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Iowa Visionaries Talk about Place

Story by Suzanne Kelsey, photography by Mark Tade and Mike Whye

Thomas Dean is in love. On a blue-sky afternoon in early fall, Dean and his family steer off of Highway 1 in Johnson County and pull into the large gravel parking lot packed with cars and people at the entrance to Wilson’s Orchard.

First they stop at the big barn store to taste some hot cider and grab wire-handled baskets for picking. They spot a few Iowa City friends and say hello.

Back outside, Dean savors the humidity still lingering from summer. He gazes at the vista to the south, transported by its rolling hills, old oak forest, and a meandering creek not so very far from the area’s ubiquitous housing developments. He inhales the fragrance of mature apple trees planted with care by the orchard’s original owners and cultivated with affection by the current ones.

The family moseys along a footbridge over the creek to the orchard. After an hour of leisurely picking, they’ll return to the barn with their booty — Ginger Golds and Song of Septembers. With only a short drive home in front of them, there’s time to enjoy a hot apple turnover spiced with cinnamon just out of the store oven. Some things are just too good to resist.

“Our kids have grown up with Wilson’s as part of their Iowa autumnal sense of place,” says Dean, detailing the family’s annual tradition. When he describes the orchard visit, he speaks of “love” — of loving Wilson’s, just as he loves Iowa City and loves eastern Iowa. Unabashedly. Dean would like all Iowans to fall in love — with the spaces that shape and define their lives. “No matter how short or long of a time we may live here, we need to be as deeply placed as we can be.”

New Love

Dean teaches at the University of Iowa and is director of a community of scholars involved in the Iowa Project on Place Studies, an emerging interdisciplinary field that recognizes the powerful impact of place — including natural landscapes, built environments, and social interactions — on individual and group identity. In a course called The Good Society, Dean and his students discuss the ways in which people are grounded in local geography, “where humans connect with virtually everything else.”

Sitting at a wooden table in the Java House in downtown Iowa City, Dean sips from a heavy mug of coffee and emphasizes the value of “the commons” in helping communities grow or remain strong.

“Ray Oldenberg wrote a book called The Great Good Place (Marlowe and Company, 1997) in which he popularized the idea of the ‘third place.’ We have our workplace and our home space, but what builds social capital is the third place — where we go to interact with people,” explains Dean, gesturing at tables filled with studying students and a more lively cluster of older men talking and laughing. “It might be a public place, like the pedestrian mall in Iowa City or the grounds around the Old Capitol or a mall or a school. Or it might be a privately owned space, like Wilson’s Apple Orchard.”

The more of these spaces the better, says Dean. “Even though we may think our lives revolve around private experiences and private property, most of our living actually happens in the commons.”

Dean, an adjunct professor as well as writer for the University of Iowa Office of the President, encourages students to get to know not just the natural history of their respective places but also the human history and culture.

“I mean living life as if the place mattered — which, obviously, it does — by participating in a local economy, being concerned about the local natural environment, volunteering and working toward a better community, and supporting local institutions.” The way we interact locally, says Dean, affects the way we interact with the world.

A transplant from Rockford, Illinois, Dean developed his fondness for Iowa when he attended graduate school in Iowa City from 1986–1991. He and his wife, Susan, left the state for eight years, and it was during this time that he realized he’d fallen in love with eastern Iowa, yearning for it the same way he deeply longed for his family when he traveled for work. He missed the way the landscape gently swelled. He missed the way the university integrated so fully with its hometown. He missed the friendliness of the people — people like Robert “Chug” Wilson, founder and former owner of Wilson’s Apple Orchard, about whom Dean would later write.

One rainy spring Sunday, the phone rang, and it was Mr. Wilson . . . He told me that the apple blossoms were incredible, more than he had ever seen in his nearly 25 years of apple growing . . .

As we pulled into the gravel driveway of the orchard and made our way down to the building — the store and storage shed below, the Wilsons’ home above — we spied the hundreds of rows of apple trees among the dipping and rising hills. Even through the misty curtain of rain, we could see the branches enthusiastically mottled with white petals, a delicate impressionist painting here in Iowa.

Since it was still raining heavily, we decided to drive through the orchard rather than walk. As Mr. Wilson clambered into the van with us, he directed us down the grassy path, warning me of the sloppy low spots. Like his remarkably precise autumnal directions to the best trees, he pointed me deftly through the soggy spring rows to the most spectacular spots.

    Under a Midland Sky

Authentic Iowa

Bob Sessions, another place studies scholar, who recently retired from teaching philosophy at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, also places a high value on activities that take place in the commons. In Becoming Real: Authenticity in an Age of Distractions, Sessions shares the terms “thin” and “thick” cultures. Virtual connections made through social media, for instance, can lead to thin cultures that are shallow and unsatisfying. People in thick cultures interact in person in real time and engage in creativity and spiritual growth through scouting organizations, religious groups, and other community activities. Communities that have rich stories, histories, institutions, and resources help people acquire authentic identities, he says.

As people make the transition from thin to thick, they may need to actually learn how to join in. “Many people want to join but don’t quite know how, and they’re relieved when someone invites them. That’s a nice thing about Iowa — if you meet people halfway, they will generally meet you there,” says the transplant from South Dakota. “Some people say, and I agree, that Iowa is a much easier place to ease into a community than is true for many places across the country.”


Old Love

Mary Swander has deep roots in Iowa. Born in Carroll, she grew up in Manning and later Davenport. Like so many young Iowans, she left the state, and, like so many, she returned. Poet, essayist, playwright, and memoirist, Swander — Poet Laureate of the State of Iowa since 2009 — says the study of place must include “a body of literature that encompasses the deep history of one region or location.” As a writer and Iowa State University English professor, she mines library archives and family stories for historical clues.

Swander’s works reflect a connection to place through the people she has known in person and through research. She’s explored stories of the Irish famine victims who came to Iowa in the mid-1800s. Her own great-grandmother emigrated from Ireland by herself at age 15 on a “coffin ship” — dubbed so because of the many who died while en route on the crowded old slave ship. While working as an indentured servant in Illinois to pay for her voyage, she married a Mississippi River steamboat captain. The two ventured to western Iowa through the Homestead Act, farming land in Carroll County.

Swander grew up visiting those same farms often with her grandmother, who maintained the land through her lifetime. 

I remember climbing into the front seat of my grandmother’s dusty car to ride out to the country to attend to the farm. My grandmother ran her usual stop sign to survey her bean crop and compare it to the neighbor’s. Weeds in the rows meant long, hot afternoons walking the beans with [a] corn knife to chop at the cockleburs. The ride home was often silent but for the flapping of the wings of a slaughtered chicken in the back, the bloody corn knife on the floor beside it.

When my grandmother did speak, she spoke of lessons she’d learned. She had been born on that home place, and out of a family of ten children, she, the only girl to survive childhood, was the one family member who had been able to keep the farm running through the tumult of the two world wars and the Depression.

“Red Cabbage and Pears,” Living with Topsoil

Today the English professor emulates her ancestors by growing 90 percent of her own food — raising nonhybrid vegetables, goats, and geese — on a small acreage in Kalona. Initially drawn to the area in the 1980s for health reasons (the Amish and Mennonite communities offered then-rare organically grown and raised foods), Swander eventually purchased an old Amish schoolhouse and grounds and now divides her time between Ames and Kalona. She has restored the schoolhouse, originally named Fairview School by the local Amish. “Like Native American cultures, the Amish let names arise from the actual place,” says Swander. “It truly is a ‘fair view’ — it’s a beautiful spot on top of a hill, and you can see for several miles in each direction.”

Swander invites Amish children in the neighborhood to ring the restored bell on their birthdays. Every five years those who once attended the school return for a reunion.  

As she muses about the culture of the Amish in comparison with her ancestors in western Iowa, Swander laughs. “On the one hand, you couldn’t find two more different cultures. The Irish were full of song, dance, festivals, celebrations, drinking, lots of action, movement, and hospitality. The Amish culture is much more mellow, low-key, and of course smoking and alcohol are forbidden.

“On the other hand, the basic mode of existence, is — or in my ancestors’ case, was — exactly the same. You have frugal people living off the land, having lots of kids to keep the business going. You have neighborliness and good values. Everyone’s working like a dog, and no one has much money. This is what I experienced in western Iowa as a kid.”

Swander presses her students to make connections with their local environment, exploring the history and roots of the region while they pursue their studies at Iowa State. “The students are from all over the country,” says Swander, “so they’re just discovering Iowa, and some are operating mostly on stereotypes.”

Last year she took her food-writing students on a field trip to Harrisdale Homestead, a century farm transformed into an educational center near Atlantic. While learning about food sources, the students also learned about the present-day dilemma of what to do with what used to be small but sustainable family farms. “The Harrises have highly educated doctors, lawyers, professors, and accountants in their family, all scattered in different directions. Who is left to deal with the farm? Are you going to sell it off to become part of someone else’s 10,000-acre operation? This is a key Iowa experience, and the students were able to witness it.”

Swander has also taken students to Templeton to study the history of Templeton Rye. “The history there is that this was how some farmers made it through the Depression, even though what they were doing was illegal at the time. Otherwise, they would have lost their farms.”

Swander sees a trend in her students toward reclaiming the wisdom of Iowa’s past. “Two years ago my creative writing graduate students asked me to give them a short course in gardening. I thought they meant the literature of gardening, but they wanted to know how to till a plot and what seeds to plant,” says Swander about their interest in sustainable agriculture and healthful eating. “We’re trying to reclaim these survival skills that we’ve lost. We’re trying to right ourselves.”

Overwhelming Iowa

Director of the Center for Prairie Studies Jonathan Andelson, also a professor of anthropology at Grinnell College, explores the power of cultural myths with students as they study the prairie — its original scope, its destruction, and efforts to preserve and restore a portion of it. The class looks at heroic myths for an understanding of the way the landscape was originally transformed by Euro-American styles of agriculture.

“The greatest hero in the ancient world was Herakles (or Hercules, as the Romans called him),” writes Andelson in his essay “Changing Heroes.” “Yet despite his legendary deeds and unequivocal prowess, the thing that strikes me most about Herakles is a deficiency: he lacks a clear and strong connection to place. He is rootless. He roams, conquers, he never settles down, never has a place to care for.”

Because of the Western world’s admiration of the “Herakles type,” Andelson writes, the “breaking” of the prairie in the mid-19th century was seen as “a kind of heroic exploit.” Consequently, 99.9 percent of Iowa’s prairie is gone. “But most people are not concerned, at least not to the point of action,” he laments. “What they call ‘the price of progress’ may be the beginning of a pervasive disconnection between the American population and nature.”

Andelson harbors no illusions of restoring the state to prairie. “We all would have to admit that Iowa must be a working landscape. But we want it to be a healthy working landscape.” That, he says, would include at least some of Iowa’s land as restored, protected prairie that builds soil fertility, retains water, provides habitat, and, perhaps most important, provides pollinators “without which we would starve to death.”

Besides all that, he adds, prairies are simply beautiful. “It’s a kind of beauty that encourages you to get on your hands and knees to appreciate, not like the Grand Tetons. When you get right up to it, and touch and taste and smell it, it’s overwhelming.”

Complicated Love

John Price tells a more complex story about his relationship with Iowa. “As a teenager I intended to leave Iowa after finishing college,” recalls Price, another writer and scholar of place studies, who grew up in Fort Dodge and now lives in Council Bluffs. “Many Midwesterners feel that way. I wanted to go somewhere prettier, more exciting.”

Financial practicality won out, however. Price chose the University of Iowa for his undergraduate degree in religion. After realizing his ambition was to be a writer, he chose the university again for graduate study. He was commuting to Iowa City from his home in Belle Plaine when the floods of 1993 arrived. One summer day he looked out the window of his home and saw a changed landscape that changed him. A nearby field, recently home to rows of beans, now pooled with water overflowing from the Iowa River, attracting eagles, herons, and pelicans. Ditches along his commuting route, now altered by detours, erupted with new grasses and wildflowers.

“The floods that year were the end of what I call my years of ‘sleepwalking through my place,’” recalls Price. “The human destruction of the floods was awful, of course, but I also saw a great deal of natural beauty. I was running around with identification guides, realizing these plants and forbs were native to Iowa, that what I was observing was a reflection of what Iowa used to be — prairies, wetlands, and savannahs. My surroundings were going wild. I was mesmerized.”

After the floods receded, Price was happy that his commute returned to normal and that people could recover. “But there was also some grief,” he recalls. “I wanted to chase after that wild place and understand those prairies.”

He packed his guidebooks and tent and discovered some of Iowa’s remaining prairie areas through camping expeditions. Present at the 1994 dedication of restored prairie that is today the Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge, Price reflected on its significance for his own sense of place as well as that of future generations.

The speeches were not filled with the usual Iowa abstraction — family values, heartland pride, small-town friendliness, and the rest of the lingering Arcadian ideal. Instead it was an awakened pride in our all-but-vanished natural heritage. Congressman [Neal] Smith, whose lobbying helped establish the refuge, talked about the process of restoring a “lost vision” of the Iowa prairies where future generations — perhaps those schoolchildren sitting right over there — will spend days and nights following the life-giving trails of native animals, seeing where elk have eaten back invasive saplings, where a water-filled hoof-print of a bison has allowed a dormant plant to spring forward, where long-gone songbirds have built nests and raised young. These children, Congressman Smith said, will know better the chain of life, the powerful force of the land to which they belong.

— Not Just Any Land

Price wrote this and more about his awakening. “By the end of that process I was fully committed,” says Price of his first year of grassland journeys. “Not just to writing about this place, but to living in it. The flood changed my life in every way.”

When presented with the opportunity to teach at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, Price jumped at the chance to relocate so close to the Loess Hills, which hold the majority of Iowa’s remaining prairie. He lives in Council Bluffs and incorporates place-focused readings and writings in nearly all his classes.

“The nonfiction writing classroom is a perfect setting because the focus is on our identities and the evolution of self over time. What are our most cherished values and beliefs, and where do they come from? Place in all of our lives plays a role in that.”

When Price’s students, the majority of whom are from the Midwest, claim the rural landscape is “boring,” he challenges them to get out and see the native habitat. “Many of them haven’t seen a prairie. They’ve seen a ditch, but that’s not prairie. When they realize that grizzlies and elk actually walked this land, they are amazed. When they discover what’s just across the river in the Loess Hills, they understand it for the international treasure it is,” says Price of the rare geological formation that exists in only one other place in the world — China. “I’ve taken students to the DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge to watch the snow geese come in by the thousands. It’s one of the most magnificent migratory experiences in the region. This is far from a domesticated place, far from ugly.”

Big Love

Whenever Thomas Dean discusses place, he returns to the language of love.  

“Ultimately I think two of Wendell Berry’s often-used words are most important — ‘affection’ and ‘care.’ I really am interested in the affective dimension of our connection to place.” In his teaching and writing, Dean doesn’t want to just impart information about the local region. “I want to communicate my own and hopefully spark, inspire, activate, and realize other people’s affection, care, and love for this place. This, I think, will have the greatest impact on a place — whether it’s the natural, built, social, or cultural environment. When people love and care, they care for and connect deeply.”

John Price believes that connection will encourage his Midwest students to stay in the area after graduation. “My secret goal — not so secret, really — is to inspire them to stay home,” he says. “As a youth I bought into the myth that to be a success, you have to leave home. But this area needs our most talented people. It’s a good place, a deserving place, deserving of their talent. The need is great here. To have a home as good as this is a unique thing in this world. It’s part of our responsibility to give back.”

Swander doesn’t try to entice her students to stay. “I tell them, ‘Now’s the time.’” She encourages them to travel, volunteer for their churches, join the Peace Corps. “Many of my students aren’t from Iowa, so this place isn’t home to them. And for students who are from Iowa, they have an interesting problem. There’s no ocean, no mountains. They feel like
they’re ‘one down’ on the world. And they learn — and appreciate — that our natural history has worked
in a different way.”

And when they do, they may, like Swander, come home.

“I do want my students to be aware that there can be a place that they go back to. And I want them to see that they can find integrity in their place, wherever they are.”

Cyberplace > Search Andelson

Go There

Under a Midland Sky
Thomas Dean (Ice Cube Press, 2008)

Living with Topsoil: Tending Spirits, Cherishing Land
Mary Swander, et al (Ice Cube Press, 2004)

Out of This World: A Journey of Healing
Mary Swander (reissued, University of Iowa Press, 2011)

Not Just Any Land: A Personal and Literary Journey into the American Grasslands
John Price (paperback, University of Nebraska Press, 2004)

Man Killed by Pheasant and Other Kinships
John Price (paperback, University of Iowa Press, 2012)

Becoming Real: Authenticity in an Age of Distractions
Robert Sessions (Ice Cube Press, 2011)

“Changing Heroes,” The Land Report
Jonathan Andelson (The Land Institute, Fall 2008)



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