A writer helps preserve Iowa’s natural heritage and offers ideas for a sustainable future.
Connie Mutel has spent more than 20 years chronicling Iowa’s relationship with nature, helping save the state’s natural treasures, but also reminding us how much we’ve lost—or yet stand to lose. The work has robbed her of some simple pleasures.
“It’s hard for me to sit on my porch and watch the birds without statistics on their declines clicking in my head,” she says. “I see in nature these incredible gifts, but wonder if they’ll be here for my grandkids.”
Mutel’s 1989 Fragile Giants: A Natural History of the Loess Hills, brought scientific and popular attention to a formerly neglected area of western Iowa—one of only two like it in the world. Last year’s The Emerald Horizon: The History of Nature in Iowa recounts the domestication of the landscape, especially the sea of prairie that once loomed as far as the eye could see.
Due next year is a Mutel-edited anthology about Iowa’s record 2008 flooding. The book will blend scientific perspectives on the floods’ causes and characteristics, accounts of their lingering environmental and economic effects, and insights that might help prevent future such disasters.
“I was out of town during early summer 2008 and felt horrible not being here,” Mutel recalls. “I wanted to find something I could do to help.” Her longtime friend and editor Holly Carver, director of the University of Iowa Press, suggested the anthology—it will be Mutel’s fourth book for the Press.
The collection includes contributions from some of Mutel’s colleagues at the University’s IIHR-Hydroscience & Engineering institute, where she has worked as a writer and archivist since 1990. A Madison, Wis., native, she attended Oberlin College and earned a master’s in plant ecology at the University of Colorado before coming to Iowa with husband Robert Mutel, UI professor of astronomy, in the mid 1970s.
She’s since built a unique career, translating scientific concepts for general audiences and pursuing research projects that might have eluded her had she chosen a traditional academic path.
“Looking back, I would have loved to have been a faculty member, if only for the chance to work with students,” she says. “But I wonder if I would have had time to focus on my writing. Doing a big book consumes you.”
The Emerald Horizon took six years to complete. “It’s my love child,” Mutel says. “Tending archives, you see how much knowledge walks out the door when someone retires. I didn’t want that to happen with what I’ve learned about Iowa.”
The book tells the stories behind Iowa’s “wounded landscape,” as Mutel describes it, prairies, woodlands, and wetlands transformed largely by agriculture. It also offers practical prescriptions for undoing some of the harm.
Like previous projects, the book has taken her on the road for talks and readings—“I’m an introvert by nature,” she says, “but I say ‘yes’ when anyone calls.” She wrote The Emerald Horizon especially for an Iowa audience, with a geographic and thematic focus she hoped would connect with readers.
“We take care of our treasures when we know about them,” she says, pointing to the example of the Loess Hills. Since her book Fragile Giants was first published, farm families, businesspeople, conservationists, academics, and others have made the area a point of pride for the entire state.
Similar cooperation and dedication—ironically, the kind of industriousness that radically reshaped wild Iowa generations ago—can reconstruct pockets of nature.
“We have a relatively small, well-educated population that’s good at working together,” Mutel says. “Iowa has offered a model for feeding the world. There’s no reason we can’t offer models for restoring our world.”
Soar as they might, such words are powered by a pragmatic outlook and cautious optimism. After all, it’s hard not to be daunted when poring over data on degraded soil, air, and water quality, threatened species, and short-sighted land-use patterns. Believing that change is possible keeps Mutel inspired.
“In doing this work, I came to the point of seeing that I could be a person of despair or a person of hope,” she says. “I choose to be the latter.”
Story by Lin Larson; photo by Tim Schoon
September 21, 2009