This Land We Love
Discussing the value of land is a complicated thing. We all know the typical metrics: measures like average sale price or the corn suitability rating have their place. But price or economic potential, of course, are just one facet of value. Iowa conservationist Aldo Leopold was talking about this when he famously observed “when we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”
In articulating his “land ethic,” Leopold was issuing a call to action that many of us see as central to the business of conservation. Discussion about Leopold often turns very quickly to the second part of that statement — things people are doing (or not doing) to protect the land. While that’s understandable, it’s important not to skip the first part of the statement — seeing land “as a community to which we belong.”
To do that, let me take you to a piece of county conservation land a little under an hour from where I live — Kuehn Conservation Area in Dallas County. In the Middle Raccoon River valley, this is a place of great restorative value to me. I love to visit for fun, but I have also used this as a place of reflection in more difficult moments. So for me, there are three routes down into the river valley — regular, steeper and “somebody’s in a mood today,” (which involves clamoring down a creekbed).
When I have not been able to find the words, or know which way to go, being in this place has offered a sense of understanding and direction — that time will pass, circumstances will change and the way will come.
The fact is, the land (as a community of things living there) struggles too, and it overcomes challenges. Invasive plants creep down the hillside and onto the prairie. They seem to choke out everything for a season, but the next year is better. A blizzard comes and tears down limbs all along the river. The rains rip away soil ten or twelve feet deep to make a new bend in the creek. These things for the land are wrenching and painful. They are also a reminder that bad things, tough moments — difficulty — is part of life.
And, mercifully, so is redemption. Relief, re-growth and restoration. There is always a way forward. Even death and decay in the woods are beautiful. Once I climbed up on top of a big rotten log and found that my shoes sank right into the bark — rarely have I walked on softer ground. If there were a clearer metaphor for the old giving way to the new, I have yet to find it.
In this place, things bloom when they are ready; the sun and the rain are in charge, not my plans for when I can visit. Some people celebrate the first day their kids go back to school, I celebrate the first day of yellow flower season. We all have our own things, I guess. Sometimes when I have been in this place, I have seen perhaps a million flowers bloom. It’s exhilarating when the timing works because each one of those little flowers has survived a lot to sing— albeit briefly — in a great chorus of yellow September flowers. It’s distressing to arrive late and find the moment has passed.
In this place, I am not in control, and other stories are going on that are more important than mine. Once in the snow I found the perfect imprint of a hawk’s wings, and a few drops of blood where it had swept up a mouse. What a dramatic scene it must have been!
In this place, everything is interrelated and the relationships are quite readily apparent. It’s astonishing, really, that the whole thing is perpetually in motion, fueled by the sun. Tapping into that sense of interconnectedness, and ultimately of community, has been a great source of brightness in my life. It is fulfilling to be part of something wonderful.
It’s even more astonishing, and not incidental to my purpose here, to remind you that this is public land. You have as much access to this place and this community as we all do, and you are part of it just as much as I am. That’s an incredible opportunity, and just by living here you are invited to experience the deep and abiding value of this place. Once you do, I hope you will find a renewed inspiration to use it with love and respect.
An Iowa native, Matt Hauge is an INHF member currently living in West Des Moines. Member Jerry Kuehn and INHF helped vision and establish Kuehn Conservation Area in 1982 and have worked to expand the area over the last three decades.