Cornelia Fleischer Mutel. The Emerald Horizon: The History of Nature in Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2008. xviii + 297 pp. Ilustrations. $27.50 (paper), ISBN 978-1-58729-632-1.
Reviewed by Margaret A. Bickers (Kansas State University)
Published on H-Water (November, 2009)
Commissioned by Justin M. Scott-Coe (Monte Vista Water District; Claremont Graduate University)
Of Oak Woodlands, Pothole Prairies, and Rattlesnake Master Blooms
The emerald horizon described by historian and ecologist Cornelia F. Mutel is a combination of red, green, and black: the crimson tongues of prairie fire and woodland burns, the green of river bottoms and wetlands, of oak woodlands and of tall-grass prairies, and the rich black soil that accumulated over millennia following the retreat of the ice sheets fourteen thousand years ago. That is the story Mutel tells in this well-written and enjoyable history of Iowa's environment. Building on both scientific and literary traditions, she describes the landscape as it changed and shifted in response to climate change and human activities, and suggests ways to preserve and enhance what remains of the pre-Anglo-American biota. The author argues that the environmental history of Iowa is one of change and expectations--the changes caused by humans and other elements, and of human expectations of the land and what it "should" do and be.
The author begins at the beginning, with a brief and clearly written geological study of the area now known as Iowa. Chapter 1 "sets the stage" by showing how the tall-grass prairies, river-bottom forests, and varied wetlands developed and what forces shaped their creation, advances, and retreats across the region (p. 2). In a quick passage through the region's history, Mutel outlines Native American practices and compares them with Euro-American fur traders, hunters, and settlers, with special focus on twentieth-century agriculture and its effects on the landscape.
Chapters 2 and 3 tighten the focus of the picture. Chapter 2 opens with the "old guard": the native species (p. 77). This concise natural history of the region begins with the soil and the plants and microfauna that created it, then moves on to describe the larger animals that inhabited Iowa prior to 1800. It also serves as a quick illustration of the complexities of the ecological connections between various components of the region's ecosystems, a theme that the author returns to in her later discussions of agriculture and restoration efforts. Chapter 3, "The Great Transformation," follows Anglo-American settlers as they entered the state from the east, bringing their expectations and ideas for what constituted a "good" landscape. Mutel describes the changes the new residents brought and the ideas that motivated them to break the sod, cut the forests, and replace native grasses with pasture plants, small-grains, and maize. As the author writes at the beginning of the chapter, "many of these substitutions have proven beneficial," including the greatly increased food production, even as they displaced native species (p. 76). Mutel considers each group of new arrivals, including the accidental introductions, and then turns to the survivors, which range from butterflies to cougars, and the "hidden hopes": the pockets of surviving forest, wetland, and prairie.
The next two chapters look in detail at modern prairies (chapter 4) and woodlands (chapter 5). Mutel considers the various elements that affected the prairies, including fire suppression, domestic livestock, plowing, and draining the prairie wetlands and shows the changes that ensued, with special attention to erosion and soil compaction and loss. She then moves to what remains of the original prairies and describes various preservation attempts. Chapter 4 closes with a discussion of preservation and re-creation efforts, focusing on the ongoing debates about how and where, and the role of private landowners in prairie restoration and preservation. The next chapter follows a similar process for the oak woodlands and "bottomland forests," those that survived along rivers and streams, mostly in the eastern and southern parts of the state. Any reader who assumes that red, white, black, or bur oaks are interchangeable or "just oak trees" will be swiftly disabused of the idea as Mutel describes the layers of forest and shows in great detail why the woods of the twenty-first century are quite different in composition and productivity from those of the 1800s. As with the prairies, Mutel highlights the importance of fire, even in woodlands. The author also dwells on the reasons for Iowa's oak woodlands' current failure to reproduce as she describes the successors of the early plant associations and the efforts to preserve and re-create the older forests.
Chapter 6, "Restoring Nature's Systems," is a very general guide to conservation and restoration ecology in Iowa. Mutel addresses the reader directly, urging him or her to "get to know your land" before developing a plan for restoration or attempting to re-create what once existed. The author makes it clear that restoring Iowa's early landscape requires a great deal of effort, research, determination, and patience. She includes general techniques and lists sources and resources for more detailed information, assistance, and information about individual ecosystems. It would be beneficial for would-be restorers if Mutel gave more room to federal and state wetland laws and some of the major agencies that are involved in regulating wetlands and waterways, but she admits in the introduction that her space was limited. The final chapter, "Present Quandaries, Future Quests," shows the difficulties of restoration and preservation on a statewide scale, especially in a state that is rapidly becoming more urban as farms are sold and consolidated while their former owners move to cities and towns. Mutel lists goals that can serve as steps for individuals, groups, and agencies dedicated to preserving and restoring Iowa's environment. She does not neglect urban areas and includes examples of low-impact development (LID) such as rain gardens that intercept runoff and including drainage ways as parks and buffers.
Mutel's book fills a niche between botanical restoration ecology, zoology monographs and articles, and literary works such as John Madson's Where the Sky Began (1982). It also covers all of Iowa's landscapes, unlike Mutel's earlier work Fragile Giants (1989), which focused on the Loess Hills. This reviewer would like to have learned more about the various wetlands and wetland restoration efforts and more about discussions concerning flood-plain restoration following the 1993 floods. A minor quibble, but it would have been helpful for the author to include the titles of the books she recommends in the text rather than providing only the parenthetical citations. The bibliography is very thorough and the appendix of plant names is useful. The illustrations are well chosen and there are enough maps that the reader gets a good sense of the area's geography, although a few more detailed maps of the major regions would have been helpful for those unfamiliar with the various rivers and subregions.
This readable, well-written work serves as an introduction to Iowa's natural history, as encouragement for restoration ecologists and interested landowners, and possibly as a textbook or classroom reading material for a college course on ecology, environmental history, or regional history. Cornelia Mutel's goals of reaching both the interested lay reader and the professional have been met in this concise volume.
historian and ecologist Cornelia F.
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If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-water.
Margaret A. Bickers. Review of Mutel, Cornelia Fleischer, The Emerald Horizon: The History of Nature in Iowa.
H-Water, H-Net Reviews.
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