January 30, 2005

Why we should(n't) follow our team captain

"Have you forgotten who's the team captain?" my grade school classmate Billy Honecker shouted at us as when we told little Linda Dawn to bunt toward third. He wanted her to hit the ball high to left field, but some of us knew she didn't have the strength to get it past second.

The team members huddled at the backstop.

"Look, her best bet to get on base is to hit it toward third," Wendy said. "Their weakest thrower is on third."

Billy shook his head.

"If she knocks it to left field, Scott can make it to home plate."

"She can't hit it that far," Wendy said. "She'll just knock up a pop fly that they'll catch for an easy out."

Billy's lips pursed tight. "I was named captain, and I say she should hit it to left field. Quit selling her short."

"No one's selling her short," I said. "We're just being realistic."

That's when Adrienne stepped forward. The western sky behind her was starting to cloud over as the corn tassels wavered in the growing wind.

"If we don't quit fighting among ourselves, we'll never win," she said.

I found myself torn. But having confidence in Linda being able to do her best ap-pealed to my sense of romanticism, in much the same way as Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" does today.

"Let's give Billy's call a try," I said.

So Linda hit a pop fly, which was caught by the shortstop.

That's when the ninth man in our lineup, cross-eyed Colin, came up to bat.

"Hit it to left field," Billy shouted. Wendy and I rolled our eyes.

Adrienne sneered at us.

"If we lose, it'll be all your fault," she said.

So I cheered Colin on to hit the ball hard. For some reason, though, he still struck out.

Maybe I just didn't cheer loud enough.

(originally published Jan. 30, 2005)

January 27, 2005

The lightweight joys of soup

This past week's double whammy of cold weather and school-closing flu actually has been good for Iowans. It's reminded us all of the joys of soup.

Soup is an underappreciated food, relegated at best to the role of appetizer. In summer, cans of it sit at the back of cupboards, waiting for winter's return.

The healing power of soup rivals any home remedy. Indeed, chicken broth was prescribed by physicians more than 2100 years ago in ancient Greece.

In the late 1970s, a medical study demonstrated that chicken broth promotes the flow of air and mucus in nasal passages and clears up congestion better than control liquids of hot and cold water.

During the next decade, researchers identified an amino acid - released when cooking a chicken - that actively thins the mucus in the lungs. If chilies, garlic, and spices are added to chicken soup, they further loosen phlegm and act as expectorants.

Of course, such findings are enough to turn anyone off to soup.

But the real power of soup, I suspect, has less to do with air flow and amino acids than the image of your mother quietly entering your room, where as a child you lay miserable and sniffing in your bed. She's carrying a tray of buttered toast, 7-Up and the only thing you really can consume just then: a warm bowl of chicken soup. And better than even the best nurse at the best hospital ever possibly could, she pats your head, fluffs up your pillow and offers soothing words of comfort.

It's chicken soup for the soul, as they say.

Soup goes way back in human evolution. Stone Age men quickly invented it after discovering fire (necessary to warm the broth) and after developing stone tools for cutting (necessary to slicing meat and chopping herbs for the soup). Scientists say Neanderthals probably enjoyed soup as far back as 80,000 BCE. Neanderthals, by the way, lived during the Ice Age.

Just imagine their delicacies: mammoth gazpacho, sopa de reindeer, alphabet soup (which consisted only of the letters U, G and H).

When modern humans entered Neanderthal territory, we likely learned soup-making from them. Guess the Neanderthals weren't so dumb, after all.

But soup isn't just ingrained in the genes because it benefited us during our evolution. No, soup is essential to the obtaining of higher ideas, such as liberty and abstract art.

In 1777, as George Washington's troops winter camped at Valley Forge, the ragged band avoided starvation thanks to soup. Faced with hardly any food in the army stores, the camp cook mixed tripe and peppercorn with boiling water to feed the ragged band. Thus was born America's famous pepperpot soup.

The revolutionary army survived the winter, and we all know what happened after that.

A few years later, Thomas Jefferson would contemplate soup in his essay "Observations on Soup." Like soup, itself, this piece is much underappreciated and rarely mentioned in his biographies. But he did write it.

Unfortunately, part of soup's bad image can be blamed on Iowan Herbert Hoover. During the Great Depression, lines at soup kitchens ran long. After that experience, Americans really didn't want soup if they had a choice.

But in 1961 Andy Warhol came to soup's rescue. His 32 Campbell's Soup Cans turned a run-of-the-mill grocery store item into high art. Somehow, Warhol saw what Jefferson had recognized more than a century-and-a-half before: There's more to soup than just hot water and some flavoring.

What they saw was the sweetness in one of life's most simplest pleasures.

These days, a lot of Americans are worried about the lagging economy and impending war. Those who look farther out see looming environmental dangers.

We need an occasional simple pleasure to lessen the load.

So whenever you start feeling down, reach into your pantry and remember what William McKinley (a much underappreciated president) cried out at a news conference in 1897: "What this country needs is a good 10-ounce can of condensed soup!"

Tastes, er, sounds, good to me.

(originally published Jan. 27, 2003)

January 25, 2005

When politics and neighborliness combine

I didn't have to know where I was going. Last Monday night, I simply followed the stream of cars through my neighborhood.

They all were headed to our caucus location, despite the cold and even though the next morning was a work day. I decided this year to attend the Democrats' caucus, figuring the voting method and array of candidates would make it far more interesting than the GOP's.

Apparently, others had the same thought as me. Though I planned to arrive with 10 minutes to spare before the 6:30 start time, I found myself at the end of a line 75 people long.

It wasn't poor organization at work. The elementary school gym holding my precinct's caucus already was full and, during the next several minutes, another 75 neighbors got in line behind me. The precinct anticipated record turnout - maybe 150 people at best. We had 271.


No one seemed to mind. Neighbors talked about what their kids were doing and how the Hawkeyes did this year.

But the conversation inevitably turned to politics as we advanced toward the registration table: "Did you read the article on John Kerry in The Atlantic Monthly?" "Do you think Kucinich's health care plan has a chance?"

And then something would distract us, maybe a school child's cute piece of art or writing, like "Snowflakes are white like vanilla cream." We marveled over our children's imaginations and creativity.

Then came a sobering return to politics: "You know, I'm afraid for my kids' future."


Somehow we all found room in the gym. The collective bodies warmed the huge space so that we soon took off our coats and jackets, and piles of them everywhere quickly competed for space.

Conversations about home, family and jobs continued as we waited patiently for all to register. Some sat quietly. One elderly lady was smart enough to bring a book.

Fifty minutes later than originally planned, the precinct chairman tapped his gavel. For a moment he surveyed the gym, looking at all the people packed closer than stalks in a cornfield, and said, "I'll take this as a sign that people are real happy with the job George Bush is doing."

And then he announced that the caucuses were a 32-step process.


Though I'd explained to the national media in a dozen interviews during the week leading up to the event how the Democrats' caucuses work, there is nothing quite like going through one to fully grasp what it's all about.

There's one thing my colleagues would have discovered if they could have participated: It's only partially about expressing one's political views.

Supporters of each candidate were asked to go to a specific corner of the gym so a count could be taken. Once we got there, it was a matter not of counting but of introductions. "Hi, I'm - " "Oh you work in that building! I've always wondered what they did in that there."

Finally we got around to nominating and electing a preference group chairperson and making the count.


My candidate garnered 90 of the 271 in attendance. We could send three delegates to the convention.

We gazed out on the other candidates' preference groups. Dick Gephardt, Dennis Kucinich and Wesley Clark weren't "viable" candidates as they had to have at least 15 percent of the total crowd.

Then our preference group chairwoman an-nounced that if we could get 15 more supporters, our candidate would get a fourth delegate. We had a half-hour before the final count.

"No problem," said one woman, "two of my neighbors are for Gephardt." She zoomed across the gym toward their corner.

As did just about everyone else. Kucinich and Gephardt and Edwards folks got together to see if they could combine forces. They swooped upon the Clark camp and the undeclareds to find supporters. Those in the Kerry and Dean corners did so as well.

Suddenly, the room was abuzz with talk about the war, about NAFTA, about No Child Left Behind, about the cost of health insurance, about the space program.


And then came the gavel. Time for the final count.

The woman returned from the Gephardt camp with five people in tow. A few Kucinich supporters also joined us, under the agreement that one of them would get to be a county delegate - a chance for Ku-cinich's issues to be heard and placed on the platform, but a vote to move our candidate along. It was a compromise, sort of like agreeing who will prune the shrubs on the property line.

As the final count was taken, our conversations turned back to seemingly more mundane issues: which neighbor had a son in Iraq, about the plant closing in West Branch, about our kids' homework, about how little our pay raises were after the new payroll taxes, about how one guy's company was hoping to bid on a high-tech NASA project.

Because this caucus - just as it was for our Republican brethren across the street - was more than a political event. It was a neighborhood gathering. A block party at an elementary school.

And that's community building at its best.

(originally published Jan. 25, 2004)

January 20, 2005

Downtowns define our cities

If any part of a city defines a community, it is downtown.

For some places, that's not good news. Their city centers are a collection of boarded windows and drug dealers, a place for the most downcast of the poor to reside.

But even as malls bloom where cornfields once stood and freeways offer easy access to safe but soulless suburbs, time and time again people fret over the fate of their "downtown." Revital-ization efforts and grass roots efforts seek to rescue many from oblivion.

What should a downtown be? As City Manager Steve Atkins pointed out during the Optimist Club of Iowa City's meeting earlier this month, coming up with a consensus is difficult to say the least. And while he re-ferred to downtown Iowa City, he could have meant any downtown in the United States.

At the heart of all such issues is a romantic vision of what the community's center should be. Main Street, after all, is an American icon.

Two images remain prominent in our imaginations. Both were created by movie companies.

First is Disney's Main Street USA, which can be ex-perienced at the Magic Kingdom in either California or Florida. The turn of the century storefronts (which maintenance crews repaint each night) border brick streets, Victorian lampposts, park benches and water fountains. Shoppers may travel by foot or trolley to their destination. Whenever communities talk about beautifying their downtowns, they invariably mean this Disney dreamscape.

1950s small town America

The second vision is that of 1955 Hill Valley from the movie "Back to the Future." Built on a Universal Studio back lot, Hill Valley's quaint downtown centers on a town square with the courthouse at one end. A theater, diner, gas station, record store, bank and other businesses line the adjoining three streets. Whenever communities discuss what their downtowns should offer, they invariably mean those conventions we associate with 1950s small town America.

It is the downtown I most dream of. Growing up in the late 1960s, my family shopped weekly in the little town of Durand, Wis., population 1,500. Durand isn't much different than most small towns in Iowa. Its Main Street looks much like the one painted on the hardcover version of Garrison Keillor's "Lake Wobegon Days."

Each Thursday night - which was payday back then - Durand's stores remained open into the evening. My parents' sojourn usually began at the grocery store, which boasted a whole eight aisles.

Perhaps because of shopping there in my formative years, I disdain warehouse-sized supermarkets. After all, just how many salad dressings or kinds of Captain Crunch does a man really need? I'm shopping for groceries, not surfing the Web.

Being overwhelmed, ironically, is what made downtown Durand such a great place to be on Thurs-day nights. We weren't inundated with products, though, but with friendship.

Everyone went downtown Thursday night. If you needed clothes, the sales clerk at Skogmo's was certain to remember your size. If you wanted one of those newfangled color televisions, the hardware storeowner knew exactly what model black and white you were replacing. Teachers chatted with students lined up at the theater, old classmates ran into one another at the Ben Franklin five-and-dime, and the waitress at the Durand Café didn't have to ask what kind of pie you wanted for dessert.

Enter Minneapolis

While walking once with a friend though Minneapolis' downtown skyways, I was struck by a similar atmosphere. He worked at an office housed in the old WCCO-TV studios. Within a few blocks was the coffee shop where the girl remembered he didn't need extra room for cream and the Kinko's boy could recite the title of the last report he'd had photocopied.

But the vast number of people my friend didn't know - and never would, for that matter - also impressed me. He boasted that more people came to downtown Minneapolis each day than lived in the entire city.

They're a lot like all those salad dressings at the mega supermarket, I thought.

I don't mean to criticize Minneapolis; a lot of old friends and college acquaintances that I've lost touch with over the years probably work there. And places like downtown Minneapolis are necessary in a global economy.

But so are places like downtown Durand.

And that ultimately is what each of us wants from our downtown. The Disney-scape and Hill Valley stores are nice, but they're just the vinaigrette upon what really matters: a bowl full of friends who care about us, maybe even with a few odd seeds tossed in for flavor.

Downtown is about community, and people who worry about their Main Street primarily fear that loss of center in their lives.

(originally published January 20, 2003)

January 18, 2005

'Excuse me, is there a windmill or potato field nearby?'

The troubling aspect of telling people exactly what you think is they usually respond in kind.

Such is the dilemma Iowa faces thanks to the caucuses. Not just the national, but the world media has descended upon our state to see who our Democrats will pick to run for president against George W. Bush.

Though New York and Washington and Atlanta and Los Angeles and London journalists are fairly good at maintaining their objectivity when reporting the presidential race, we also can read between the lines and get a sense of what people from far-flung places think of our state.

It's an interesting array of images.


Consider this report from a Des Moines colleague: When one national television chain rolled into town, they asked if there was a windmill nearby that they could report in front of. When told no, they asked if there was a cow.

Perhaps the most notorious image is the New York Times editorial that described Iowa as a "quaint" state in arguing that we shouldn't play such a big role nominating the president.

Or there's this snippet from a New York Times op-ed, noting "... the great distances of flat highways that stretch between campaign stops." Mmm ... evocative.

Then there's political pundit Charles E. Cook Jr., who noted in an op-ed defending Iowa's status as first-in-the nation, "Although some of these people lack the sophistication of the East or West Coast, they often display common sense and maybe have a hypocrisy meter that is as sensitive as anywhere else."


"Wait, I don't care what those guys think of us," you may say.

Don't lie. It's unbefitting of an Iowan to lie.

You do care.

"... social approval and disapproval affect virtually everyone's feelings about themselves, even those individuals who steadfastly and adamantly claim that their feelings about themselves are not affected by other people's evaluations," ac-cording to a Wake Forest University study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin's most recent issue.

Added Mark Leary, lead-author of the study, "People underestimate the degree to which they are influenced by others. It's hard to know why, but part of it may be the American ideal of marching to your own drummer. We grow up thinking we shouldn't be affected by what others think."

Or in Iowa's case, where 10 different candidates have been trying to get us to like them for the past year, maybe too many of us have seen social approval taken to the extreme and can't imagine ourselves remotely being like that.


Among the problems with the media imagery is that we hail many of those same items as state icons. We're proud of our cornfields and windmills, but we don't exactly like to be associated with them.

Existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in "Being and Nothingness" (take that for sophistication, Charles E. Cook Jr.,!) that the psychological problem of another looking at us is that we lose control of the ability to define ourselves.

Indeed, we don't mind preserving windmills to recognize our heritage, but once a journalist gives a report in front of that icon, others presume it's not our past but our present. Though most Iowans have little to do with the farm anymore, the image makes us farmers - and raises all of the uncomfortable stereotypes that may come with such a label.

At least no national reporter has asked if there's a potato field nearby.

(originally published Jan. 18, 2004)

January 16, 2005

What would you want to see if you were about to go blind?

Anytime I stop in a bookstore, whether it is the fancy new Barnes & Noble in Coralville or the musty shelves of downtown's Northside, I keep an eye out for the name "Grant Foy." I'm not sure which section it will be in, whether I'll stumble across it in a magazine rather than a book or whether I'll even see it at all.

Grant was my one of my many college roommates; while certainly among the quietest, he also ranked as the most interesting. He also shared something with many Iowa Citians: a love of writing.

He filled gads of notebooks with observations and thoughts, which I never minded having piled around the dorm room because it put me in a good mood to pound out that next article for the student newspaper.

His writing certainly was in more romantic surroundings - rather than spend hours covering dry meetings as I did, he'd go on hikes to the nearby dam, maybe to a farmer's cornfield on the outskirts of town, occasionally even to the busiest main street bar, pen and notepad in hand, and write.

Sometimes I fancied that trapped inside him was a ghost that desperately needed to speak and so compelled his hand to move across countless empty pages.

Sometimes I doubt I'll ever see Grant's name on a book spine. You see, Grant was not a writer precisely but a diarist (as though a novelist, poet or journalist were the only way one could exist as a writer). Not even that term is entirely accurate, though, because his subject matter wasn't exactly himself but what he saw and thought of it.


I can't speak much of what was in his notebooks, for as a fellow writer (though a more utilitarian sort), I respected the privacy of a closed cover. Writing is a work in progress, and to look at any draft but the final one that the author presents is akin to watching your first date dress.

But I could tell by inadvertent glances at Grant's paper that his writing was not the same sentence repeated, and that it sometimes consisted of long paragraphs and other times of a sentence fragment.

Grant didn't write with a career in mind or for money. Nor was he a navel-gazer. Writing can help us better understand ourselves, of course, but like Meriwether Lewis who kept logs while he blazed a trail across knew territory, Grant's words were not principally about personal devils but the journey itself.

For him, writing merely served as a way to make sense of the world, to place contacts in the eyes to eliminate reality's blur. I suspect that's the case with many writers.

Indeed, as Canadian Humorist Stephen Leacock once said.

"Writing is no trouble: You just jot down ideas as they occur to you. The jotting is simplicity itself - it is the occurring which is difficult."

Grant once told me he used writing as a way of forcing himself to remain aware of the world about him. It's a quality more of us should aspire to. Too often we do find ourselves buried in the mundane dregs of work, school or what passes these days as entertainment.

Upon hearing abstractions, too many of our reactions tend to the extremes of a knee-jerk tirade or an indifferent shrug rather than a careful consideration of the notion itself.

"The purpose of a writer is to keep civilization from destroying itself," Albert Camus wrote.

His words apply to the unpublished writer, too, for what kind of a society no longer takes time for what is most important?


Helen Keller once asked people what they would make sure to see one last time if they knew in only a few hours they would go blind.

An intriguing question. I would want to see my wife's smile, a tassel of corn waving in the breeze and lakewater rippling against a shoreline.

So what would you want to see?

Or hear? Or touch? Or smell?

And do you shrug indifferently each day that these things pass before your eyes, content with the belief you will not go blind in a few hours?

Grant didn't. And though I may never find his name on a bookstore shelf, he's my hero because of it.

(originally published Jan. 16, 2005)

January 13, 2005

Seed catalogs teach patience

About this time in January an odd periodical begins to show up at homes across the Midwest: seed catalogs.

In the middle of Iowa's coldest month, spring gardening may sound like the most distant of our concerns. But as the old adage goes, we most want what we cannot have. And for a few months at least, green and a balmy warmth won't be seen in these parts.

Growing up on a farm, catalogs from companies such as White Flower Farm, High Country Gardens, Henry Field's, and the king of them all, W. Atlee Burpee Seeds, would arrive daily by mail during mid-January. My parents had stacks of them, and they read them for pleasure as if they were children who'd just been handed the Christmas catalog.

It is easy to see why: Each page brimmed with bright pictures of flowers, melons, vegetables, corns from sweet to ornamental to popcorn, all in prime form as if blue ribbon winners at the state fair. Why, there were more varieties in those few pages than ever appeared at our town's largest supermarket or greenhouse.

Enticing descriptions accompanied each picture - "Tastes like it's been brushed with honey!" "A carnival of colors!" - and just for my utilitarian father, I imagined as a child, those delights were followed by words such as "Quick drying ears ... Good disease resistance."

Serpents in the garden

Reading those catalogs, you almost could feel the dirt in your hands, could see the array of colors growing around you, could breathe in each fragrant bloom. Indeed, as the snow piled up outside and the wind dropped to temperatures below zero, cozying up in an easy chair and clinging to every word wasn't difficult.

But one always had to read seed catalogs closely, for amid that garden of delights were serpents.

I remember my parents buying sweet peppers because they were "fast growing." Both recalled how as children they loved having the tangy orange slices mixed with salads, and their eyes grew dreamy. And so, like children impatient for cookies to finish baking, they ordered a "fast growing" variety from Burpee, all in hope that their cravings would be met a couple of weeks earlier.

But within a month of planting, they discovered that "fast-growing" was just a euphemism for "fast spreading." Soon the sweet peppers sprouted all over the garden, elbowing out squash and carrots, strangling tomatoes and tulips, threatening the sweet corn and yams. They battled all summer long to keep this new weed from taking over the garden and the next spring dug up the peppers so they wouldn't take over the bed.

Indeed, little descriptions such as "mildew-resistant" probably meant the plant would succumb should we have a wetter than normal season. "Drought-resistant" really meant the plant wouldn't last if we had a less than average rainfall.

Seed catalogs, I also discovered, were a great way to learn Latin.

Vocabulary booster

Most catalogs offer both the plants' common and botanical names. Consider the sunflower. Its Latin name is Helianthus annus, meaning "annual sunflower." "Annus" is Latin for "annual," "heli" referred to "sun" and "anthus" to "flower." Such knowledge helped get me through fifth grade vocabulary tests: It was an easy guess that "heliocentric," or "sun at the center" referred to the scientific theory that the sun rather than the earth was at the center of the solar system.

"How'd you know?" my friend Kirby asked me when he got it wrong on the test.

"Seed catalogs," I said smugly as he did a double take and scratched his head in confusion.

Almost as exciting as reading seed catalogs was receiving the packets that had been ordered. An illustration showing what the seeds might look like that autumn covered the front of each pocket-sized envelope. It was akin to staring at a pie set on the window sill to cool.

As the days of summer passed and gardening turned into a chore that just didn't seem worth it when cans of peas and carrots were so readily available on grocery store shelves, the dog-eared seed catalogs found themselves at the bottom the magazine rack. Eventually, though, if one were patient enough and put in the necessary hours toiling over garden rows, the flowers bloomed and the vegetables ripened, sometimes not looking quite as nice as those pictures we drooled over in January, but smelling and tasting just as good as we had imagined.

Then, after we'd stuffed ourselves on the bounty, there was the sweet satisfaction in knowing that all of our hard work had paid off.

And to think, it all began on a frigid winter day with a vision planted by a simple seed catalog.

(originally published Jan. 13, 2003)

January 09, 2005

A simple question for us all: To dance or not to dance?

Wearing a white empire-style gown and a necklace of pearls, Claire Addison looked resplendent that night. She twirled around once in her kitchen before us, holding the full skirt above the ankles with a pinch of her fingers.

In high school at the time, I'd just dropped off my girlfriend, who was to babysit the Addison's children. She gasped at the dress; "It's so beautiful, Mrs. Addison," she said.

Claire beamed as her husband, decked in a black tux, put his arm around her. It was their anniversary, and he was taking her to a ball at a fancy hotel in thebig city to celebrate. She'd been talking about it for weeks.

They (and I, too) were about to leave when a knock at the door interrupted Claire's last-minute instructions abot the children. Winter's longering chill filled the kitchen as Mr. Addison opened the door.

The neighbor farmer, Mr. Corby, stood ont he dark porch, almost out of breath. "Luke," he said, "I'm sorry to bother you, but my cows are out. They're all over the neighborhood - could you help me round them up?"

Earlier that year, a creek had flooded after a warm spell; that night, an embankement where a fence stood gave way. The cows had found the hole. We would have to sweep nearby woods, and it might take an hour or more to make sure we had all of the cattle.

Mr. Addison held in a sigh, and I caught his eyes glancing surreptitously to the window. There wasn't a light on at a singlefarm across the cornfield. If Mr. Addison helped, he would need to shower again and redress. A couple of hours might pass, and by then it would be late. He turned around and gazed at his wife.

Her eyes fell downward.

Then he looked at Mr. Corby, stood straighter for a moment, and I swear his heels seemed to dog ino the floorboards.

"Actually, John, we were just ..."

But then Claire unhooked the pearls from her neck ad stepped to her husband's side. The kitchen light warmed her face. "We'll help," she said. "Give me a moment to change."

Did Mr. Addison make the right decision? I suspect so, becuase if he would have immediately jumped to Mr. Corby's assistance, hewould have shown ehere his priorities truly rested and failed a test. But satisfied with his answer, Claire knew she and her husband also had another test to face. She gave the right answer, too.

If there is to be any disappointment inthis tale, it must be caused by those who would have chosen to dance that night.

Originally published Jan. 9, 2005

January 04, 2005

Celebrate our heritage through prairie restoration

One might say we've just lived through Iowa's bicentennial.

Two centuries ago, on Dec. 20, 1803, France gave an immense swath of continental America to the United States in the Louisiana Purchase. Though President Thomas Jefferson was criticized for the $15 million payment to Napoleon, it was a pretty good deal. It came to about 4 cents an acre.

In today's values, that would be like buying all of Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana - plus good-sized chunks of Minnesota, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Colorado, Wyoming and Texas - for $250 million. Contrast that with the 4.5-acre proposed rain forest-aquarium for Coralville, valued at $180 million.

Of course, back in 1803 most of the purchased territory was unexplored wilderness. The primary reason for the land deal was to secure the port of New Orleans and Mississippi River for the United States. Fur traders already had described much of the purchased prairie as a great desert.


A few months after the territory was purchased, Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark's famed Corps of Discovery up the Missouri River to find the fabled Northwest Passage.

They crossed what is modern day Iowa's southwest edge. What the corps - and the pioneers who soon followed - saw was chest-high grasses waving beneath the wind.

Before white settlers arrived from the East, 25 million acres of prairie covered Iowa, making up about 70 percent of state's total acreage. Today, a mere 30,000 acres - about 0.1 percent of the original range - remains in prairie.

Most of the land was broken into fields, which gave Iowa a grand agricultural heritage we should be proud of and celebrate.

Today, of course, farmland is slowly being turned over to asphalt and manicured green lawns. Yet one more heritage is passing on to another.


But urbanization, running at a fast click as subdivisions rise in Iowa City, Coralville, North Liberty and Tiffin and across the North Corridor, still allows us to reclaim part of what was lost after the Louisiana Purchase.

We can return roadsides, as is the case on Mormon Trek Boulevard, to prairie. We can return our yards to this state as well.

Doing so offers many benefits. Prairie wildflowers are natural water purifiers; their deep root systems filter toxins, resulting in a cleaner water table. They preserve our native wildlife as well. Many birds, butterflies and other animals feed only on native plants; monarch butterfly caterpillars, for example, rely entirely on milkweed to survive.

Ultimately, prairie restor-ation saves work, especially around the yard. A patch of prairie grass and flowers requires much less mowing and raking than a manicured lawn.

Of course, the neighbors may not like it. Many people still carry the notion that the only nice lawn is one yielding crew cut Kentucky Bluegrass - a foreign import that ought to rankle every true blood patriot.


What would a yard in native prairie look like?

It would be full of asters, black-eyed Susans, blazing stars, butterfly milkweeds, white and purple coneflowers, little bluestem (a grass), monardas, purple prairie clover, and prairie dropseed (another grass).

On summer nights it would offer a concert of chirping and buzzing insects.

During the day, for those willing to explore, it would yield the stunningly beautiful (and harmless) black and yellow striped agriope spider, its webs connecting the varying plant leafs.


Surprisingly, a lot of prairie enthusiasts aren't tree hugging college students in Iowa City or history buffs but farmers with soul.

An uneasy relationship always has existed between farmland and prairie in Iowa. This summer, for example, many farmers were forced to crop dust their fields so aphids wouldn't destroy soybeans.

Unfortunately, the pesticides often drifted onto prairie restoration areas, wiping out insects and upsetting the ecosystem.

Some farmers, of course, see only the bottom line and care little about land that provides no saleable crops. For them, it's cornfield or bust.

But many enjoy their deep relationship with the land and the environment, holding great respect for life's interconnectedness and what surprises it yields. They know the power of mother nature, of how in a few minutes wind and hail can destroy a season's crop, of how if it holds out on rain for a single day can mean the difference between bounty and drought.

They understand there's more than "x cents an acre" to life. They're the ones with soul.

And we urbanites in our air-conditioned homes and half-acre lots would be remiss to forget that affinity.

(originally published Jan. 4, 2004)