Full Circle

by Paula MacKay

In a previous post, Greg Costello made the case for bringing Wildlands Network to Iowa to help inspire further conversation about rewilding in a region ripe with opportunity and need. In recognition of this important work, we’re republishing an essay originally crafted by Iowan MJ Hatfield in 2006 as part of her application for a scholarship at Iowa Lakeside Laboratory.

Today, MJ is a retired UPS driver managing small parcels of land for biodiversity in northeast Iowa. She describes herself as “head over heals into the wild diversity of insects and how little we actually know about the community of life in our own backyards.” Indeed, MJ’s impassioned and lyrical celebration of moths and other wild creatures in Iowa serve as a timeless reminder that, as she writes in her essay, “wildness remains around us” wherever we live. We need only open our eyes and our hearts.

Several children wearing brightly colored clothes look closely at jars and test tubes
Kids’ bug walk, Prairie Moon Nursery. Photo: Prairie Moon Nursery

Full Circle

We wake up in our climate-controlled homes and turn on the radio or television. Why? To be entertained, to have background noise, to hear the latest breaking news of the hour, or perhaps to hear the meteorologist tell us about the weather and what is coming our way. Show us the big map; show us the storm blowing in from South Dakota; show us the temperature; and by all means, tell us of the sunshine we long for today.

We have ventured too far from the cycles of life and death, seasons and rotations of the Earth.

We ready ourselves for work, walk to the garage, climb into the car, then push a button to open the big door to the outside world. We drive out—car windows rolled up—down the highway, a blacktop road, or a city street to the parking lot. We step out of the car, quickening our pace. It’s hot and humid and the mild exercise of walking moistens our skin with perspiration. We arrive to the air-conditioned office, fluorescent lights, and the computer screen. Tomorrow, we’ll do it again, and the next day, and the next. When the weekend comes, it’s time to venture out of doors: go shopping, get ready for the big game, or, if perfect weather permits, mow and fertilize the lawn.

In celebration of spring, we welcome the return of the sun and the lengthening of daylight, but we no longer give thanks, offerings, or sacrifice. Rather, we hang pastel-colored, plastic eggs from leafless trees silhouetted against a backdrop of still winter grays. Mother Nature sheds tears for us. We have ventured too far from the cycles of life and death, seasons and rotations of the Earth. If the tides remain connected to the cycles of the Earth, why then aren’t we? Or are we still?

Wildness—Who Would Notice?

Who would know wildness, met face to face? Can we know what we no longer see or hear? Wildness is other: other than us; other than our buildings, roads, sprayed crop fields, and mowed grass yards. Wildness is weather: rain, wind, and snow. It is plants: native orchids, bramble, and weeds. It is animals: deer, songbirds, bees, and snakes. Wild is the unidentified song and chirp. It is darkness, a million stars at night. It is silence.

A woman with blond hair and wearing a visor standings in a beautiful meadow filled with yellow black-eyed Susan flowers
The author pulls Queen Anne’s lace from a first year prairie planting. Photo: Danhua Zhang

How can we profess to love wildness and nature and then banish it from our lives, yards, school lots, and church grounds? When did nature become messy? When did we begin to clean it up and make it neat and orderly—straighten the meandering rivers, plant horticultural seedless trees all in a row? What of our spirit, our souls, our connection to wild? We long for wild, but not here and not now.

Curse the cottonwood whose seed fluffs are carried on the wind, sticking to our window screens and making our lives messy. Banish the oaks, stately sentinels once guarding the prairies. Their acorns, the number one native food source for deer and turkey, are not only untidy but also uncomfortable to walk on. Blaspheme the falling leaves of fall: rake, burn, banish and destroy.

We have seen polar bears walking on ice floes—on television, of course. And we’ve watched monkeys climb in Cecropia trees, steadying themselves with their prehensile tails. In TV land, we are there. But have we heard frogs calling from soggy Iowa ground in spring? We know the fire and furry of an erupting volcano, as seen on TV. But have we seen the Dekay’s brown snake, the sunflower tortoise beetle, or Mattirolomyces tiffanyae, a fungus found in Story County, Iowa and as yet no place else on Earth? Wildness always seems to be someplace else: out west, up north, Africa, the Amazon, Kalimantan, Irian Jaya, but not here; not subtle; not in my yard, dammit.

A close-up of a small brown snake sitting in someone's hand
Dekay’s brown snake. Photo: Virginia State Parks

Wild Iowa

You say we have no wildness left in Iowa. What you mean to say is, we have no mountain ranges, no cragged rock peaks playing hide and seek in clouded mists. We have no oceans, waves coming and going, going and coming. We have no blood-sucking bats, no strangler figs, no caribou, and no glaciers. But we have wildness, bits and pieces of it scattered across the state: in parks, preserves, wildlife areas, refuges—both private and public—and sometimes, in our very own backyards.

Wildness is all around us. But in order to experience it, to see and hear it, we must slow down.

Wildness is all around us. But in order to experience it, to see and hear it, we must slow down. We must pay attention. Look closely, quietly, gently.

The ambush bug sits silently, motionless in the center of the flower, patiently waiting for the butterfly or moth to come for the sugary nectar. Listen, do you hear it? The clear crystalline song of the wood thrush? Or the katydids singing, rubbing body parts together so loudly, insistently, that they own your yard? These are the songs of summer.

In Iowa we have great and glorious thunderstorms, bringing with them life-sustaining rain. It falls gently or torrentially, an inch or six, collecting in a mud spot in the farmer’s corn field, the shadow of a prairie pothole. But look! In the spring, shorebirds still come, though in far fewer numbers now—jabbing their long bills into the mud for a meal. Sometimes mallards or a blue-winged teal rest upon the water, much as if they belong.

What of this overlooked, ever-present wildness—the wildness right out our back doors, often times flying onto our front porches? What are those moths circling the porch light, fully dazed and crazed? Do we know them? Do we know their scientific names, their food preferences, or their life cycles? Do they pollinate our food crops or our garden flowers? Are they native? Are they wild?

What of the ubiquitous white-marked tussock moth, Orgyia leucostigma? It’s that wild looking caterpillar with a brilliant red, glistening head; black stripe down its back; yellow stripes and long white hairs on both sides; clustered white tufts on its back; and red warts. With looks like that, it can’t be missed. The female emerges from her pupa and remains there, clutching the cocoon. She has no wings. But she has wildness: potent pheromones that drift through the air, carried by the wind, calling to any male, to all males within a mile. And at night they come, mad for her, only to be found in the morning dead or dying. One, or some, manage to mate with her. Two or three days later, she lays a frothy egg mass attached to the cocoon. The males are dead, the eggs are laid, and she loses her grip on the cocoon and falls to the ground, awaiting her own death. This is ancient wild stuff played out right in front of our eyes. Too bad we can’t see.

Close-up of hairy-looking caterpillar with red markings
White-marked tussock moth caterpillar. Photo: Vicki DeLoach

But we can watch butterflies and moths in Ames. They have their own glass house, and for the price of admission, we can see them nectar on sugar-soaked sponges. For why would we visit a prairie, the native habitat of Iowa—a real, wild prairie where butterflies, moths, beetles, and myriad small critters hunt and eat, mate and sleep? Yes. In a native prairie, we can watch butterflies, wild butterflies. But there are also real mosquitoes in a prairie, and they bite. They can carry disease, and we are vulnerable. Fear of what might be. Fear of what we do not know.

Wildness Comes Home

When wildness returned to Iowa—the wildness of legend and an earlier time—when the cougar was again sighted, suddenly we knew where wildness stood. We have been lulled by corn fields and bean fields, parking lots, shopping malls, and mowed ball fields. Wildness, this stuff of power and prowess, was making full grown men talk, look over their shoulders, and even blame someone somewhere for bringing the wild beasts—predators—back to Iowa. They cannot live. Not here. Not now. They must be removed. For over 150 years we have sweated and toiled to bring wildness to its knees, to bow down and obey the laws of men. After all, this is our land now.

By all notions, the choice of the cougar as mascot for wild Iowa is an obvious one. It is a beautiful and charismatic creature. But it represents the unusual and the rare. By choosing the cougar, an important aspect of wild has been over looked: that most wild in Iowa, most wild on planet Earth—90%, some say—is smaller than our little fingernail. The choice of cougar glosses over the reality that wild can still be found in our yards, our road ditches, and on our farms. But we must care, we must look, and we must acknowledge the small wild, the hard-to-see wild, the wild that doesn’t entice our imagination, doesn’t connect to our primal core. The wild that just is. Life carrying on, day after day, year after year, century after century.

For perspective, beetles first appeared on Earth some 250 million years ago. The estimated number of beetle species on this planet is one million, but to date, only 350,000 species of beetles have been described and named. Iowa may have 3000 species of beetles; no one knows for sure. Beetles comprise almost 50% of insect species, and 1 out of 4 of every animal species across the globe. Why, then, when we think of wild do we not think of them?

Close-up of brown beetle with white spots, resting on a leaf
Sunflower tortoise beetle. Photo: Larry Reis

We crave wildness, yet we fear it. We’ve spent thousands of years subduing it. Perhaps because we no longer have lions, tigers, and bears (oh my) to fear, to kill, to eradicate, we kill what we do have. Step on those ants, spray that wasp, and swat that moth. They eat clothes, don’t they?

How can the wildness of a prairie compete with television? How can the northern lights compete with fireworks? How can a butterfly nectaring on a blazing star compete with university football? How can the subtle comings and goings of wild creatures compete with golf? How can painted ladies and rosy maples compete with the opening of a shopping mall?

Rather than walk outside on a dark night away from the lights of the city—rather than invite wildness, a million stars, into our lives—we shop. On opening day of Jordan Creek Mall in West Des Moines, 100,000 people sought out the new, the unusual, the mass-produced, the superfluous, the trinkets and the baubles. Remember the folklore of our childhood? We were taught that Native Americans traded Manhattan for a handful of glass beads. But oh, how they sparkled and caught the eye, the imagination! Have we sold our souls for the bright lights, fast motion, and glittering piles of stuff? The soul longs. It yearns. It seeks.

What If?

What if there is a genetic component linked to fear that resists, runs from, and eradicates wildness? What if in our evolutionary journey to become Homo sapiens, we evolved an aversion to the unknown, a fear of wildness? What if it was eat or be eaten? I suspect that, for too long in our genetic memory, wildness terrified us. Wildness harbored the poisonous plant and the fanged beast, the man–ape and the sea monster. The more we tamed wildness and the more we moved away from it, the more we were removed from it, outside of it. What if we retain that residual fear?

Woman wearing a hat looks closely at a plant, with a black Lab standing next to her
Sometimes you have to look carefully to find wildness at your fingertips. Photo: Danielle Wirth

What happens when we move indoors, no longer have contact with non-domesticated plants and animals, and no longer know them? They become not only unknown but also feared. Weeds! Snakes! Bats! Creatures that slither, creep, crawl, fly—and what if they bite? What if, in the recesses of our convoluted brains, we are predisposed to making order out of what we perceive as chaos. To no longer running from wildness but rather to controlling it, domesticating it, or eradicating it?

Does fear require a cause? Do we have, just beneath the surface, a propensity to fear? Snakes and spiders seem particularly adapted to alarming us. Full-grown, intelligent people recoil in terror to a snake. A nonpoisonous, mouse-eating snake.

What if our aversion to wild is part of us, like the color of our hair, our eyes, and our skin? Aversion linked anciently to fear, survival, and order. Can wild exist, let alone be cherished, loved, and deemed necessary? Can we help ourselves?

We have drawn the boundaries of our community too narrowly. We no longer include wildness, Earth’s numerous species, the rest of life, in our definition of community. Wild is outside of community, and we fear that which is outside. When we talk of diversity, we mean diversity of our own species, our own kind, our cultures, religions, tastes, and preferences. True diversity is much greater than just our species. It is far more than us.

Perhaps in the end we get what we want and our desires become reality. As we profess to love nature—her wildness and ways—we continue, every step of the way, to subdue and assault her. It’s an ancient way of being, perhaps in our very cells, subdue or be subdued. But it is not the only way.

Hope Springs Eternal, As It Must

Along the evolutionary path (assuming we do not subscribe to Reverend Ussher’s Annales veteris testamenti, a prima mundi origine deducti), our species has been endowed with an oversized frontal lobe, a very big brain. We can think, ponder, understand, and act. We can override our tendencies, grow beyond seeing prairie as a weed patch or all bugs as pests. We can do better.

Orange butterfly with black and white markings on a pink flower.
Monarch butterfly. Photo: Ron Holmes, USFWS

The number of species in Iowa cannot compare to a tropical forest, but they are a diverse lot and easily 99% of them are nongame. Yet, it wasn’t that many years ago that the Iowa DNR had no Wildlife Diversity Program. And the recent Comprehensive Wildlife Plan is cause for celebration since it includes some of the little fauna: butterflies, dragonflies, and damselflies, which for so long have been ignored. It does not, however, include moths, for the simple reason that we do not know the moths of Iowa. Estimates suggest there might be 10 times as many Iowa moth species as Iowa butterfly species. How can we measure their well-being if we do not know who they are? (To date, naturalist Jim Durbin has documented nearly 18 times as many moth species as butterflies and continues to add species of moths to the Iowa list every year.)

It is one thing to say we like nature and wildness, but it is quite another to act. In March 2006, DNR Diversity took a call from Ben Gibson, a Polk County resident who spends time walking along the shores of Saylorville Lake. When he heard the crows clamoring, as crow sometimes do, he investigated. What he saw were five eagles, one of which was on the ground. He could not fly.

Ben acted. He called DNR Diversity to report the downed bird and they followed up. They met Ben and walked with him, big net and water bottles in hand, to find the injured eagle. When they caught him, the eagle didn’t struggle much, drank some water, and was carried out. We now have several rehabilitators in Iowa, and the prognosis for this eagle is very good—a broken ulna that should mend well. He was dehydrated and is now drinking and eating. Not that long ago, eagles could not be found in Iowa and certainly not in central Iowa. A few years back, an injured bird would have been flown out of state for rehabilitation. Today, there is a pair of eagles nesting within the city limits of Ames.

Not that long ago, the general public hadn’t a clue as to the meaning of the word prairie. There was a time when we did not hear or see Canada geese on our ponds and lakes. Swans and ospreys (5 nesting pairs in 2005) are again found in Iowa, as are peregrine falcons (10 nesting pairs in 2005). Last year, a peregrine falcon spent some time at Iowa State University atop the Animal Ecology building. Every Iowa county, except two, hosts river otters. With the help of continued education, various programs, and organizations, drainage tiles are being broken and wetlands are reappearing. Prairie remnants are located and mapped and occasionally preserved. The terms restorationreconstructionprairie, and savannah may not be part of the common vernacular, but more people know and understand them now.

A few people sit in a grassy field with some orange buckets to gather seeds
Volunteers come together for the Heritage Valley seed harvest organized by Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation. Photo: Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation

There are those of us who cannot live happily, joyfully, or fully without wildness. It nurtures our being, connects us, reminds us of our place in the universe and that we are a part of life that is far bigger than we are. Wildness remains around us: wind blowing, caterpillars feeding, birds nesting, and ants busily hoarding. But wildness needs us—more of us and more from us. For it will be through the hard work, diligence, and education of and by caring people that wildness will be acknowledged, accepted, encouraged, and allowed to be.

Let us come to a time when we no longer ask: Wildness—who would notice?

Resources and Readings Suggested by the Author

Crowdsourcing flies: diving into BugGuide


A new cryptic Sympistis from eastern North America revealed by novel larval phenotype and host plant association (Lepidoptera, Noctuidae, Oncocnemidinae)


The Smaller Majority by Piotr Naskrecki

Bringing Nature Home by Douglas Tallamy

Insects: Their Natural History and Diversity by Stephen A. Marshall

Tracks & Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates by Charley Eiseman and Noah Charney