Every time I return to Iowa City to visit friends or do research, as I did just this past Thanksgiving, I make sure to drive out of town, south along a road lined with light industrial buildings, grain silos, trailer parks, overgrown train tracks, and a tiny airport built in World War II but little used now except on football weekends. I turn left, then left again, and then again, taking two-lane roads named Old Something-or-other, supplanted now by interstates. I’m following several bends in the Iowa River that appear and disappear, then appear again on plat maps on file in the Johnson County auditor’s office.
I follow the river on dirt roads to a cabin I once lived in for periods of time on and off over several years. I go because I need to check out what’s there now, what’s changed, what new bends and curves the floods have carved, what the year’s rainfall has brought to the wetlands, what new construction, what abandonment. I drive too slowly for the trucks carrying landfill, bumbling back and forth on the road, and I remember.
I remember that every day for months at a time, I sat at a desk in front of a window facing the river. Days that were gray. Days when the wind was almost visible, whipping around and through the channel, over the housetop, banging doors and carrying red-tailed hawks and vultures and bald eagles aloft in swirls. Days that were warm and cloudless, when the river was green-blue from the sky. Every day early in fall, whenever I looked up, great blue herons were there, stalking the opposite bank, flying low downstream, or up, or perched motionless across the river, half-hidden in a thicket.
One late fall day, I looked up from that desk and my eye was caught by [End Page v] first one, then another very, very large bird lumbering out of the sumac on the opposite sandy bank. As the first wild turkey reached water’s edge, others emerged one by one, and without a pause took flight, heading not up but right at my window and me. I involuntarily ducked as they barely skimmed the low roof. I turned quickly and saw them all land in the drive and without hesitation start walking into the grass, then the short undergrowth, then back towards the woods and road, until finally they were gone.
A few times I looked up from the desk to find a wide V moving downstream. A muskrat, I think, or maybe a river otter. Without binoculars at my side, it was hard to tell.
One afternoon I was standing on the deck that hung over the riprap and the river’s rocky edge. I was thinking about the day’s writing work ahead of me. Two herons flew by at eye’s height, following the river, and as they passed, one then the next dropped a glob of whitish, greenish excrement. I watched it spread and drift, organic matter returning to fertilize or feed some other part of the river’s ecology.
But every day also floating past me on that river was crap. Sometimes it was dinner-plate-sized patches of bubbly white sludge or mold—something unclean and nasty. I saw pop cans and plastic bags, tree limbs and flotillas of lumber, masses of brown leaves as if someone had dumped a truckful, mounded gobs of brown and ivory foam, pieces of cloth and paper, and once what I’m sure was the decomposing body of an animal. There was one day the parade went on for so long that I was ready to get up and walk down the road, sure I would find someone unloading a pickup or semi. And that’s just the stuff I could see. I know there was more that entered the river upstream, farm runoff and probably also some industrial dumping. I have watched the river over months and years now, and wondered how the wildlife that live there can survive it.
The stories I hear these days—from friends, from people who are introduced...