The lesson these places teach is that beauty is not always, or at least not only, big, grand, sweeping, and sensational. It is also, and quite often, to be found in the small, the ordinary, and the plain. If these things are known well and patiently, their grandeur can reveal itself to us. Those who have known the golden light of evening to stream through stalks of corn, or who have seen the way that light transfigures a common ash tree, will know what I mean, and anyone who has beheld a Midwestern hillside painted with a wash of watercolor earth tones on a rainy September day will know it, too. The truth is that, in the words of the poet Hopkins, all of nature’s darling’s share a freshness deep down. They have the potential to shock us with wonder if they catch us when we’re ready to receive them.
Maybe it makes some kind of sense, then, that many of our greatest nature writers, like John Muir and Aldo Leopold, have come from places like Iowa and Wisconsin. I wonder if it might have to do with the way this landscape teaches you how to look and see, how to sit attentively long enough to let the poetry of things reveal itself to you. It helps not to be hemmed in by the sort of sprawling conurbations now enveloping our coastal cities. It helps to be so intimately connected with rural life. It helps to have the room to breathe free, to stretch out, to move in the liberty that only the wide-open calm of this stretch of country provides.