This beautiful essay was written by a talented friend who says it better than anyone else, so I've printed it here again for all those who may have missed it when it was first published years ago. Lake Red Rock is, indeed, a place where I have experienced magical moments and, as it's some of the best that Iowa has to offer, we continue to search for the windsong in projects like Hickory Ridge.....maybe one day, if we keep trying, we will hear the hum of wild open places in this place we call home.
RED ROCK REFLECTIONS ON THE WINDSONG
JOHN PEARSON, INDIANOLA
I’ve heard it twice, but never in Iowa.
The first time was in the Boundary Waters wilderness of northern Minnesota, four days out on a solo canoe trip: an odd drone - like a distant airplane, but one that never drew closer or receded into distance. Like wind rushing though a forest, but on a day that was still. Like buzzing from armies of cicadas, but there are none in the North Woods.
The second time was in the desert, Big Bend country in west Texas. My hiking partner couldn’t quite hear it, though he believed me when I told him. This time it was two-toned, alternating low notes a subtle half-step apart, moaning softly like the slow push and pull of a bow across the bass string of a lone cello. G and G-flat, long, slow, endless. It came from beneath the horizon, rising over the hills, flowing acoustically through camp. The wind, my rational mind speculated: a softly rhythmic zephyr sweeping the vast land, stroking countless grasses, shrubs, trees, rocks, and hills, eliciting a collective hum from an infinity of insubstantial vibrations. Earth music, my poetic mind rhapsodized: bow of the sky drawn across cello of the earth, coaxing a wind song from the wilderness.
Others have heard it, too, in other places. Phyllis Fredendall, an artist-in-residence at Isle Royale National Park, relates: “I became aware of a continuous, harmonic hum. Those two tones were with me as I paddled the outer islands, swam each evening, or cooked my oatmeal. I came to know them as ‘the ringing of the spheres’ - water, rock, and sky all resonating in perfect harmony.” 1 Arctic kayaker Jonathan Waterman tells of hearing it while crossing Queen Maud Gulf: “the humming from outside the tent becomes so loud that my ears seem to be vibrating. Just like innumerable times over the last few years, I zip down the door to try to identify the source of the noise: Oyyy-oyyy-oyyy-oyyy-oyyy-oyyy-oyyy… I have heard it in midwinter out on the sea ice, miles offshore, and at all times along the shore… the sound speeds in intensity to a continuous hum, then stops as a pair of nesting loons quack past and the rain begins. Some things in the Arctic, I think, are best left unexplained. So I let it go.” 2 Mountaineer Rick Ridgeway, describing a subtle hum deep in the alpine wilderness of the Crystal Mountains of Tibet, states simply: “It’s the background sound of silence.” 3
The hum of big, open, wild places. Maybe that’s why I’ve never heard it in Iowa. No wilderness left, not for a long time. The prairie was here, big and wild, until about 1850, but I was born a hundred years too late to see - and maybe to hear - that wilderness. Using the metaphor of nature as a book, Thoreau once lamented, “it is but an imperfect copy that I possess and read… my ancestors have torn out many of the first leaves and grandest passages.”4 Perhaps if Thoreau had lived in our era of digital media, he would have complained less poetically of missing tracks from the music CD of nature, the wilderness windsong among them.
But maybe I should go back to White Pine Hollow, the Upper Iowa River, the Loess Hills, and the Mississippi blufflands and listen more closely. Maybe now that I know what to listen for, I might hear it in the biggest of our small natural landscapes here in Iowa. Maybe a whisper if not a hum.
Or maybe - if bigness and openness are crucial ingredients - it could be found, unsuspected, in big, open, man-made spaces like the watery expanse of Red Rock Reservoir, Iowa’s “inland sea.” Maybe when the lake stops growling with motorboats and the Mile-Long Bridge stops whining with traffic, maybe at night when the daytime racket dies down, the faint music of a changed and diminished wilderness would seep back.
Red Rock Reservoir is a large, man-made lake on the Des Moines River built by the Army Corps of Engineers for flood control. At “normal pool,” it covers over 15,000 acres; at “flood pool,” rising up to 40 feet, it can swell to 70,000 acres, flooding a large marshland at the head of the lake. The “Red Rock tide” is controlled not by lunar cycles but by actions of human engineers in a concrete bastion on the giant, riprap-armored dam. The reservoir, bisected by a highway and buzzing with weekend motorboats, is a strange place for a wilderness lover.
Red Rock is not a wilderness, but I have found wildness there - and opportunities for reflection. Kayaking its coastlines and open water, I am impressed by its rugged sandstone bluffs, surprised by its wildlife, and captivated by its spaciousness. Its huge size allows me to slip away from marina-tethered motorboats, pass beyond the bridge-bound highway, cruise isolated shores, and encounter natural beauty. My discoveries of wildness have resulted not from a purposeful quest for a windsong grail, but from the incremental accumulation of unexpected encounters, experienced many times in many places. Here are examples, vignettes from my kayaking journals:
March- Snow geese fill the marsh and suddenly erupt into mass flight with wild screeching and a thunderous beating of wings. The immense flock - some 10,000 birds - flies in a tight, swirling, amoeboid fashion, its black-and-white coloration changing kaleidoscopically with the frenzied flapping of black-tipped white wings, the shifting interspersion of dark birds among white ones, and the alternating sunlit and shadowed appearance of individuals as they wheel in and out of the axis between me and the midday sun.
June- Thick fog cloaks the lake and muffles the sound of sparse, Sunday-morning traffic on the Mile-Long Bridge. Paddling west into the Red Rock Wildlife Area, I find a band of turkey vultures perched like gargoyles on a bluff, spreading their dew-soaked wings to dry in the rising sun. Arrayed in uniforms of black feathers and red pates, they glare as if I have stumbled onto a secret meeting of druids. Rounding a rocky point, I spot a coyote trotting along the clifftop just ahead of me. I trail him for nearly a minute before he looks back and discovers me; he blinks in surprise, then glides into the forest and disappears.
August- As the sun settles onto the humid horizon, I slip into the Elk Rock sea cave through its shaded entrance and paddle toward its radiant, sunlit exit. As if passing through a magical dolmen, I emerge into a crepuscular otherworld, its dappled, watery plain dominated by the ochre orb of the sun setting in the ruddy rim of an azure sky, bordered with blackened bluffs, suffused with solitude. I linger on indigo water, bobbing gently on languid waves, outlasting the sluggish sunset, flirting with darkness, then paddle through twilight to the final shore.
October- A full moon rising over shaggy, wooded bluffs unrolls a silvery carpet across the dark lake and draws me past black, moon-shadowed cliffs. Reaching the end of the Elk Rock bluffline, I enter the inky void of Whitebreast Bay. For a mile, I paddle across black, featureless space, a spherical universe with a star-speckled dome above and black watery bowl beneath, bisected by a plane of moon-streaked water.
December- Viewed from the Mile-Long Bridge, the lake is a vast sheet of ice. In Elk Rock Park, I hike down a sandy trail into an oak forest and come to the sandstone cliffs over the lakeshore. The long view of the frozen lake is beautiful. Out on the ice, a bald eagle flies from one watery opening to another, hunting fish. I am entranced with the solitude of this place and its elemental beauty of water, stone, forest, and distance.
Others have experienced magical moments at Red Rock as well. Pleasantville ornithologist Gladys Black encountered white pelicans: “One evening I walked the trail though the woods in [Cordova] Park to the top of a high sandstone bluff, and there I could look down on the big birds on nearby sandbars. Some were swimming abreast fishing… a few were in flight, coming quite close to the cliff, the flap, flap of the huge wings loud and clear… Later, all lifted gracefully into the air, formed into long straight skeins of thirty to fifty, and flew over the top of Elk Rock Bluff.” 5 Ecologist Karl DeLong of Grinnell once canoed in the delta at the head of the lake in early spring as winter ice was breaking up: “There were over 100,000 ducks and geese and well over 100 eagles. The current in the channels was close to top paddling speed and ice was scattered in the flow. I felt like I was in the Yukon.”6 River activist Gerry Rowland of Des Moines succinctly summed up a solo kayak trip: “I was in awe of the red cliffs, the trees in the water, the wind and waves, and the vastness of the lake.” 7
But no windsong, at least not yet. I wonder if Red Rock - or any place in Iowa - could ever become a bigger, more complete wildland capable of sustaining one. Presently lined with a thin band of public land, the emerging wildness of Red Rock Reservoir is only minimally shielded from intensive human use of its surrounding lands. I dream of ways to enhance the place that I have come to cherish: protect its shoreline from encroachment, widen its buffer of natural vegetation, and manage its whole landscape as a wilder place. Imagine that.
But a nagging philosophical question keeps returning: because it is artificial, could it ever count as wild?
Despite the joys that I have experienced at Red Rock Reservoir, the wilderness purist in me finds it difficult to accept them in a man-made lake, as if nature had blundered in appearing here in violation of my environmentalist expectations. Accustomed to a wilderness ethic learned outside of Iowa - the Rocky Mountains, Sierra Nevada, Canyonlands, Boundary Waters - I churn with ambivalence each time I paddle past the imposing gray hulk of the Red Rock Dam, my exhilaration of paddling across the expansive, bluff-rimmed lake tempered with guilt for a drowned river and an inundated landscape. Is another dammed lake - an ersatz Okoboji - the kind of place that a wilderness lover can enjoy in good conscience?
Mountaineer Galen Rowell wrestled with this contradiction in an even more iconic place: California’s Hetch Hetchy, where John Muir lost a Sierra valley to a fake lake. In Yosemite’s Other Valley, Rowell retells the story and adds a modern coda: “Once the dam’s work was done, Hetch Hetchy entered a kind of limbo… Countless old Sierra Club Annual Bulletins are sprinkled with references to the sad results of having sacrificed [the valley]: ‘What is Hetch Hetchy now? Just another damned artificial lake. Nothing but a narrow body of monotonous water with an ugly shoreline surrounded by stark stone walls. Why would anyone go [there] now?’ Thus admonished, conservationists shunned Hetch Hetchy… Even climbers ignored the place… the ‘stark stone walls’ remained untouched.” 8
Breaking with decades of tradition, Rowell climbed a challenging peak next to Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and later wrote: “We reached the summit, but the main event of the climb was the change in our attitude toward Hetch Hetchy. We had started this climb with a feeling of who-cares-what-they’ve-done-to-the-valley-we’re-just-going-to-climb-the-rocks; we finished it with a new sense of the meaning of wildness. It was the look down that turned my ideas onto a different track. There lay the valley floor. But I saw no roads, no buildings, no campfires or smoke; heard no horns, motors, or voices. Below was only a ‘narrow body of monotonous water’ whereas if I had been in Yosemite Valley, the same site would have been occupied by Curry Village, fifty motor homes, a dozen tour buses, and the Valley tram car… all the dubious benefits of national park status. As the amber glow of the morning sun came creeping down the wall, I repeated my environmental catechism: Yosemite was made a national park, and the Valley was saved for posterity; Hetch Hetchy was ruined for all time. It had a hollow ring.” 8
In the paradoxical sense that Hetch Hetchy Reservoir deflected the trajectory of that Sierra valley away from over-development, Red Rock Reservoir disallowed its Des Moines River valley from remaining just another farmed floodplain in post-settlement Iowa. Rather than destroying a wilderness, the reservoir and its narrow fringe of public land transformed a domesticated landscape into a man-made wild area. Not a genuine wilderness, but an undeveloped public commons and a place for wildness to grow. Kayaking there now - paddling over former farmfields, woodlots, roads, and towns - I encounter eagles, hawks, ospreys, vultures, pelicans, cormorants, herons, geese, ducks, swallows… otter, beaver, coyote, fox… long naturalistic vistas… and a sense of solitude and adventure.
Biologist Archie Carr writes of a similar experience with altered nature and regenerating wildness in the Big Cypress Swamp of Florida: “The timbering of the Fahkahatchee prompted an all-is-lost attitude among most conservationists, and until lately this has hidden the fact that the place is still a treasure house of wild country. I can remember my own feeling when they cut down the big timber in the Strand. I did just what I am complaining about in other people: I wrote the place off and for years made no effort to visit it again. But one day not long ago I drove out the Janes Road, the old timber road that runs northwest from Copeland, and I met a black bear and saw the royal-palm strand, and I realized how simple-minded it is to think that only virgin stands are worth saving.” 9 His story of unexpected wildness in an altered landscape serves as inspiration that all is not lost, even in places whose original character is gone - like Red Rock, like Iowa.
Forsaking altered landscapes as not “natural” or “wild” misses opportunities for appreciation and conservation of their remaining nature and relinquishes future decisions about their rebounding wildness to uncaring powers. For conflicted wilderness lovers, the lesson is not that more valleys should be flooded (must large public commons necessarily be wet?), but that the wildness found in existing man-made lakes should be experienced, enjoyed, and fostered. If we are to recognize opportunities for recovery in man-made landscapes, the self-fulfilling perspective of “there is no wildness left in those places” needs to be replaced with the outlook that “there is not enough wildness in those places, yet.”
Iowa lost its original wilderness, but could regenerate wild land on its man-made landscapes. Restoring wildness must include a determination to preserve and expand it in known strongholds - natural prairies, woodlands, wetlands, and streams - and a willingness to discover it in unexpected places. We can enhance the inherent wildness of White Pine Hollow, the Upper Iowa River, the Loess Hills, and the Mississippi blufflands… and the nascent wildness of Red Rock Reservoir. Indeed, wildness could be enhanced anywhere that undeveloped public commons - whether land or water, pristine or not - could be coupled with environmental stewardship of their private surroundings. With sensitive landscape management - an achievement that will require the cooperation of farmers, private landowners, and public land managers - all could become more completely and more permanently wild. Expanding, restoring, and recreating wild areas would allow Iowa to reclaim a long-lost ecological identity as a place for farms, cities, people and abundant wildlife, wild land, and wildness.
And the windsong in Iowa? Could we ever recreate a place big enough, quiet enough, and wild enough to hear that “background sound of silence”? Could we muster the collective will to restore a “ringing of the spheres”? I don’t know, but even if that utopian endpoint remains elusive, rebuilding a landscape with wildness near at hand would be its own reward. And perhaps - if we are bold, creative, patient, and lucky - our restored landscape will find a renewed voice.
The author is an ecologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources10 and co-author of The Guide to Iowa’s State Preserves. A longtime hiker, backpacker, and naturalist, he discovered kayaking in 2001. He lives in Indianola, Iowa, near Red Rock Reservoir.
1) Phyllis Fredendall, artist in residence at Isle Royale National Park, quoted in short interview in 2003 issue of The Greenstone newspaper of Isle Royale National Park.
2) Jonathan Waterman, “Humming Through Queen Maud Gulf” in Arctic Crossing: A Journey Through the Northwest Passage and Inuit Culture, 2001, Knopf Press, New York, NY.
3) Rick Ridgeway, Below Another Sky: A Mountain Adventure in Search of a Lost Father, 2001, H. Holt & Co., New York, NY.
4) Henry David Thoreau, Journal for March 31, 1856, quoted in “In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World”: Selections and Photographs by Eliot Porter, 1967, Sierra Club and Ballantine Books, New York, NY.
5) Gladys Black, “White Pelican” in Iowa Birdlife, 1992, University of Iowa Press, Iowa City, IA.
6) Karl DeLong, “Des Moines River - Mid-March”, newsletter of the Central Iowa Paddlers
5(2):4, May 2001.
7) Gerry Rowland, posting on DesMoinesRiver.org website.
8) Galen Rowell, “Yosemite’s Other Valley” in High and Wild: A Mountaineer’s World, 1979, Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, CA.
9) Archie Carr, “The Big Cypress Swamp” in The Everglades, 1973, Time-Life Books, New York, NY.
10) Views expressed in this essay are the personal reflections of the author.