Clinton Crockett Peters is the author of Pandora’s Garden: Kudzu, Cockroaches, and Other Misfits of Ecology, forthcoming from the University of Georgia Press. He has been awarded literary prizes from Shenandoah, North American Review, Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, and the Society for Professional Journalists. He holds an MFA from the University of Iowa, where he was an Iowa Arts Fellow, and is pursuing a PhD in English and creative writing. His work also appears in Orion, Southwest Review, Fourth Genre, Hotel Amerika, DIAGRAM, Hunger Mountain, and elsewhere.
Sailing the Iowa Sea
It’s Iowa City in October, and I’m riding my bicycle on an ethereal day, hinged on the moment of snow. There is a touch of clouds and radiant light in the trees that are changing into their death suits. They are giving up their hands, the wind kicking them up into glowing bursts of crimson and plum, swirling around my bike pedals as I ride, crunching in spokes. They are a color blizzard, piles of radiance like butterflies landing onto a field — everywhere — on car hoods, on people’s hats as I bike pass, curling around children’s legs. The sound is like gentle waves floating through the air.
“What you’re seeing,” Professor Drake says, when I meet him outside his Geosciences Building, “is a disaster waiting to happen.”
Dr. Lon Drake, professor emeritus, wears boots, khaki, and flannel. He angles forward like a greyhound as we walk towards his car. He is bald, ropy muscled, with a face like a lean Sean Connery.
“The emerald ash borer is on its way here,” he declares, and pauses, contemplating the Asian beetle threatening Iowa. “Everywhere from here on to the East Coast, ash lines the streets of America. All those golden trees you see; you won’t see any of them in a few years. There will be whole streets in the United States without trees.”
We walk away from his office, Drake, a tall man, a full foot ahead of me in every stride, somber in his pronouncement of death. “Yet, I still think it’s a good idea to move some things.”
Another change is taking place, other creatures besides the ash borer on the move. Over one thousand documented migrating — on the run from heat — all across the lithosphere. Man-induced climate is cranking the thermostat, and sweltering species are moving out. One thought is, since we’re mixing them up, we might as well help them along. Drake was the first person I’d heard of doing the same, moving things, changing the world to save them.
So, I called him, looking, I guess, for some kind of guidance. Like many people, I am baffled by the extinction crisis. The 35 percent or so off all life slated for the chopping block by 2100 due to climate change and other human-caused crises. Given that most governments and companies don’t seem to be shutting down their heat-birthing factories anytime soon, I don’t know if I want to move endangered things myself or am terrified at propagating new kudzu-like monsters. I feel I needed a wise man, a mentor, a light to show the way.
You wouldn’t have expected me to grow into an environmentalist. My dad was an oil man, as his father was, and we were raised Rush Limbaugh conservative in West Texas in the nineties. I remember vividly watching my dad spit and shake his fist when Al Gore was on TV. But my father was beset by a brain tumor when I was in my late teens, and that, I think, sent me looking for some other kind of life, something to fill the void of loss of both parent and future. So I entered a decade-long search for purpose, which cumulated in my becoming an eco-writer and part-time activist. Saying this signifies that I’ve come to a fixed point in my life. But everything, including the climate, points up how change is the constant. I’ve grown weary with the dire news on the green front. Maybe it’s time for an intellectual relocation. At least in how we perceive the desirable world as stagnant, as refurbished Eden.
One needs mentors. Lon Drake, aged eighty, glares at me with a certain kind of skeptical charm I’m used to from old professors, the kind who have dealt with the curious and imbecilic for so long. At 31, I feel like an awkward sophomore in Drake’s lecture. I follow the professor to his car, a dilapidated, rusty Ford Bronco. Drake is being kind enough to drive me to his farm, so I can see what he’s been sweating over for the past 24 years.
Talking in Drake’s car is difficult because of the rattling noise of loose windows and ancient bolts, and I find myself screaming to be heard. “This is not a quiet car,” Drake says. “But it gets worse. There’s no A.C., so watch what summer is like.” He lowers the windows, which fill with wind. The air cannot escape the sealed back windows, so it tornados and eddies inside the car. The glass rumbles basally, the decibel volume of a cranked hi-fi system.
“See?” Drake asks, and then the windows switch up, the experiment, I realize, concluded.
Suddenly, he daggers me with his eyes. “Don’t go thinking we can just move around species willy-nilly with this project. My approach is much more conservative. You have to test things.”
While I shift in my seat, startled, he goes on, “Think of butterflies. As much as people like butterflies, they come from caterpillars. Caterpillars eat voraciously. And if every one that was hatched survived, they would wipe out an entire forest in a couple of years. That’s why they’re bird food. They’re a key piece of the puzzle. But you have to make sure you have the birds around. The right checks. If they’re not, well, goodbye Iowa.”
As we talk, the houses and buildings fade and corn stalks rise up on all sides — yellow and green shadows, intermittently broken with the knee-high, chipper and olive green shrubs that I know to be soy. More is grown here than any place in the world.
I stare at waving corncobs, the intermittent black and white cattle. Staring at the bloated, bovine faces, I remember that for all the corn in Iowa, native plants of Central America, half of it isn’t consumed by people, but by cows that are originally from southeast Turkey. Soy, of course, is from China. Pigs from East Asia. Homo sapiens from Africa. The North American continent is a patchwork of unintended consequences and immigrations.
It’s a peculiar beauty, for me at least, the Iowa landscape. I moved here from the red rock canyons and moonscapes of the Llano Estacado in West Texas expecting Midwest cesspools of pesticides and reeking manure. And proving this assumption, the state has been ripped from one end to the other, less than one-tenth of one percent of the prairie, now filled with herbicides, cancer clusters, overfed hogs, genetically modified, top-heavy chickens. More pigs than people, more corn than trees.
But when Europeans think of countryside, they tend to conjure scenes of farmhouses dotting horizons, fields of green and gold, specks of Holstein heifers. Sheep. Wordsworth and Coleridge used to enjoy walks in what they called “fields,” which were really pastures. This is nature too, in a way. And the transformation wrecked on Iowa is charming to the right beholder, the sunset electrifying corn leaves, the sparkle of endless plants, the awesome mirror effect of rows upon rows, the horizon a green and gold glitter, dipping like the arch of a whale’s back. As someone who became a wilderness backpacker, it wasn’t my idea of aesthetic beauty until I came to Iowa for graduate school. The fields, and their meditation-inducing undulations, won me away from the idea that mountains were the only sublime environment. My outlook, I realize, can morph as easily as John Deere uprooted Iowa’s black gold.
I mention something like this to Drake, who snorts. “It’s just corn and beans to me,” he says. “From a biological standpoint, it’s a desert. It’s an industrial monoculture. A disaster. I’ve worked on oil spills, and this isn’t much different from driving through a wetland where they’ve spilled a lot of oil. Here we just spill a lot of fertilizer. If you want to call that nature, I don’t know.” He shrugs and then grins. “However, it is a good place to conduct experiments in assisted migration. I mean, why trash a perfectly functioning ecosystem when you can come to Iowa?”
Driving down the crumbling gravel road through leering oak and maple branches of Drake’s home, my first thought is that Drake has co-created what might be the best view in the state. His cabin cradles a sunset-facing slope atop prairie hills of rolling evergreen and coffee brown bordered by neighbors whose acreage is bigger than small Iowan towns. Drake has football field-sized yard of rewilded Indian grass, blue stem, perennial flower upon perennial flower, all nicely leading to the center of a lake that is clear and supine. A wood canoe is tipped over at the water’s edge, waves tickling gunnels like in a Wendell Berry poem.
Here turkeys migrate through a prairie yard once corn. So do endangered bats. Coyotes hunt as well as bob cats and perhaps mountain lions (Drake saw paw prints). Pheasants roost. Vultures circle. Deer crisscross Drake’s land and are easy game for Drake and his son. Sixty years ago, there were no deer at all. Only that bulky and golden, Yucatan grass, zea mays. Drake is keeping alive the last smattering of local floral and fauna that are beset by the tidal waves of agriculture and climate change.
At the top of the hill, he has built a three-story log cabin. Drake tells me that he’s restructuring the west end. He’ll make a front door level with the bedroom, rebuilding the driveway, re-tinkering the porch. He will make it so you can take a wheelchair right to the bedroom. “It’s a lot of work,” he says. “But I’m not desperate for the driveway. One day I might be.” One day of course, he will have to move away with his wife, who is already severely arthritic.
With Drake at eighty, kids grown, and 30 miles to the nearest hospital, how long can he keep saving things beside himself? The answer is somewhere between days and decades. After then, he’ll find a willing hand to pass his work onto. Or it may all go up in a puff of prairie smoke.
Drake raised his cabin by hand with lumber scoured from abandoned barns. The state’s rural population has fallen apart, like most everywhere, and hardwood was easy to scavenge. All his windows are composed from rotting greenhouses. Drake details how he heats his house from the basement’s wood-fired stove. A pipeline of reverberated steel snakes through the walls and carries the warmth. His air vents are the bomb-bay doors of a World War II B-17 bomber. Drake took two full days to fix its nest of wires. The doors that once delivered fire to Dresden now deliver heat to his bedroom. What was once the threat of death now aids the life-sustaining force.
Later he shows me a picture of the house frame under construction and, because the beams Drake found were so short, the picture looks like the hull of a frigate, all crisscrossed with a lattice of sea-worthy logs. Upside down, the cabin, Drake’s handiwork, the prairie ship, is sailing across the grasses of Iowa.
As we stroll around his property, we talk about bobcats that have shown up at Drake’s door. Buzzards circle overhead, probably eyeing a rabbit. We maneuver through junipers Drake has planted until we come out of the woods and face his experiment.
The young immigrant pawpaws are four-feet tall, rabbit-ear leaves of emerald and banana-yellow. These are the edible trees that conquistadors in the Mississippi Valley survived on when lost. The pawpaws are spindly but their trunks seem hard-wrought like cables. And while they grow as far north as New York, they haven’t, until now, made it to Iowa, where the state siphons the cold from Manitoba. The shorter spice bushes have a rusty tinge to their leaves and a crinkliness as if beer-battered. Each spice bush is three feet tall, bending in the slightest breeze. The last plant experiment is pipevines that resemble bean stalks that snake up the brush piles, their leaves a wrinkled-pea green.
No one has ever recorded these species living here in any sort of numbers. The nearest grove of pawpaws that Drake knows of is in a river bend at the Missouri border.
Along with his three plant species, Drake has performed yet another unprecedented act, one not entirely his doing. Since planting the new Iowans, Drake has witnessed all three of the corresponding butterflies that feed almost exclusively on these plants show up and nest.
These butterflies (the zebra swallowtail butterfly, the spicebush swallowtail, and the pipevine swallowtail) whose caterpillars rely on these plants, have flown the distance, knowing somehow, finding some way, to the fifty or so plants Drake has installed.
In other words, it’s not just three new species but six that are making their homes in Iowa. Butterflies that birds had not eaten previously in Iowa.. Their colors, when spotted, add shades to the prairie mosaic. The butterflies and three prairie plants have redefined the dimensions of our world. Field guides will need to be rewritten as Iowa is insected anew.
Fortunately, the birds seem to be taken with all the new caterpillars. Every batch Drake has seen has been picked clean.
“All I thought when I started this little experiment,” he says, “is that it’s already getting warm enough for these species to live here now. But I never though I’d be this successful.”
I feel unabashedly stunned learning about the butterflies. That an experiment like Drake’s would synchronize with three other life forms not remotely close to the area is almost cinematic. Like a movie about ghosts and baseball filmed in nearby Dryersville, Drake has built it and they, fluttering, nectar loving they, have come. His results show that hand-guided change is not just possible, but potentially far-reaching.
But I’m skeptical too, wondering how many people like me can follow Drake’s route, when we don’t know how much longer Drake will be around to lead our little migration ships. When I ask him how he feels about changing the state, he shrugs. “I’m cautious, but somebody was going to do it if it wasn’t me. Somebody was going to make that move. It was one of those things you could see on the horizon.”
I take a few pictures of Drake’s experiment, and then he ushers me onto his front lawn, the main event, a prairie, for which he has labored twenty years — the rolling Indian grasses and Blue stem, baptisma, wild iris. A delicious menu of names I can’t remember. Eighty species by Drake’s count, none of which existed in the bygone corn days.
I reach out and touch whatever Drake points out, heading downhill, taking a few samples that fall off their stems and stuff them in my notebook. The bladderpod, I note, is a five-foot scrawny plant with airy flower sacks like crinkly candy wrappers sewed together. When lightly squeezed, each sack belches white flour onto my fingers.
Drake is handling a cobalt blossom named bottle gentian because of its shape. I realize he has the cracked and near-bleeding fingers of a blue-collar worker, like those of my Texas oilman grandfather, defying the notion of soft-skinned nature lover.
“This is all an uncontrolled experiment,” Drake says, “I like to let nature do most of the work.”
We round a bend of tall grass near the lake, and I don’t see the alligator until I am almost on him. I leap back, slipping in the mud, all of me in the air. I land and slide, as in some horror movie, sinking towards the mouth. The reptile is gaping, half-in, half-out of the water, polyethylene body disguised in bark, painted eyes darting into mine.
Drake leans back and laughs throatily. “So sorry, but don’t worry.” He helps me up. “These guys haven’t moved up here quite yet. It’s not that warm. This was my son’s idea.”
I scrape mud off my pants, and my stomach descends from my throat. After enough futile brushing I ask, eyeing the life-size reptilian edifice, “Will it ever be that warm?”
Drake shrugs. “Well, remember, this all used to be an ocean here. There were crocodiles swimming over your head. We don’t know yet how far we’re going to take it. You look at governors and senators who don’t believe in evolution let alone climate change, and you have no idea how much change is in store.”
Later he says, “My interpretation is that climate will soon favor woodlands here instead of prairies. So that’s why my place is a matrix of forests and grasses. I’m hedging my bets. I’m Iowan. I don’t like to give up on the prairie.”
“Even if alligators come?” I ask.
Drake grins mischievously, “I’ll be long gone by then.”
The last thing he shows me before we leave is his solar heated bat house. It is about the size and shape of a traffic signal light, painted charcoal black and perching on a pole twelve feet on the ground. It is solid on all sides except for tiny, half-inch slits on the bottom.
“Are they up there now?” I ask.
“Oh sure,” Drake says. “The problem with raising bats is when young, they’re like little naked jelly beans and have to be kept warm. This thing is filled with sand that heats up during the day and stays warm through the night.
“Who put the bats up there?”
“Oh, mom. She comes by when she’s pregnant. I don’t have to do anything.”
“So you mean, you build this thing, and they, they just come?”
Drake laughs. ”It’s kind of an Iowa thing.”
He soon stops laughing, eyeing me again. “But it’s not like that with all species. Some need a little more coaxing; some won’t come at all. Some of course die out.”
We walk along the pond, the crystal water rolling in the fair wind, frothing on the shore. The clouds pass low overhead, reflecting in the lake mirror. Reeds and grama grass waves roll towards the shore like advancing, inevitable armies.
We arrive back at the house, and after getting back inside Drake’s Bronco and driving off, we discuss how things might change people’s attitudes. Time wears on people, I think. With wildfires, super storms, floods, and heat, there’s only so many warnings before people realize the climate isn’t kidding. Drake takes a deterministic view: things evolve from their origins as clearly as toxic spills from a tanker.
“The facts of the world don’t change lives,” he says, “except for a narrow range of people. Someone’s going to be a pro-environment or not from birth. For the majority of people, they continue thinking the same way they were raised.”
Quickly I refute this assertion, telling him about my conservative Texas upbringing.
Drake raises a finger in the air as if I’ve brought up his point. “The exception to that is the rebelliousness of youth, which I think is our salvation.”
He tells me about his little brother millionaire businessman who owns a pillared Mc-mansion. Drake argues global warming with him every time they meet, one dialogue bleeding into the next. The brother’s three kids have grown up to be the opposite of their father.
“They have totally rejected his money-brained mindset,” he says. “His oldest daughter even lives in a log cabin that she’s built by hand. She has chosen a primitive lifestyle, trying to have the smallest carbon footprint she can make. I laugh every time I see them together.”
Then Drake sighs. He has it the other way around. Lon’s son owns a fleet of trucks in Florida for lawn care, treating millionaires’ grasses and golf courses with enough chemicals to destroy all the Iowan prairies. He burns more car gas in a week than Drake does in a year.
“So I guess, it isn’t necessarily how you were raised, it’s how you respond.”
He looks over suddenly graver than usual. “That’s why when you do this assisted migration thing,” he says, “or whatever you do, I think you personally have an obligation to take a stand, wherever you chose, because people need some basis for making their decisions. Don’t be all wishy-washy. There’s enough of that.”
I feel a warm charcoal underneath my shirt but remain quiet. Drake has been kind enough to drive me the thirty minutes out to his place and back, answer all my questions. The least I can do is nod in ascent.
“Really,” he says, “I think you should get personally involved. I think you have a responsibility to try and convince yourself that there is a path.”
We drive in awkward silence, and I look to him, the hard-wrought canyons in his face, the knots of wood in his thumbs, and I don’t think it’s because he doesn’t have many pupils left that he’s leaving me with the charge of making up my mind. I think he rejects the notion of mentorship as indicating a future direction. Looking at Drake I feel like I’m following him through tall grass, and as he pushes ahead, he is ensnared by the gnarled life. Eventually he will disappear, his path obliterated. I think of the Vikings sending their elders off into the murky sea to eventually vanish within their waters. Soon, I’ll be left in the ghostly field alone.
But I am a rebel, as Drake knows. I affirm this by mentioning some quip about the landscape we’re driving through, still finding the serenity of the Iowan countryside. Drake doesn’t argue, just nods this time. I think he is giving me space, room to fill out his logic with my own.
Drake is responding to his environment, to the changes wrecked on a part of the world we can only see in microcosm in his backyard. The fact that he owns that history, that tableau of how eighty species responded to their climate, like our culture and survived, isn’t just science; it’s identity. Drake is a hybrid, sticking to the prairie he knows and loves, but cautiously welcoming the terrifying changes that must come. Nature, as Darwin knew, favors amalgamation, but also, ultimately, death and its service to life.
I wonder if I have enough flexibility, for the humility to understand that what I do will likely have very little impact, and even, perhaps, only seed the next thought, my child turning away from me as I did my father. To prepare for my demise and ultimate oblivion. To know that even the genes inside of my body aren’t my own, but my mother’s, father’s, evolution’s. To try, work, rebuild. I have to experiment, my solutions necessarily different from everything that came before. I wonder as we drive back to the city about a future where people experiment like mutations of DNA, to see where the next adaptation comes as old lives wink out. A constant testing of our familial and ecological landscapes.
We stay silent for most of the way back to the city, Drake’s window open, the wind fanning his flannel shirt, the noise of the air filling the car and drowning the rumble of the ancient engine, the bright noon light cascading into the car and on the ears of fresh, yet-inedible corn, flapping around like in a yellow and turquoise sea as we sail back to the city.