Abiding in Exile - Imagine 05/27/2021

Abiding in Exile - Imagine 05/27/2021

May 27, 2021

By Nan Smith


Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.  1 Corinthians 16: 13-14 (NRSV)
I remember it was a chilly November day, the clouds hanging heavy in the sky, looking like they would break into rain or snow at a moment’s notice. We were picking our way through a harvested cornfield filled with stubble and clods of soil.  It was tough walking. We stopped on the crest of a hill, gazing down at the land below - harvested cropland as far as one could see. Our group was comprised of an ISU extension wildlife biologist, a prairie biologist, a U.S. Fish & Wildlife manager, and some naturalists.  

As we stood there, the NW wind strong on our faces, the prairie biologist started speaking.  She offered her vision.  She said “Imagine! Imagine this field, being a tall-grass prairie again – prairie for as far as you can see.”  As I listened to her describe her vision, I could kind of see what she was imagining, but for the most part all I saw was cropland.  

Sometimes it’s hard to catch the vision, when you are solidly standing in the mud and stubble of the current reality.

How I would have loved to have stood on that hill back when the tallgrass prairie ruled.  To stand amidst the rustling grasses, would have been exhilarating. To see their movement by the wind would have been breathtaking. A sea of grass! That’s how the prairie was described by the early settlers to our state. To see the kaleidoscope of colors of the flowers and grasses, to notice the diversity of insects, and to see the many birds and mammals would have been magnificent.  

Such grandeur! This was what this prairie biologist was envisioning for this field and the fields beyond. Sadly, I found her vision hard to embrace. How could one ever reconstruct the intricate complexity and beauty of the lost prairie ecosystem?

Of course, I have seen small tracts of native prairie – a smattering of remnants across our state.  Iowa has been described as being one of the states with the most altered habitat. The rich prairie soils were plowed under to create the fertile cropland – the backbone of our state.  At the time of settlement, estimates suggested that 85% of our state was covered with tallgrass prairie. Today, less than 0.1% of our original native prairie remains.  

To imagine restoring cropland to native prairie has such an appeal, but the reality of visions is that it is often difficult to visualize the process to get from where you are to where you want to be. Sometimes the dream just feels overwhelming and impossible to achieve.

We are weathering through a pandemic. Our churches do not feel the same.  We do not feel the same. Our emotions are complicated. Within all that, I have found this time to be a season of evaluation and also a season of dreaming; of hanging on and of letting go; of seeing the stubble and of seeing the possibilities.

However, I am finding it difficult to embrace a future that feels so uncertain and blurry around the edges. I have felt the toll of this pandemic, the angst of this season, and the emotional fallout it has brought. All of those things weigh heavy.  I confess, there are days when I long to stand in the prairie and let the wind blow through my hair, lifting away the heaviness I am feeling.

For the prairie biologist, restoring the prairie with all its beauty and complexity was her dream. She was so sure that her dream could be realized. Her enthusiasm was contagious, her vision clear, and the steps forward were an evolving process. A harvested cornfield filled with stubble, eventually became the Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge – a reconstruction of diverse habitats of tall-grass prairie, oak savanna, and sedge meadow.  

Reconstruction took the work of biologists, botanists, prairie enthusiasts, busloads of schoolchildren, entomologists, soil scientists, scads of volunteers, and of course some naturalists thrown into the mix.  It took all of us -- doing the planting, the burning, the mowing, the cutting, the education, and the research to make this restored prairie look more and more like the original tall-grass prairie it had once been. However, probably most important to me, as I consider our current season, is the understanding that it took time and in fact, continues to be a work in progress. 

In our churches, we are in a time of imagining what might be as we move into this unknown future. It will take time. It is a work in progress. At times, it feels like a daunting and discouraging task. At other times, the vision clears with possibility and draws me forward.

For now, I hold to my faith that God’s Spirit goes before, leading me forward; God’s Spirit goes behind, pushing me when I am reluctant; and God’s Spirit walks beside me, always encouraging me through the stubble into possibility.