Special Series/Nature Writers 2015
If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
Can you describe the mood of Council Bluffs, Iowa, as you feel/see it?
The word that comes to mind is hüzün, which Orhan Pamuk uses to describe Istanbul. It is the Turkish word for melancholy, implying (as he interprets it) a spiritual sadness over worldly loss, but also a more positive compassion that comes from an understanding of “the place of loss and grief in life.” Council Bluffs is now part of the Omaha metropolitan area, close to a million people, but it was once one of the great cities of the American West, a major confluence of cultures and spiritualities. Named for the first meeting between Lewis and Clark and native tribes on their journey up the Missouri in 1804, it became the eastern terminus of the first transcontinental railroad, where even Abraham Lincoln invested in real estate. Brigham Young, the newly sustained president and prophet of the Latter-day Saints, led a spiritual community of thousands here, before guiding them west to Salt Lake. The twentieth century brought a period of decline, as Omaha grew and thrived across the river in Nebraska, and this town wrestled with relative obscurity and high poverty rates, perpetually reminded of its gilded past by the mansions that still cling like sconces to the Loess Hills. I think the mood here continues to range from a deep sense of the temporality of human ambition, and its attendant fatalism, to one of collective compassion, fierce loyalty, and belief in the positive possibilities of the future.
What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?
I love this place. Inside that love, my heartbreaking memory is more a series of disappointing moments when this community, in seeking to remake itself once again, abandoned or destroyed part of its unique identity—the wellspring of what should be its pride. After a rough stretch, Council Bluffs has become more vigilant in protecting and restoring its historical buildings, but it has a ways to go when it comes to its natural history. The Loess Hills, which I talk about below, continue to be decimated in the name of “development.”
What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?
The Loess Hills, running right through the center of town, are an American natural treasure. These two hundred- to three hundred-foot-high bullocky hills line the entire western edge of Iowa along the Missouri River. They were created thousands of years ago, when the glaciers retreated and wind-blown silt began piling up along the river’s ancient shore. They are home to the majority of what remains of the native grasslands in the state, including several rare and endangered species. They are also sacred—the Ioway believed these hills were the location of a “Sun Bridge” from which the dead departed for the afterlife. The only other place in the world you can find loess hills of such dramatic size is along the Yellow River in China. Yet they remain under-appreciated, regionally and nationally, and thus under-protected.
What writer(s) from here should we read?
Council Bluffs makes a cameo appearance in some early western literature and travelogues, but I think it remains largely under-written. That’s part of its appeal to me as a writer. Despite its storied history, it’s still in the process of finding a voice in American literature.
Is there a place here you return to often?
There are several places in the Loess Hills, including Vincent Bluff State Preserve and Hitchcock Nature Center, but when it comes to daily walks, I like to visit the old cemetery that borders our property. I’m part of the sixth generation in my family to live in this western part of Iowa, and walking among the gravestones and grandmother oaks reminds me of the blood ties that compel my personal commitment to this place. I will be buried there someday, as well, which is another kind of return.
Is there an iconic literary place we should know?
No, unfortunately. Across the river in Omaha, however, there is Malcolm X’s birthplace. It features prominently in the opening of his autobiography, where his family home (now gone) is attacked by Ku Klux Klan members. That’s another part of our local history that is often overlooked.
Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?
The historic district of Council Bluffs is enjoying a small renaissance, with co-ops and galleries featuring the work of local and national artists. One of the flip sides of casino gambling is that there has been more money to spend on public arts projects, and some major works can be enjoyed (or debated) throughout the city. This new identity as an arts community is one that I hope continues to grow, with or without the gambling money. I think that art could become a healing force for a population that has suffered, and continues to suffer, a lot of economic pain.
Where does passion live here?
I’m tempted to say the Loess Hills, but I think it really is the Missouri River, which has shaped the identity of this area for centuries, including its human passions—for adventure, for wealth, for empire, for spiritual fulfillment, for home. Half of our city exists in the old flood plain of the Missouri, which, until channelization in the 1960s, frequently flooded and shifted channels, blurring geographical borders. A little pie-slice of Iowa remains on the Nebraska side of the river. I think a latent river-wildness still exists here, one that fosters in our people a healthy disregard for boundaries, labels and other supposed limitations. A survivor’s mentality.
What is the title of one of your works about Council Bluffs and what inspired it exactly?
Daddy Long Legs: The Natural Education of a Father is entirely set here, inspired by a convergence of life-changing events that occurred in the spring of 2006. On the edge of turning forty, I suffered a stress-related cardiac event that forced me to reevaluate what truly matters in my relationship to my family, but also to the place in which I live. My ninety-two-year-old grandmother, whose pioneer family settled very near here, is particularly influential, even as she faces the final few months of her life. I guess this book is my version of hüzün, exploring the borderlands between spiritual sadness over loss, both personal and ecological, and the compassion, love, and humor that also emerge from that awareness.
Inspired by Levi, “Outside Council Bluffs, does an outside exist?”
I think many insiders here think of Council Bluffs as the ultimate outsider. I grew up a couple of hours away and knew nothing about it—despite the fact that it is part of the largest metropolitan area of any city in Iowa. But it’s not really accepted within that metropolitan area, either. Many in Omaha refer to it disparagingly, often referencing its struggles with poverty—they call it “Council-tucky,” insulting yet another place they don’t know well. And I’ve been told more than once by my Nebraska students that IOWA stands for “In Omaha Without Authorization.” Yet historically, there is no getting outside its influence here. Council Bluffs was the siphon through which, for better and worse, the American adolescent spirit flooded this area and much of the West. The consequences of that cannot and should not be forgotten.
Is writing from a city somehow different than writing from natural landscapes? If so, how?
As a kid, I used to watch Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, and I truly believed there were lions, caribou, and anacondas roaming free in Omaha. This area was synonymous in my mind with wildness. I think that’s still true for me as a nature writer living here, but for different reasons. The ecological forces that have given shape to the local natural environment also flow though this city. Much of my work focuses on the way those wild forces invade seemingly domestic spaces, forcing us to confront some unexpected ethical decisions. In Daddy Long Legs, I write about how my two young sons have declared our house and yard a “no kill zone,” where no one is allowed to hurt or harass any living creature. That works fine with Bambi fawns and songbirds, but it’s a little more difficult when applied to carpenter ants, mice, wasps and venomous spiders. Whether we recognize it or not, the artificial landscapes we construct all become ecosystems for other creatures, where the adventures and challenges can rival anything found on an episode of Wild Kingdom.
A life-long resident of Iowa, John T. Price is the award-winning author of three nature memoirs—Not Just Any Land: A Personal and Literary Journey into the American Grasslands, Man Killed by Pheasant and Other Kinships, and Daddy Long Legs: The Natural Education of a Father—as well as editor of the Tallgrass Prairie Reader. A recipient of an NEA fellowship, his essays have appeared recently in Orion, terrain.org, and True Stories, Well Told: from the first 20 years of Creative Nonfiction Magazine. He is director of the Department of English Creative Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.