We are standing in Rochester Cemetery in Iowa, but we are not being invited to look at its gravestones.
No, we are here to look between them, for new life, or rather, for living traces of an ancient and almost extinct world. You could say that we are looking for the past in the present, and for clues towards possible ecological futures. But I haven’t even begun to grasp what any of that means, not yet.
Two local environmentalists are poking around between the graves, trying to find us plants with lyrical names like rattlesnake master, pale purple coneflower, and rough blazing star. Cemeteries, along with railway cuttings, are the last refuges of the once abundant flora of the tallgrass prairie. The intensive agriculture practiced by settlers in Iowa, the “most altered state in America,” has come close to erasing this ecosystem in less than two centuries.
It is late autumn, and most of the plants can only show us seed heads at best. Not very lyrical at all, hardly thrilling stuff to the uninitiated or uninterested. Some of our group wander off to decipher inscriptions on worn tombstones or chat about other things.
The International Writing Program at the University of Iowa in 2003 was a melting pot of ingredients from across the globe. We bubbled together happily enough but retained distinctive flavors: poets from Vietnam and Mongolia, a novelist from Chile, a Polish philosopher, a Chinese screenwriter. Not all of us shared the passion for environmental writing that had driven the program director, poet Christopher Merrill, to organize this prairie weekend.
But two at least of us did. Gregory Norminton, a young English novelist, greeted me over coffee most mornings at the Iowa House Hotel with baleful comments about the latest ecological folly, as exposed on the pages of the New York Times. He saw very little hope for our overcrowded and degraded planet, and he felt its sickness in his bones, in his gut and in his heart. I tried to resist his pessimism, but did not know enough to o er a more positive reading of the world.
Gregory was up to speed on these things, and I was not. He grasped basic ecological concepts and could discuss debates in the environmental movement with some urgency. He knew his trees, even in America, and I did not, though I probably had the edge on him as a birder—but that does not say much for either of our skills in that department.
Nevertheless, I had been hoping that birds would provide the theme for my next book, though from a human rather than an ecological perspective. I had an idea about exploring the traces left on our cultures by charismatic migrating birds, like cranes, eagles and swallows, from cave paintings to popular music. Even this was a very new field for me. I had been invited into the Iowa program on the back of my first book, an account of terrorism and state terrorism in the Basque Country. Rather weary of writing about people who kill each other, I was looking to natural history for a more congenial subject.
The migration-and-culture project had indeed led me on a wonderful journey, following cranes on their annual journey from the cork oak savannas of Extremadura, Spain’s most African landscape, to the melting snows of a Swedish spring. And it would soon lead me to the International Crane Foundation, not far from Iowa in Baraboo, Wisconsin. But by then I would have abandoned that book, and found the seeds of this one.
The night after our visit to the cemetery, we are all invited to participate in a strange little ritual. It seems the antithesis of anything environmentally healthy. There is an acrid smell of gasoline in the air, and soon the pungent stench of damp, scorched vegetation. A rank patch of motley plants, perhaps five hundred meters square and already collapsing before the advance of winter, has been marked out by a firebreak.
Would we like, our hosts Mark and Val Müller ask us, to help burn their prairie? We are standing on land that has been farmed for many decades, its natural diversity reduced to a single annual corn crop.
Several years earlier, the Müllers had cleared out the corn, plowed it one last time, and sowed native plant seeds, lovingly gathered locally from remnant prairie patches like Rochester Cemetery. But a prairie community needs the alchemy of periodic fire if it is to flourish: hence the unusual invitation.
Gregory is the first to jump in, wielding a drip torch manfully through the flickering shadows. It had rained during the week, however, and the expected conflagration is denied us.
That was my introduction to the counterintuitive world of ecological restoration, where you burn a prairie to make it flourish, slaughter cute and furry mammals to save indigenous birds, and poison healthy trees to bring back native forests.
Working through those difficult issues would come later, however. For that night, despite the anticlimax with the prairie burn, Gregory and I were just fascinated by the notion that a prairie could be “re- stored” at all—that “natural” status could be returned to land claimed and cleared for human use. Like many people, we had grown up with the idea that, if we wanted to save the natural world, we had to preserve it from any human intervention. The idea that humans could actually participate in nature to our mutual benefit, that we could be the agents of recovery of degraded ecosystems was, we both dared to think, rather inspiring.
“I wonder if this kind of thing is happening in other places?” Gregory reflected out loud. “And if it is, wouldn’t it make an interesting book to describe projects like this for general readers?”
My heart leapt and sank in the same instant. I suddenly knew that this was the book I wanted to write, but dammit, my new English friend had come up with it first. One is supposed to be ethical about these things. I kept my frustration to myself for a few days and then one night, over a beer or two, it boiled over. I asked Gregory if he really intended to follow up the restoration book he had talked about. “My dear chap,” said Gregory, whose democratic principles have not erased a certain Oxbridge hauteur, “That’s nonfiction. I only write fiction.” So would he mind, I asked in some trepidation, if I tried to write it? “I’d be delighted,” he said, and then, after a short pause, added mischievously, “as long, of course, as you say it was my idea in the preface.”
I am delighted, eight years later, to honor this small promise. Neither of us had the slightest idea at the time whether ecological restoration was a phrase known only to a few nostalgic prairie lovers in
Iowa, or whether it was an idea reshaping new conservation thinking worldwide. Finding some of the answers has been a bigger and more stimulating challenge than I could have then imagined. That quest has taken me to places—and to concepts—I never knew existed, in the company of remarkable women and men. I hope I can convey some of the excitement of that discovery in the chapters that follow. Above all, I hope to o er some grounds, however fragile, for hope itself, in the face of the daily dose of bad news from the environmental front.