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Book Review – Tending Iowa’s Land: Pathways to a Sustainable Future, Cornelia F. Mutel, Editor

Tending Iowa’s Land: Pathways to a Sustainable Future,

Cornelia F. Mutel, Editor

University of Iowa Press, Bur Oak Books, 2022: 302 pp.

This review appeared in the 34th volume of The Briar Cliff Review.

There can be no question as to what the purpose is of Cornelia Mutel’s latest edited book, Tending Iowa’s Land: Pathways to a Sustainable Future (University of Iowa Press, 2022). Right away, we learn we are here to make good choices, to heal the land, and to be good ancestors. It’s a tall order, but for those familiar with Mutel’s previous works, they will be well-prepared for this new adventure.

Mutel has written or edited over a dozen books on Midwestern natural and environmental history and other topics, including Fragile Giants: A Natural History of the Loess Hills, Land of the Fragile Giants: Landscapes, Environments, and Peoples of the Loess Hills (edited with Mary Swander), The Emerald Horizon: The History of Nature in Iowa, and A Sugar Creek Chronicle: Observing Climate Change from a Midwestern Woodland. In Tending Iowa’s Land, Mutel brings together a lifetime of research, learning, writing, and editing about Iowa’s natural world, climate change, and our place in our shared history in this culminating collection of agricultural and ecological expertise and creative personal narrative expression.

Mutel’s voice is shaped by Rachel Carson’s vision, and it reverberates the old, often unfortunate Steinbeckian question, “Why does progress look so much like destruction?” There’s hope, though, and it’s here in Tending’s pages in what it assures: that all we seek is below us in the soil, around us in the air. It’s in the water. It’s present in the myriad of lifeforms that span creation. And it’s in us in our capacity to choose stewardship and to cultivate our common bonds. Unfortunately, because of the enormous pressures being placed on our natural systems, we’re reminded that in soon enough time we won’t have the same options, and they certainly won’t be as good.

Considering the significance of the problems being tackled in Tending Iowa’s Land, the prose is remarkably inviting and accessible, and stylistically non-technical. There’s science, but a story as well. There’s a natural, organic logic to Mutel’s organizational design. The flow is circular, navigating ‘Soil’ and ‘Water’, ‘Air’ and Life’ with deep science and profound humanity. Despite the obvious fact that many of our environmental problems are worsening, there’s a beautiful optimism in these pages because, as Mutel notes, “we largely know how to solve them.” Tending Iowa’s Land is a book of big questions, but thankfully, one of even more profound answers – answers these pages pursue with some of the best and brightest minds on environmental sustainability, climate change, and agricultural economics. Mutel’s collection of experts reveals that to meaningfully address these issues we must approach the topics from a variety of angles. So, in Tending Iowa’s Land, we hear from diverse voices of Iowa farmers, fish and wildlife experts, scientists and academic researchers, governmental agents, engineers, natural historians, and environmental educators. It’s a monumental undertaking what Mutel has done here in weaving together this tapestry of disparate voices into a single, cohesive narrative thread that is technically engaging without being stylistically burdensome.

Tending Iowa’s Land finds its middle ground through this diverse assortment of perspectives on nature and agriculture by focusing on how we might create or improve the systems and structures of support to make Iowa’s land and water healthier and more accessible for future generations. The central theme of Mutel’s collection is a merging of biodiversity and agriculture that fosters resilience and promotes sustainability. It’s a call to interconnect our disciplines, to synthesize our understanding, and to create a new, enhanced economy that’s built on the domino of healing benefits that will come when we synchronize with ecosystem services.

The problem, of course, is that the problem is so big. What’s great about Mutel’s approach is that she’s helped to clarify the complex connections between all the major constituencies in the landscape. For example, she notes, “[b]ecause Iowa’s soils interact so closely with our state’s hydrology, climate, and diverse life-forms, doing what’s good for soils will also help our crops, water, air, native biodiversity, and future. It all begins with the soil.”

The pathway to a sustainable future is before us – one road is certain, leading us to degradation and destruction; the other, full of promise, wonder, and yet a mystical unknowingness we’ve always struggled to adopt en masse. Mutel’s life and work provides a blueprint. It’s time for the rest of us to render the plans. This book’s call to action is for us to look to Earth’s natural systems. To bear witness. And then to do something about it. To be advocates. It’s said that trauma lives in the body, and yet, we know from the research (see Bessel Van Der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score), that resilience does too. As we heal the Earth, we save ourselves too. Mutel’s Tending Iowa’s Land helps light the path – not just as a model for Iowans, but for all of us, other states, other countries, all places where people and land and public policy intersect. Our work begins anew.


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