many, it’s difficult to choose. As a western Iowan, however, I’d have to say the Loess Hills—they are an international treasure. Hitchcock Nature Center, just north of Council Bluffs, has been a very special place for my family, offering hiking trails through loess prairies and spectacular views of the Missouri River Valley. As a boy, one of my favorite places was Dolliver State Park, along the Des Moines River near Fort Dodge. It was an amazing place, full of adventure and beauty, with sandstone cliffs, woodlands, and flower-filled meadows. Outside of Iowa, we’ve enjoyed exploring prairie places in Nebraska, Kansas, and South Dakota. I’d especially recommend the prairies of Wind Cave National Park, in the Black Hills, which I write about in the book. Tourists usually limit their visit to the cave, but it has some of the most spectacular mixed-grass prairies in the region.
You’re an English professor, not a biology professor, yet you’ve been a key speaker at the Iowa Prairie Network, North American Prairie Conference, and Prairie Preview, among others, and listeners really appreciate your point of view. How have you managed to bridge the communications gap between the worlds of literature and natural history?
One of the things I try to do is infuse scientific facts with lyricism, drama, and humor in order to earn the attention of readers who might not otherwise be interested. When I speak at science events, however, I know they already care. What I often hear about instead are the challenges facing those trying to protect and restore our natural environment—and they are significant. Although that work can be very rewarding, it can also take a personal toll. I want to offer these audiences a little laughter, but I also hope my work inspires them (and all my readers) to revisit the sources of their own love for nature, whether in childhood or some other time in their life. Sometimes we need to re-experience that original love in order to keep going with our current environmental efforts. Also, I stand as a witness that the work of these scientists does matter, not just ecologically but emotionally and spiritually. I am an example of the redemptive power of restored prairies—they have changed my life, and the lives of many others, for the better.
Excerpt from "Love Mountain" in Man Killed by Pheasant and Other Kinships
"Come down from there, dammit!"
It's our honeymoon and I awaken, as if from a trance, to find myself clinging to the side of a cliff in the Sawtooth wilderness of Idaho. The situation is new to me—being married, clinging to the side of a mountain—and, at the moment, unexpectedly precarious: a surprise visit from a loose pebble or a curious pika will put an end to it all. This explains, perhaps, the insistence in Steph's voice. I can see her, maybe a hundred feet below, standing on one of numerous jagged rocks, shouting, but I ignore her, preoccupied with the withering strength in my feet and fingertips and with the undeniable fact that this is her fault. How many times did I point out that Idaho militia groups are stocked with ex-pat Midwesterners? How many times did I mention, in passing, that the Donners were from Illinois? Countless numbers of my kind have thrown themselves with little forethought into the western wilderness, only to become disoriented and lost and, if they're lucky, airlifted to safety like dew-eyed moose calved on Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom. If they're unlucky—and many have been—they die, die by the bushel inside hidden cracks of canyons or beneath the smothering blanket of an avalanche, or, like me, on a slippery cliff they can't remember climbing or why. Steph had read about these unlucky people in the paper, she'd witnessed my own erratic behavior in the mountains, and yet, somehow, while photographing wildflowers, she'd allowed me to wander off alone.
If I survive, I'll confront her about this, but I suspect I won't survive. I suspect our relationship is about to end very much the way it began: a man staring across space, falling.
John Price is the author of Man Killed by Pheasant and Other Kinships