Thursday, 3 Jul 2003

CEDAR FALLS, Iowa

Caring about native plants and herbicide reduction can make you lonely. I got a call last week from a friend at Iowa Department of Natural Resources who works as a botanist with the ecological preserves bureau. He had received a voice mail from a Department of Transportation employee concerned about some roadside spraying to take place that day. The DOT voice hoped the DNR, in its regulatory capacity, could do something, possibly countermand the order to spray a roadside containing remnant prairie. I wanted to meet the guy who cared enough to risk being ostracized at his job.

It’s sad but true: Native prairie is so rare in Iowa we get excited about small patches in a ditch that somehow survived the catastrophic disturbance of road construction and the industrious nature of the average farmer. This quote by H. A. Mueller is from the 1903 Proceedings of the Iowa Academy of Science, “At the present time, the homes of most of our native flowers are limited to the highways and timbered areas on account of the cultivation and pasturage of the land.” Iowa was opened to settlement in 1833 just as immigration was really getting going and John Deere was improving the plow. That’s how 28 million acres of prairie disappeared in just 70 years. And that’s just Iowa prairie. I get so tired of hearing about the rainforest when we destroyed the lungs of North America so long ago. (Act locally.)

The DNR had forwarded the call to me because I’m located near the stretch of road where the spraying is proposed and because of my work at the Native Roadside Vegetation Center. I wasn’t able to go in search of the spray truck until mid-morning. As a result, I just missed it. The DOT maintenance employee returned my call that afternoon, and we set up a meeting so he could show me the roadsides.

Part of my objective was to show him he was not alone, that others cared. There is not much else we can do besides continue to raise the awareness of the average maintenance worker. It’s one of those pursuits that causes you to savor the bright moments. No individual is that bad. But tradition and prevailing attitudes cause an absence of personal responsibility that manifests itself in ways ranging from peer pressure to mob behavior. As the DOT worker quoted later, “Man is kind, men are cruel”.

t expect, he’s a little different. He’s 56 years old, which meant he was in his early twenties in the late 1960s, fully conscious during an amazing time for anyone able to ride the crest of the wave. I’m making assumptions now. Whether or not he was affected by the times, he had certainly adopted many beliefs based on a lot of exposure to Native American spirituality.

A DOT maintenance worker who uses the word “friend” in reference to Canada thistle is asking for it. He knows and appreciates the rarity of prairie plants and talks the talk. When riding shotgun with the spray crew, he will point out special plants. He’ll even intentionally misidentify plants on occasion to exaggerate their rarity. He has proselytized to the point some co-workers are sensitive to the value of certain species, but he feels in most cases it’s only if he is present. “Five minutes back with the other guys, and eight hours of listening to me in the truck is undone.”

So why did you call the DNR? “One of the guys threatened to blanket spray (turn on the herbicide and leave it on instead of spraying only the patches of Canada thistles) the whole road.” Did he do it? “No, not with me along.” “I’ll probably have to pick up deer carcasses for two months after this.” “Those guys tune in Rush Limbaugh complaining about the ‘darned environmentalists’ to get revved up for more spraying more.” Would they really blanket spray? “I don’t know.”

He is fully aware he probably sets himself up for teasing by being different. He even acknowledges benefits of being the sole occupant of this philosophical niche within a DOT maintenance garage. I was convinced of his sincerity and impressed with his knowledge. Mostly I had to admire his lack of fear when it came to being different and making a target of himself. He certainly showed me some native plants. One prairie remnant was pretty special — quite small, of course, but special.