iowa nice

Here’s the thing—I like Iowa. I really do. I was born here. It’s true that I’ve spent most of my life living elsewhere, but I’ve always had affection for the state and its people. Iowa is an odd place—not at all the way it’s portrayed in the news and entertainment media. But then, how many places are?

However, Iowa is afflicted by the Iowa Caucus—which has traditionally been the first contest of the U.S. presidential race. That means every four years presidential candidates swarm Iowa like spawning salmon. It also means every four years we have to endure the news media talking about Iowa like the entire state is comprised of ultra-religious corn-fed, cretinous hicks.

We certainly have some of those—but they’re not the majority. They’re not even a significant segment of the population. They’re just noisy and annoying, like those locusts that crawl out of the soil every thirteen years and make life miserable for a bit.

But overall, that’s just not Iowa. So I was delighted to see the following video become something of a hit on YouTube and elsewhere.

I like it. But he had to leave a lot out. Like the fact that the very first case heard by the Iowa Supreme Court was In Re the Matter of Ralph. Ralph was a slave owned by a man in Missouri. The Iowa court ruled that the moment Ralph set foot on Iowa territory, he became a free man. This was 1839—that’s 22 years before the U.S. Civil War.

And he didn’t mention that one of the U.S. Supreme Court’s most important free speech rulings was a result of Iowa high school students protesting the war in Viet Nam. In 1965 a group of students wore black armbands to school. They were abused by pro-war students (who were in the majority in 1965), insulted by their teachers, and expelled for refusing to remove their armbands. After their expulsion ended, they returned…without the armbands, but dressed entirely in black clothing.The Supreme Court ruled that students (and teachers too) do not “shed their constitutional rights at the school house gate.”

Which reminds me—Iowa is almost always at the top of the list when states are ranked by literacy. Nearly 70% of all Iowans own a library card. Iowans read a lot—and they’re not just reading the Bible.

I could go on. I could mention, for example, that when same-sex marriage came before the Iowa Supreme court, the judges ruled unanimously that it was unconstitutional to deny members of the same sex the right to marry. That’s right…unanimously. The fact is, Iowa is a pretty liberal state. Most Iowans are pretty open-minded. And they really are, for the most part, nice. Seriously. If you drive down the road and wave to the stranger in the oncoming car, they’ll wave back. And smile. It’s a little weird until you get used to it.

I’m in Iowa again, and it seems I’ll be here for the foreseeable future. But this is the first time in my life I haven’t felt a compelling need to be someplace else. I think I’ve grown into Iowa.

Addendum: Let’s not get carried away by the fact that Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney received the most support from Iowa Republican Caucus voters. There are more than 2,100,000 registered voters in Iowa, about evenly split among Democrats, Republicans and Independents (with a slight edge to Democrats). Santorum and Romney each received around thirty thousand votes out of a voter population of more than two million. It doesn’t mean Iowans are generally supportive of either of them.


a walk along the creek

The creek is down. That’s how the locals phrase it. The creek is up, the creek is down. They say it like it’s a weather report—and in a way, it is.The level of the water in the creek may not be as immediately variable as the weather, but it changes. There’s usually some warning, but it can change and change radically in a very short time. And like the weather, the change can be savage.

It looks so tranquil, doesn’t it. Right now the water moves so slowly and lazily. There’s not much power behind it; it slides around any obstacle it meets. It moves just enough to prevent ice from forming—though in some small eddies and quiet spots where the water is still, a thin icy layer modestly covers the water.

A few months ago, this was a different creek. A wildly different creek. A few months ago the creek was a brutal bastard, pummeling anything in its path, knocking down trees and driving all manner of rubbish and detritus ahead of it.

The creek overran the banks. That’s such a paltry sentence to describe what actually happened. The creek overran the banks the way the Lakota overran Custer’s 7th Cavalry at the Little Bighorn. It swept everything out of its way. It dug up stuff that had been long buried on the creek bed, and rattled it all downstream. It just slammed everything out of its way. And then it stayed.

That’s the thing about a flood. It doesn’t just stop. It lingers. It takes days to recede, and weeks before the land is dry enough to walk on. If you look at the trees along this path, you can see the high water mark on their trunks. This path is about twenty yards from the creek bank. It was entirely under about three feet of water.

I walk along this creek every two or three weeks. I’ve done that for at least a couple of years. I walk along the creek and I pay attention to what I see. I know the stretch of creek that’s home to a pair of Belted Kingfishers. I know the places the deer like to cross. I know where the local kids make bonfires and drink beer and do all the things kids probably shouldn’t do but do anyway. I know where to look for weasel and fox and beaver. I know where there used to be an old Maytag washing machine half-buried in the creek bed (it’s gone now, of course—swept away by the flood).

But I never noticed an old Ford Fairlane. I’ve no idea where it came from. It just appeared there after the flood. Whether it was somewhere farther upstream, whether it was buried in the creek bank, whether it was rusting away on somebody’s property—I don’t know. But there it is, like some would-be fossil uncovered by the forces of nature.

The creek isn’t nearly as attractive as it used to be. It’s no longer quite so pleasant to walk along its banks There’s too much crap piled up in the water, too many downed trees, too much damage done.

But its correcting itself. I love that about the creek. All those uprooted trees are useful; woodpeckers find insects in them, groundhogs dig burrows under them, mushrooms grow on them, chipmunks live in them. Given enough time, the creek will even dismantle that old Fairlane. Given enough time, the creek will be lovely again.

There’s something satisfying in all this. Something deeply gratifying. The creek may be ugly in places today—and it’ll remain ugly in places for the foreseeable future—but every day the creek is repairing a bit of the damage. In the spring it’ll probably flood again, and that will cover up or remove some of the debris left behind by the last flood, and the new flood will create a few new ugly places.

I don’t know why that pleases me. But it does.