Lay of the Land

By Katy Heggen on November 27, 2020 in Blog


Wildness. It’s a word that gets thrown around a lot of conversations about conservation, including those at INHF. A desire to help preserve “wild places” is what attracts many to this work – at least at first. But the truth is, by and large, wildness doesn’t exist, at least not in the literal sense.

As it relates to land, wildness is defined as: “a tract or region uncultivated and uninhabited by human beings” (Merriam Webster). By that definition, no place is truly wild. Bearing a few exceptions, the lay of the land here in Iowa – and across much of the globe – has been shaped by nature and human hands.


Land can be shifted in many ways. Sometimes these transformations, like the ones brought about by the glaciers that gave form to Iowa’s landscape, occur over long periods of time. Others, like the recent derecho that devastated much of central and eastern Iowa this summer, are comparatively short but impactful in their own right.

Derechos, floods, wildfires and other atmospheric events are, in fact, natural. Essential even. It’s the frequency with which they now occur that is anything but. These events are capable of wrecking and reinvigorating the landscape, often in the same breath. Some are so powerful that they permanently alter the very lay of the land itself. The people who first stood on this land as well as those who occupy it now have exerted their influence on the land as well.

Indigenous people cared for the land we now know as Iowa long before the arrival of the European settlers. Tribes conducted cultural burning to rejuvenate the landscape and meet human needs. They planted crops attuned to the soil and season. Wildlife populations were kept in balance through sustainable hunting and cultivation practices. When French explorers first looked upon the land and its “wild” prairies, woodlands and waters, they were witnessing thousands of years of stewardship by the approximately 17 tribes that did – and still do – call this place home.*

The impact of those early settlers and their descendants can be seen in the landscape as well. After the federal government forced many Indigenous people — including members of
the Ioway, Sauk, Meskwaki, Sioux, Potawatomi, Otoe and Missouri tribes — from their land through a series of coerced treaties and acts of aggression, the early European settlers quickly began reshaping the landscape.

They harvested timber for lumber, fuel, fenceposts, railroad ties and other infrastructure. Prairies were plowed, wetlands drained and rivers channelized to accommodate large- scale agriculture which now covers more than 85% of the state, making Iowa one of the most human-altered landscapes in the country.

In time, others arrived, too. Towns grew into cities, which gave way to suburbs, which are now merging together as parts of the state become more densely populated. This shift is reshaping the landscape, too, as is a growing interest in land restoration, protection and outdoor recreation. People are still coming. They bring with them their own relationship to the land, rooted in the places they left behind or are returning to.


Just as humans and nature have molded the landscape, people’s relationship to land has been shaped by land itself, their practical access — or lack thereof — to it, and the individual and collective events, experiences and interactions they have had on it.

History, religion, politics, race, class, economics and culture are all interwoven into the ways we experience and exist on land. Wars have been fought on and over it. Civilizations have been built, destroyed and reimagined again and again on its ground. It’s served as the backdrop for social movements, an inspiration to artists, and a space for spiritual practice. It is both an embodiment of opportunity and possibility, and a reminder of pain and suffering. Some find a sense of peace, purpose and connection in its stillness, while others feel a sense of unease, anxiety and foreboding in its solitude. Many people experience all of the above, sometimes simultaneously.

Our relationship to the land is inseparable from our own lived and inherited knowledge, experiences and understanding of our place – and others’ – outdoors. But thankfully, like the land itself, both have the power to evolve.


In the coming year, Iowa Natural Heritage will explore the lay of Iowa’s land. Together, we’ll delve into the ways people engage with nature, and learn how their experiences both on and off the land have informed their relationship to it. We’ll strive to uplift Iowa voices and organizations, and feature some from out of state, too. Good ideas know no borders. We hope that in doing so we’ll expand our individual and collective understanding of what it means to stand in relation to the land, and through it, each other.

Land is a reflection of community. The better able we are to see our self and others in it, the more likely we will feel compelled to protect it together. And that’s worth a look.

*The thoughts expressed in this essay relating to wildness and Indigenous influence on the land were inspired and informed in-part by a post on the Indigenous Women Hike Instagram account reflecting on the passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964. Follow them at @indigenouswomenhike.


“When we talk about land, land is part of who we are. It’s a mixture of our blood, our past, our current, and our future. We carry our ancestors in us, and they’re around us. As you all do.”

– Mary Lyons (Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe) To create a more equitable future, we must acknowledge our past.

INHF’s process of crafting a land acknowledgement statement started with self-reflection and a commitment to intentional actions. We are committed to taking steps to further learn, make connections and create concrete actions that will affirm and uplift Indigenous voices and communities in ways that go beyond words. We hope to better learn from and about the traditional owners and stewards of this land, historically and today. We have started using this statement throughout the organization (i.e. at the beginning of events, presentations, meetings).

As a starting place, we have crafted a general statement that we will begin to use in appropriate situations. This statement and all the actions around it are living projects and subject to adaptation as we forge ahead in self-education and build deeper relationships.

INHF Land Acknowledgement:

”As a land trust, it is important for us to continuously acknowledge the full scope of history that has brought us to reside on, protect and steward this land. This land between two rivers is the home of many indigenous people, historically and today. We affirm and honor the connection and value of indigenous communities to this land.”

Learn more about land acknowledgement: