I’ve been a student of nature for more than 50 years and some might think that I’ve pretty much seen it all. Nothing could be further from the truth! Even though I’ve hiked the same woods and visited the same places for years, nature still has the capacity to surprise me. It’s partly because nature is so varied and complex that it’s impossible to see it all, but it’s also because nature isn’t static. It’s always changing. Part of that is because the climate is changing, but life, itself, is always probing and looking for new opportunities. Some species increase while others fall back. Even the usually slow motion of geology sometimes moves quickly enough to surprise.
I grew up hiking, hunting and fishing along the same few miles of the South Skunk River near Story City. I felt like I knew every rock and tree and thought I had caught or at least observed every kind of fish in the river. I recall sitting in an ISU fisheries lab one afternoon around 1970. Some grad students were talking about the small-mouthed bass they had sampled in the river. I mentioned that I was skeptical and teased that they were maybe confusing small-mouths with carp. Bass were rare to nonexistent when I was growing up on the river. They challenged me to cast a Meps spinner into a few pools and just see what showed up. Intrigued, I took up their challenge at some of my favorite old fishing holes on a spring evening a few days later. The first fish I caught was a fat and sassy chub. I felt vindicated. The second was an equally fat and sassy small-mouthed bass! I caught another a couple of casts later. Boy, was I surprised! Another time a coworker advised that he’d caught some gar (a toothy, armored, primitive kind of fish) out of Indian Creek. I had never heard of gar in our area (even from college grad students), but he brought in a couple of small needle-nosed gar a couple of days later. They had probably worked their way upstream from somewhere far to our south during a prolonged period of high water. Another surprise!
I helped lay out the Skunk River Greenbelt trail system when I was a park ranger back in the late 70s and 80s. I worked on, hiked or skied those trails many times in all seasons over the years and, again, began to feel that I had seen all the wildflowers and other plants that grew along them. Imagine my surprise when I encountered a rare and unusual plant known as a green dragon (a cousin of jack-inn-the-pulpit) right next to a trail I’d hiked many times. It’s not a small plant, so I should have noticed it before. Another time I was helping a large crew of Skunk River Navy students from ISU clean up an old farm dump along the trail, not too far from where I’d stumbled on the green dragon. A large patch of zig-zag (also known as broad-leafed) goldenrod was in bloom right there along the trail I’d walked a hundred times. I’d never identified it in Story County before. Had it been there all along? How had I missed it?
There’s always the chance that a new bird, flower or even a tree will reveal itself. I was leading a wildflower hike at Hertz Woods south of Nevada earlier this week. Even though the area is only a mile from my house and I’ve walked through it many times, it can still surprise me, as it did that evening. I knew there were a few bellwort lilies growing there, but I’d never seen more that a scattered handful. The group rounded the head of a ravine and I looked back to the east at the far side of the ravine. A setting sun illuminated the west-facing slope and revealed not a hand full, but hundreds of sparkling yellow bellwort lilies in full bloom. I had never noticed many wildflowers of any kind on that slope. Perhaps I had never looked over my shoulder with just that light and at just the right time of year before. Perhaps those bellworts were giving their first big show as a new patch of flowers that weren’t there before. Regardless of the reason, they provided a delightful surprise. Nature always has more surprises up her sleeve for those who take the time to look!
Steve Lekwa is a former director of Story County Conservation.