Remembering Neal Smith: Passing along a love of nature

By Ryan Smith on November 23, 2021 in Blog

Neal and Ryan Smith

Ryan Smith is the Mark C. Ackelson Fellow at Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation and the grandson of former U.S. Congressman Neal Smith, who passed away recently at the age of 101.

Remembering Neal Smith: Passing Along a Love of Nature

It is difficult to put into words what it’s like growing up with Neal Smith as your granddad. As a young kid it was a little odd to me that strangers would come up to him, shake his hand, and share their support. At that time, I was more impressed with the candy stash he kept in the pickup than the projects he worked on in Congress.

Neal Smith and family at White HouseIt took some growing up to understand that more than the projects he brought to Iowa, people appreciated that he wanted to make things better and he stayed grounded; he didn’t get swept up in the fame that can come with politics.

While his many accomplishments and how the depression and World War II shaped his service — all of which are important — will be talked about in the media, his relationship with nature had the most influence on me.

When I was young, I enjoyed his stories about pet raccoons, whether the holes dug into the field terrace were made by a fox or a coyote (maybe a badger), that any cornered animal is a dangerous animal, and the endless lessons about tree identification.

Neal and Ryan SmithSome stories were simply to reminisce or to mark the changes of season, other stories shared a little practical advice. For example, hedge makes a good fence post because it does not rot. It’s important to know what kind of wood you build your fencepost from and that is impossible if you can’t identify the tree. Also, the chipmunk you found in the shed is cute, but it will bite you when you pick it up. Sometimes I would tell him about the animals I would see when I played around Camp Creek and Thomas Mitchell Park, comparing notes about the things he would see working his trap line as a kid.

As we both grew older, our conversations included topics like agriculture, business and politics, though if I'm being honest, sometimes he seemed almost bored with those topics and would rather talk about a bird he saw that day or prairie chickens. If prairie chickens came up it was time to find a comfortable place to sit because those conversations lasted awhile.

Those were the conversations in which I felt Grandpa, purposefully or not, imparted bits of wisdom. Most importantly that we — all of us — are part of nature. No matter how sophisticated our technology or efficient our designs, nature will put things in balance. Whether it is climate change from fossil fuels, pandemics that spread through growing populations, dust bowls caused by over tilling, or threatened drinking water from added nutrient runoff, we have to live in the environment we create. Changing our environment is similar to pulling a rubber band. Greater tension builds the more the band is pulled and eventually snaps back to its natural state, so does nature. Nature will correct itself.

Second, he said, is to understand that nature will teach you, so take the time to listen. Paying attention to flooding, droughts, animal populations, etc. helps us choose the impacts we have on our environment wisely. More importantly, spending time in nature helps a person reflect.

Having natural places where a person can find refuge from everyday demands was important to Grandpa.

“It used to be on weekends you didn’t have a place to go unless you were wealthy enough have a place up in the northern Great Lakes,” he told Iowa Public Radio in 2015. “Most people didn’t have place to go to, especially to be in nature.”

Whether my brother and I were visiting my grandparents in Washington D.C. or at their farm in Iowa, going for a “walk” was part of the routine. Usually there wasn’t much conversation. Occasionally, he would say, “Isn’t that something?!” or “Just beautiful!” as he looked out on the horizon.

I didn’t realize how deeply he felt about the majesty of nature until he spoke at a dinner. I don’t recall the subject he planned to speak about, but on this rare occasion he decided to go “off script.” He shared that he had seen a bald eagle flying and decided to stop and watch. In an unusually expressive turn, he talked about how majestically the bird flew, how perfect nature had designed the eagle to “be.” He then expressed how much he wished every child — every person — could see something like that eagle flying and feel how incredibly special our world is. Having heard him speak many, many times, I realized he was sharing in a way I hadn’t heard before: unguarded, authentic, reflective. For me that was special moment. That is one of many memories I will hang onto when thinking about my grandpa.

Years later I asked him about his speech and didn’t really recall exactly what he said but he shared more. He said, “there is something about being in nature, like at the Prairie Refuge, that gives a person a moment to think, be with their thoughts… …that is a hard thing to come by.” 

Looking for a way to remember my grandfather? May I suggest a visit Saylorville Lake, Lake Red Rock, the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, walk the Neal Smith Trail, or that you just find a park nearby. Spend some time in nature and observe. Just sit there. Be with your thoughts until your thoughts fade and you realize you are a part of nature. He would have liked that.

More on the life of Neal Smith: