Review of The Emerald Horizon
Mark Runquist

Wapsipinicon Almanac
Volume 15

Cornelia Mutel’s The Emerald Horizon aims to present a history of nature in Iowa. For those with a fondness of wild things and the beauty in the diversity of nature, it reads more like a horror story. The immensity and speed of the transformation of the natural landscape, the loss of native animals, and lost ecological services was vast and nearly thoughtless. Iowa’s working landscape, among the most altered in all the world, no longer hints at the richness and stability of years gone by. By contrast, Cornelia’s Iowa is one of stately, welcoming oak trees with an understory of grass, an Iowa of resilient riparian forested bottomlands, and a dance of woodland and prairie as the interplay of fire, geography, and rainfall move the dance partners around the floor, but not out of the dance hall.

When I moved to Iowa in August of 1988, I was greeted with one of the most brutally hot summers in recent times. My Minnesota homeland pine forests and lapping lakes were replaced with humidity-generating rows of corn. I needed to make friends with this foreign and empty landscape and make friends in a hurry.

I got a summer job doing roadside prairie reconstruction and management in Story County. My mentor, Tre Wilson, who was the first to grab the personalized license plate “savanna” introduced me to the loss and lure of Iowa’s endangered natural landscape for which I am still grateful 20 years later. But not everyone finds a mentor like Tre, and that’s where this book fits.

Mutel’s book would have been a wonderful introduction for that new Iowan trying to understand how nature can seemingly be missing in action. The book starts with a geological history of the state, punctuated with detail about the most recent glaciation to set the stage for early human and European settlement. With broad strokes, Cornelia instructs the reader about the nature of pre-settlement Iowa, the variations of the state’s ecological regions, agricultural history, and benefits of native woodland and prairie.

Many publications have touched on parts of these stories, from Iowa landforms, geology, prairies, wildlife, and botany, but The Emerald Horizon aims to package them all together in one read. The author set out to write a book for a lay audience, but in the end, this book is one for those who love wild things and have a connection with them.

To me one passage poignantly summarizes the transformation of Iowa’s settlement: “The livestock straggling behind their wagons and the packets of seeds tucked into their satchels told another story. Settlers crossed the Mississippi River hauling with them an entire portable ecosystem, one detailed by preconceptions and models carried in their heads.”

Indeed, the concept of a “portable ecosystem” is especially central in the development of this book. It turns out the “portable ecosystem” doesn’t perform well as an ecosystem – instead it delivers 500-year floods on a new, regular schedule, destroys habitat a thousand miles away (hypoxia in the gulf), and leaves few places to hide away and renew the human spirit.

Mutel strays from the subtitle of the book “The History of Nature in Iowa” and devotes a significant portion of later chapters as a call to arms for prairie and woodland reconstruction. As a reader, I would have instead appreciated an investigation of the cultural element that influenced or accompanied the destruction of Iowa’s native lands. What were the sociological, religious, and cultural norms that promoted this disregard for native communities? Are those same attitudes responsible for a lack of diversity, thought and culture that many see in Iowa’s shrinking rural heritage? Perhaps a book linking larger sociological viewpoints with attitudes towards Iowa’s natural world is not yet written, but would have been a welcome addition to The Emerald Horizon’s packaging of Iowa’s natural history.

After the information about reconstruction, the book ends where it should – outlining the efforts Iowans are making to save, reconstruct, and reconfigure the land to better mitigate all we ask of it. Better yet, she offers a multitude of acts, both large and small that anyone can adopt to help the land recover and ultimately, help serve us better. The book is well-documented with extensive bibliography for future jumping-off points for readers interested in following a particular thread of Iowa’s nature.

The Emerald Horizon: The History of Nature in Iowa

Cornelia Mutel. University of Iowa Press, Iowa City, 2008.