It’s usually mid week when I start wondering what I’ll write for the column on Saturday or Sunday. Ideas come and go, but a basic theme usually begins to take shape by late in the week. This week’s idea began on Thursday as I watched my daughter, Amy, pointing out a very large tomato hornworm caterpillar to her children (ages 2 and 10). The caterpillar was happily munching down leaves on a pepper plant that she was trying to raise. There was a choice to be made: get rid of the caterpillar and save the plant, or let nature take its course. She trained to be a naturalist, and couldn’t pass up the “teaching moment.” I later noticed the 10-year-old studying the balls of frass (excrement frequently passed by the caterpillar). Someday they might get to see the adult moth, one of the largest of the hawk moth group, as it flits around like an evening-flying hummingbird.
I returned home and checked the many milkweeds in the wetland garden west of my house to see if there was any sign of monarch caterpillar feeding. Sadly, I found no sign of any caterpillars, even though I had seen a couple of monarchs land on the plants recently. They were among the only butterflies I’ve seen all summer around our place, even though I have planted flowers to attract them. I was going to write about caterpillars (or the lack of them) until I read a story about “Iowa’s Good Governor,” the late Bob Ray, in the Sunday paper. I was struck again by the great humanity and humility of the man who was a tough politician, but still came off as being a nice guy. In fact, he may be the best example we have of what it means to be “Iowa Nice.”
Bob Ray will always be remembered for his life-saving work on behalf of Southeast Asian refugees and how he bucked political headwinds (even then) to open Iowa for settling homeless Tai Dam and Vietnamese boat people. His favorite piece of legislation was, believe it or not, Iowa’s Bottle Bill, a law that more than any other helped to clean up Iowa’s roadsides. Sadly, some people are still trying to undo that good law yet today. It was reported that nothing made him more furious than a quick political answer to a tough question. While politics might be easy, finding the right answer was hard, and Ray would work effectively with whomever it took to get results regardless of their political affiliation.
A quiet conservation side story took shape in Gov. Ray’s last term in office. It’s one I would have added to the special Sunday edition on Bob Ray’s life if I had been one of the writers. Gov. Ray and a few other influential government and private leaders knew that there was more important conservation work to be done than could ever be accomplished by government agencies, hamstrung as they often were by budgets, restrictive policies, and fickle political winds that often blew in the wrong direction. They came up with a private land trust that we now know as the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation (INHF) in 1979. For the past 39 years, that organization has been working quietly and patiently with whoever it took to make sure that the best remnants of Iowa’s natural heritage will have long-term protection.
Over 165,000 acres of prairies, woodlands, wetlands, lakes, and streams on public and private land in 95 of Iowa’s 99 counties might have been lost since 1979, but now enjoy protection thanks to the INHF’s work. They have embraced relationships with volunteers, donors, agencies, landowners, and other partners. It has often taken many years to nurture those relationships before the final fruit of protection has been achieved. As Joe McGovern, the current president of the INHF says, “we’re in it for the long haul.” That’s how Bob Ray wanted it to be done.
And so, back to caterpillars. The lack of them and the butterflies and moths they become is a testament to decades of change in how we live on and treat the land. Bringing them back, if that’s even possible, won’t be easy or quick. The problem won’t be solved by political parties. It will take years and it will take compromise. Relationships between people and the land will have to be rebuilt. It will take people willing to put aside political litmus tests in order to work out the right answer, the one best for Iowans and Iowa’s land. If there are enough Bob Ray Iowans out there, then butterflies may still have a future in Iowa.
Steve Lekwa is a former director of Story County Conservation.