Iowa and Nebraska: Hope Between the Corn

Iowa was a state of ups and downs on mostly flat roads.  The ups were in meeting the people: naturalists, educators, cyclists, and fighters giving their time and energy to generations yet born. Fighting for all the creatures unable to vote, protest, and stand up to the apathy and the lack of respect rushing forward like a wave to erase the details, surprises and balance from our planet. Meeting these people, learning from them, and letting their passion fuel my miles was where I found the ups of Iowa and the wave they fought pushed me to my low points.

Iowa had some hilly terrain, and some mental highs and lows too.

Iowa had some hilly terrain, and some mental highs and lows too.

This wave, as I am calling it, extended well beyond Iowa. It was wrapped in the first 3,000 miles of my trip (and for generations before I even learned to bike), but in Iowa it slapped me across the face, punched me in the gut, and taunted me as the miles grew long. Sure the forests in Mexico are under attack and the prairie in Kansas has been altered by cows and wheat, but by the time I reached Iowa I’d found my breaking point. For two and a half months the freshness had been worn down and after thousands of hours of examining the prairie through the eyes of the monarch, all those fields of corn pushed me to my limit. Corn fed my anger, frustration, and dread.

It wasn’t just that I passed miles and miles of monoculture corn, grown with pesticides and lobbyists. It was that I only passed corn. The fields squeezed out riparian zones and road side ditches. I mean seriously, we couldn’t even leave the road side ditches for the monarchs!!! And to really rub salt into my wounds, the corn sprouting up as I moved north wasn’t even food, it was for ethanol.

This all used to be prairie, but now it is not. Seeing this made me get sad and then mad.

This all used to be prairie, but now it is not. Seeing this made me get sad and then mad.

Ethanol is triggering. It is a debate with so many nuances that we could all come up with different conclusions from the same data. But all the arguments defending it seem mute when the fact is that ethanol is not a renewable resource. It is not a good use of our most productive farmland. A Cornell University study breaks it down:

  • It takes 70% more energy to produce ethanol than is produced from ethanol, creating a net energy LOSS.
  • The federal and state governments give 1 billion dollars in subsidies (mostly to corporations) every year.
  • Ethanol corn production erodes soil 12 times faster than it can be reformed and uses groundwater 25 times faster than it can be recharged.

So as I biked I let these facts fester. I watched for monarchs and didn’t see any. I looked for milkweed and didn’t see any.  The prairie seemed to have been thrown out.

I tried to remind myself I was biking through just a sliver of Iowa and that a passing cold spell had dropped temperatures forcing monarchs into inactivity. I looked for signs of hope and progress between the corn.

The cloud corn combo is beauiful in its own way, but I wanted to see milkweed and monarchs.

The cloud corn combo is beauiful in its own way, but I wanted to see milkweed and monarchs.

The first sign I noticed was the buzz from RAGBRI, Iowa’s bike ride/parade/festival across the state, which helps get people of every stripe on bikes and moving with their own energy.  I didn’t actually see the ride but I saw the culture of biking that the ride nurtured. Inclusive and fun, it seems to be making biking a point of pride. I was impressed by the amount of people talking about and training for RAGBRI and the bike paths that I met them on.

Iowa has several nice bike paths, including the Wabash Trace Nature Trail that carried me from the MO/IA border to Council Bluffs, IA. The 60 miles were like a protected bubble of habitat for birds, bugs, a bobcat (I think), and cyclists! That bike path nurtured animals and a bicycle culture as strong and vibrant as a big city bike scene. I was lucky enough to pass through on Taco Tuesday, a hybrid bike ride/gathering culminating in tacos.

Bobcat?

Bobcat?

Becca and her son were part of the Iowa bike culture that made RAGBRI so popular and helped get bike trails made (and maintained). They led me to the Taco Tuesday ride.

Becca and her son were part of the Iowa bike culture that made RAGBRI so popular and helped get bike trails made (and maintained). They led me to the Taco Tuesday ride.

Becca's son enjoying some arts and crafts while biking on the bike path.

Becca's son enjoying some arts and crafts while biking on the bike path.

At the end of the bike path, spit out in the bustle of Council Bluffs, I had one of my favorite encounters in Iowa. I had been leap frogging storms for the last few weeks and when a clap of thunder bellowed from the skies, I immediately pulled over under an awning to prepare for the storm. As I dug out my rain gear, the rain crashed to the city streets. Biking through cities can be stressful but there are some serious advantages, including finding shelter from harsh weather. Instead of going out into the storm. I peaked into the building I’d been huddling next to and discovered Driftwood Inn was not an Inn, but a bar. And not just any old bar.

The Driftwood Inn was a bar with character, where beer was sold by the bucket and raffle tickets were somehow part of the currency exchange. Ten or so customers flanked the bar talking in pairs with an occasional invitation for the entire bar to join and comment on a train of thought. It was exactly what I’d pictured a bar in Iowa at 4 in the afternoon to look like, and they were as welcoming as any bar I’d ever stepped foot in. The bartender introduced himself and made it his job to keep my Dr. Pepper full. He switched on the popcorn maker and cooked me a feast of popcorn, and then they all teamed up to figure out how the oven worked to make me a pizza. They argued about who was to pay, and eventually settled on creating a mountain of cash to send me off with, along with my full belly. It was an unplanned moment that relied wholly on strangers adopting me for a bit and showing me the magic of touring.

These folks welcomed me to Council Bluffs and sent me across the Missouri River with a full belly and some spending money! One of my favorite pauses of the trip.

These folks welcomed me to Council Bluffs and sent me across the Missouri River with a full belly and some spending money! One of my favorite pauses of the trip.

From Council Bluffs I crossed the Missouri River on a pedestrian only bridge (oh the glory) and entered Nebraska for a quick (but memorable) second. In Nebraska I stayed with Kate and her family. “Stayed with” is a bit of an understatement. Even though they were all busy with activities, they found time to welcome me to Omaha with open arms, kept me well fed (they even went out and bought me mangos after learning during my presentation that mangos are my favorite fruit!), and let me make a mess of their kitchen for a few scenes of a video I was working on. Kate, a teacher, also arranged a full day of presentations at her school.

I was lucky enough to not just stay with Kate and her family, but to also film a rather interesting video which involved me cooking lots of cookies in their kitchen.

I was lucky enough to not just stay with Kate and her family, but to also film a rather interesting video which involved me cooking lots of cookies in their kitchen.

Having presented to dozens of schools, I can always gauge the teacher’s excitement by the reaction from the students. If the teacher is not a believer then the kids are skeptical, but if the teacher is invested and enthusiastic then the students hang on your every word and are pulled into the presentation. At the school in Omaha, the teachers and the students were all in. Not just was the teachers’ energy infectious, but the school had a butterfly garden, so the kids were already invested in learning about the monarch and wanted to learn more about their fluttering visitors.

This butterfly garden had been a long term project. Kate, a teacher at the school, had spearheaded the garden that initially the school had been wary of. She kept with it though, engaging not just her class but the whole school. And her work paid off! Just before my visit every class had pitched in to mulch the garden and monarchs were visiting.

At first skeptical, this school can now be proud of their garden, which has helped kids explore nature and be part of the monarch migration; and was featured on the nightly news!

At first skeptical, this school can now be proud of their garden, which has helped kids explore nature and be part of the monarch migration; and was featured on the nightly news!

When Kate’s third grade class took me out to the garden for a tour and to explore the beds for monarchs, we were thrilled to find healthy stands of milkweed, monarch eggs and a visiting monarch adult flying between the kids. The monarch bobbed through the crowd as they shouted words of excitement, and I smiled, taking in the scene. This garden, Kate’s hard work, had moved kids outside and had them cheering on nature, making them curious about science, and connecting them to Mexico and Canada. I wish I could show the monarch what its visit meant. I wish I knew how such a small creature could find this garden in a sea of parking lots, houses, and green grass lawns. Seeing that monarch, in the garden those kids, teachers and parents had built was dreamlike. Even though I talk about gardens all day every day, I am still surprised to see how the simple task of planting plants is all it takes to draw monarchs in and give them a home.

What I love most about monarch gardens is that the kids are able to have such authentic experiences with nature, be curious, and see what I still can't believe: that if you plant milkweed, monarchs will come.

What I love most about monarch gardens is that the kids are able to have such authentic experiences with nature, be curious, and see what I still can't believe: that if you plant milkweed, monarchs will come.

We found lots of milkweed, a few monarch eggs, and a monarch adult.

We found lots of milkweed, a few monarch eggs, and a monarch adult.

So yeah. I’ve had some good times in Iowa (and Nebraska). In fact the list goes on. I presented at a national wildlife refuge on an oxbow lake of the Missouri River. I presented to schools in Mondamin, IA and Sioux City that I had visited previously on my canoe trip. I presented to a Sierra Club in Sioux City, where dedicated adults showed me that not everyone is apathetic or ready to put the responsibility on someone else’s shoulders. In Peterson, I was gifted a cabin on a lake. YEAH a cabin on a lake, which greeted me to air conditioning and a basket of snacks. YEAH a cabin with snacks! The woman that welcomed me to the cabin with snacks had an energizing smile and was the organizing force behind my presentation at the local nature center (which ended with lots and lots of homemade cookies).  And in Algona, I finished my string of presentations at a quiet campground out of the wind, where I was hooked up with maple syrup from the park. In a world of parking lots and corn I was finding oases: monarchs, cabins, milkweed and maple syrup. What more could you want!!!?

In Sioux City, I was given a tour of the city's prairie, their bike path, and a few points of interest. What was most inspiring was meeting the folks giving the tours, who work tiredlessly to leave the planet healthier for those to come. 

In Sioux City, I was given a tour of the city's prairie, their bike path, and a few points of interest. What was most inspiring was meeting the folks giving the tours, who work tiredlessly to leave the planet healthier for those to come. 

Well, turns out I want more! I want milkweed in every yard. I want milkweed and prairie along every road. I want farmers to get subsidies for making the prairie healthy, not just planting corn. And as long as I see solutions ignored and problems cultivated I will struggle. This struggle manifests in different ways with different people, but it has leached into every cell of my body and I carry its weight in my heart.

Even though having my own cabin was AMAZING I want more!

Even though having my own cabin was AMAZING I want more!

So, when a reporter, over the phone, asked me “are you always this angry?” two things popped into my head. First, I was annoyed. Was I not allowed to be angry? Did talking about butterflies obligate me to paint some pretty picture of this world? A world where wild places were under attack, the monarchs and frogs were the casualties, and my tiny bike tour counter attack seemed like a joke? I was so weighted down by reality that anything less than anger seemed to be nothing short of gullibility.

The second thing I thought was “oh dang Sara, you gotta pull yourself together.” I imagined my words being used against me. My exasperated attempt to pull this reporter and his readers into this maddening world of the monarch could be doing the opposite of what I set out to do. If my goal of the interview, and really of this whole ride, was to be a voice for the monarch, then I was failing.

I back pedaled a little, but not much. Over the course of my miles in Iowa I had been hardened by the bitter truth: the prairie was being erased by corn, corn, and more corn. A horizon of corn interrupted only by an occasional (and painfully rank) hog operation, roadside ditches, and green grass lawns. I wasn’t seeing monarchs. I wasn’t seeing milkweed. Just corn and grass. It hurt.

This is what a lot of Iowa looks like now.

This is what a lot of Iowa looks like now.

This hurt had been part of a spiral. As the corn filed by, I turned to listening to podcast to help the time pass. Iowa wasn’t the first time I used podcasts to interrupt my thoughts and add a bit of variety and input to my mental monologues. My only rules were that I listen with just one ear bud so that I could still hear traffic and that I limit the time so as not to podcast away the days. But even with these rules, the news, the nuances, the complicated-ness of our own story, and the seemingly endless miles of anti-habitat corn country wore me down.

I was starting to feel like this barn as I biked across Iowa, a bit weighted down by reality.

I was starting to feel like this barn as I biked across Iowa, a bit weighted down by reality.

I remember listening to one story about a newspaper in Iowa that had exposed the agricultural corporations secretly paying the legal bills for counties to defend suits by the water districts worried about contaminated water. I listened to news about atrazine poison killing frogs and making men sterile. I listened to how rich people buy media outlets and fund programs to create the science that is in their best interests. I listened to powerful people lie. I listened to people that have never for one day thought about this planet as anything other than a means to make money and a place to dump trash. I listened and I realized that my little old bike ride was like a little kid’s lemonade stand: a novice and endearing, but impossible way to fight back against the layers of our illness.

If I had seen a monarch, I would have told it I was sorry. To watch one tackling the lonely track of Iowa absent habitat without complaining would have weighed me down with shame.

But from the stories I had heard, I was a few decades too late to see many monarchs. This really was my biggest rub. I heard from older folks every day about how they used to pull milkweed from the beans (soybeans) and could see huge colonies in their trees. They’d tell me this, like it would make me feel better. Like I would be happy to know that they got to see it before breaking the balance that made it all possible. Perhaps since they hold the memory in their minds they don’t feel the weight of the loss like I do. Perhaps this is the first time they have even thought about the lack of monarchs, how it happened, and what it means.

Folks tell me Iowa didn't always look like this. Folks tell me about how monarchs used to be everywhere and they would pull milkweed from the fields.

Folks tell me Iowa didn't always look like this. Folks tell me about how monarchs used to be everywhere and they would pull milkweed from the fields.

This is what it means: People have been allowed to make choices that strip beauty from the planet, never mind the consequences. People have been taught to assume this earth is for them alone, that the consequences of their actions are not a failure of responsibility. People forgot to make sure the next generation inherits an Earth full of the same magic.

Do I tell them this? Do I tell them that they let my generation and all future generations down? Do I tell them the decline of the monarch rests on their shoulders; and with the power to own land, work the land, and change the land forever, they also have the responsibility to make choices that keep it healthy? I don’t.

Here is where I am looking for balance and not sure I’ll ever find it. I want to stay positive. I don’t want to scare people away. I want to make solutions inclusive and fun. I want to sing praises to the work of passionate people doing more than their part, and invite more folks in. But I want some accountability, and I still don’t know if handholding and smiles are enough. I want to tell the truth, that this is not my fault but I’m left to pick up the mess, to kick people into action. I want to tell the generation before me that they are failing, and it is time to pull their heads out of the sand, take responsibility, and fight like crazy to hand over a planet a bit less broken and a bit more like they found it. But how do I say this without defensiveness and excuses stopping the conversation in its tracks? How do I balance “yeah this is fun, let’s do this, happy face” with “take responsibility and don’t let us down”?

How do we point out the bad without forgeting the good?

How do we point out the bad without forgeting the good?

I am also struggling to find balance while writing this blog. I don’t want to discredit all the work that has been done and all the people leading by example, but I also want folks to see that they are not removed from the problem. This is everyone’s responsibility. We have to stop denying the problems, ignoring our impact, and we all have to get into the game. Start planting milkweed, start giving the rest of the planet a voice.

So I let myself boil in a fury cast by the lows of Iowa. I don’t try and forget the hopelessness I felt biking through a sea of corn, the Midwest habitat desert. Instead, I let the emergency of the monarch migration fuel my resolve. I refuse to give up. I let the highs give me strength to keep fighting. Alone on this trip, I am not alone. I am with millions of monarchs that look for milkweed and have no other choice but to keep going for as long as they can. And I have the strength of all who fight for the monarch and have no other choice but to keep trying for as long as they can. We have become a team, brought together by the butterflies, spread out between the corn, fighting for the future. Fighting because that is our only choice. And I keep biking, expecting more highs and more lows no matter the terrain.

I did see a monarch in Iowa, and some eggs! This is why we fight, because there are still monarchs to fight for.

I did see a monarch in Iowa, and some eggs! This is why we fight, because there are still monarchs to fight for.

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