People from outside of Iowa often say that “Iowa is flat,” and that we don’t have any interesting, distinctive geographic terrain like other parts of the country – no mountains, no ocean, nothing to see here, folks. The truth, of course, is that Iowa is far from flat, and our state has a unique geographic natural heritage that is anything but boring.
In addition to our majestic rivers and our rolling hills of farmland and our beautiful forests and the Loess Bluffs of Western Iowa, our state was once home to massive swathes of tallgrass prairie. Millions of buffalo used to roam all over the land that is now known as Iowa – but with the arrival of European-American settlers in the 19th Century and the adoption of industrial agriculture and private landownership, much of Iowa’s natural heritage was lost to farms and roads and shopping malls. 85% of Iowa was once covered by tallgrass prairie; today, less than 0.1% of the prairie remains.
In recent years, there has been growing interest in restoring the prairie and preserving the unique animal habitat, plants, flowers and grasses of this complex ecosystem. You can experience Iowa’s native tallgrass prairie in person at the Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge and Prairie Learning Center, just 30 minutes East of Des Moines near Prairie City. Visiting the Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge is a great way to commune with nature and experience a bit of what makes Iowa such a unique part of the world.
Interactive Prairie Learning Center: The Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge has an extensive Prairie Learning Center that offers a hands-on museum experience with lots of activities for kids. My kids loved the scavenger hunt, the videos and the puppet theater! (Kids can put on their own puppet shows with prairie animals like buffalo, bobcats, turtles and prairie chickens.)
Buffalo: The Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge has a herd of 70 wild buffalo living on a 700-acre enclosure. You can drive your car right past these beautiful animals that were once such an important part of the history of the Great Plains and the culture of the native people who lived here for millennia before our time.
Prairie walks: The refuge also features several miles of trails where you can walk amidst the prairie flowers and grasses. Prairie is best experienced up close and on foot, where you can hear the bees buzzing, see the birds flying by, and feel the thrum of life happening all around you. Prairie is more than just tall grass and wildflowers; it’s a complex ecosystem of many different organisms interacting and reinforcing each other in a delicate balance.
In a way, the prairie is an appropriate symbol for Iowa. Most people tend to think of Iowa as a homogeneous state – but if you look closer, there is a lot more diversity and complexity here than most people might expect. The prairie looks “all the same” when viewed from a distance, but if you look closer, its beauty and complexity become apparent. In the same way, if you look closer at our state, you’ll see so much beauty and uniqueness, as we all play our part in creating a special distinctiveness unlike any other place.
For more information about visiting the Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge, check out http://tallgrass.org/
Ben Gran is a Des Moines writer and comedian. He usually avoids being outdoors because he dislikes humidity and he fears insects, but he enjoys visiting the Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge. Follow Ben Gran on Facebook.