to Nicholas Johnson's Coralville Rain Forest Web Site
Make "Rural Heritage" Our Mantra
Iowa City Press-Citizen
June 7, 2005
"Rather than becoming more urban, Iowa should nurture and capitalize on its rural heritage. The national fame of the Amana Colonies should serve as an example of how small Iowa communities can benefit from marketing what they are rather than trying to become something they are not . . ."
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I was incredulous. I wouldn't have dreamed of leaving Iowa under any circumstances. If there weren't opportunities, then I would just need to put my exceptional Iowa education to work and make them.
Of course, this proved more difficult than my naive mind had thought. However, an Iowan I remain. If you want people to stay here or move here, try asking an Iowan like me why he stayed.
I grew up on a farm just a few miles away from the tiny town where I attended school. We didn't have livestock, and my father's primary source of income was the Firestone Tire and Rubber Plant in Des Moines, so I spent most of my childhood simply enjoying the land.
On any given day I could be found exploring dense forests, snatching frogs in marshy bottomlands, leaping over creeks and gullies or napping in the whispering tall-grass. It was a special treat to be allowed to stay out long after dark and lie beneath an enormous, moonless, cloudless sky to marvel at the Milky Way, a starry spectacle that many living in light-polluted areas today don't even know exists.
I loved the land I grew up on as though it was a member of my extended family, a beloved uncle or aunt who'd taken an interest in me and taught me much about life. I've always been keenly aware of the significant contribution the land made to my development physically, intellectually and spiritually. And the simple truth is that you just don't want to wander too far away from a place like that.
As I learned more about the state's history, I realized there had been others like me. European settlers called them the Ioway, and they had enjoyed a familial relationship with the land for thousands of years. I can only begin to imagine the heartbreak they must have felt as they were evicted in the 1830s. And then I learned the land I enjoyed was but a shadow of its previous splendor, with the prairie all but gone, much of the woodlands cleared and acres of wetlands drained. Were it not for the heroic efforts of J. N. "Ding" Darling in the 1930s, I might never have experienced my beloved meadows and woods.
Recipe for success
The lesson in all of this is that the future of Iowa must rely on a legacy of the land that stretches back to the first people to arrive here. Any vision of what Iowa can be must include a commitment to preserve the family farm, stimulate small business, arrest urban sprawl and restore and conserve more woodlands, grasslands and wetlands. Rather than becoming more urban, Iowa should nurture and capitalize on its rural heritage. The national fame of the Amana Colonies should serve as an example of how small Iowa communities can benefit from marketing what they are rather than trying to become something they are not, a strategy that, I think, even a chain superstore cannot foil.
The place Americans go to experience the nation's rural heritage. The premier small business draw in the United States. The place you go when you want to be your boss, send your children to the best public schools and participate in an environmentally conscious culture. I'm convinced that if these are the epithets of Iowa's future, people will stay. And they will come.