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The Emerald Horizon

The History of Nature in Iowa

Cornelia F. Mutel

Publication Year: 2008

In The Emerald Horizon, Cornelia Mutel combines lyrical writing with meticulous scientific research to portray the environmental past, present, and future of Iowa. In doing so, she ties all of Iowa's natural features into one comprehensive whole.

Since so much of the tallgrass state has been transformed into an agricultural landscape, Mutel focuses on understanding today’s natural environment by understanding yesterday’s changes. After summarizing the geological, archaeological, and ecological features that shaped Iowa’s modern landscape, she recreates the once-wild native communities that existed prior to Euroamerican settlement. Next she examines the dramatic changes that overtook native plant and animal communities as Iowa’s prairies, woodlands, and wetlands were transformed. Finally she presents realistic techniques for restoring native species and ecological processes as well as a broad variety of ways in which Iowans can reconnect with the natural world. Throughout, in addition to the many illustrations commissioned for this book, she offers careful scientific exposition, a strong sense of respect for the land, and encouragement to protect the future by learning from the past.

The “emerald prairie” that “gleamed and shone to the horizon’s edge,” as botanist Thomas Macbride described it in 1895, has vanished. Cornelia Mutel’s passionate dedication to restoring this damaged landscape—and by extension the transformed landscape of the entire Corn Belt—invigorates her blend of natural history and human history. Believing that citizens who are knowledgeable about native species, communities, and ecological processes will better care for them, she gives us hope—and sound suggestions—for the future.

Published by: University of Iowa Press


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

I have always felt that to live most fully, people need to be in contact with the land. And to do that, they need to know something about its natural features. While Iowa now claims a growing number of publications on elements of our natural history, no single publication ties the state’s natural features into a comprehensive whole. Indeed, only one earlier publication ...

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pp. xiii-xiv

This book began as a tribute to my homeland, Johnson County, but during preparation expanded first to cover the eastern half of Iowa and then the entire state. These changes meant that the expected duration of my research and writing doubled from around three to six years. There was plenty of time, and plenty of need, for friends and colleagues to share their knowledge and to express their emotional support and their long-term belief in my efforts. ...

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pp. xv-xx

This is a book about change. About landmasses drifting through oceans to form new continents, mountain chains rising, seas sweeping across flatlands, and climates warming and cooling. It’s a book about natural communities colonizing bare grit, and plants and animals following receding glaciers northward. This book accepts Earth’s fluidity and nature’s inexorable flux as both natural and ...

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1. Setting the Stage

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pp. 1-34

We think that we walk on solid ground, that the earth under our feet is inviolable. But this rectangle of land we today call Iowa has always been restless turf. Only the rate of its ceaseless transformation has changed with time. While in past millennia the landscape was modified at glacial speeds, ...

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2. A Miracle of Sight, Scent, and Sound

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pp. 35-74

At first the Euroamerican settlers could not fathom the tall-grass prairie. Stepping into it from cropland-speckled woodlands to the east, they entered a land of sky and horizon, wind and light, flower and scent, a surging sea of grasses that staggered the imagination. The prairie grasslands seemed to stretch on forever, a landscape that promised no enclosure, ...

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3. The Great Transformation

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pp. 75-112

Judging from the few goods they carried, one might have thought that Iowa’s Euroamerican settlers arrived fairly empty-handed. But looks can be deceiving. 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, ...

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4. Prairies Today

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pp. 113-152

One early Iowan, John Newhall, expressed the sentiments of all: “However our prairies may have added to the beauty of the landscape, they are impediments to the settlements of a country” (1846: 55). Governed by this maxim, with an eye for agricultural productivity, settlers began to convert North America’s ancient perennial grasslands into exotic annual croplands and pastures. ...

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5. Oak Woodlands and Bottomland Forests Today

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pp. 153-188

Perhaps no state has demanded as much of its native communities as has Iowa, where virtually every smidgeon of land has been judged in terms of utility or profit. This judgment was imposed less harshly on woodlands and forests than prairies, but still the majority of wooded communities have been used intensely. In consequence, by 2000 Iowa’s timber coverage was only about a third of its original 6.6 million acres: ...

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6. Restoring Nature’s Systems

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pp. 189-222

Restoration ecology is the art and science of healing nature by reinstituting the native biodiversity and ecological processes that once defined a given region. As ecologist Don Falk writes, “Restoration uses the past not as a goal but as a reference point for the future . . . not to turn back the evolutionary clock but to set it ticking again” (1990: 71). ...

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7. Present Quandaries, Future Quests

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pp. 223-258

We have seen how Iowa’s natural world was transformed into a working landscape. Understanding the speed and magnitude of this transformation cannot help but direct our gaze toward the future. What will Iowa be like for tomorrow’s citizens? How can managing the land’s productivity blend with maintaining the quality of life through fostering native species and nature’s ecological goods and services? ...

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pp. 259-260

Coming generations may well characterize the last half of the twentieth century as the time when long-standing human relationships with nature were turned inside out. When the natural order, which had always surrounded and nurtured human life, was reduced to islands, and when cities, agriculture, and industrial lands assumed dominance around the globe. ...

Appendix. Common and Scientific Names of Native and Naturalized Plants in the Text

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pp. 261-268

Bibliographic Acknowledgments

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pp. 269-272

References Cited

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pp. 273-288


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pp. 289-298

Selected Bur Oak Books/Natural History

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pp. 299-300

E-ISBN-13: 9781587297472
E-ISBN-10: 1587297477
Print-ISBN-13: 9781587296321
Print-ISBN-10: 1587296322

Page Count: 319
Publication Year: 2008

Edition: First edition