Author, professor uses humor to teach about nature
IOWA CITY– Have you grown hardened to the diatribe of environmental advocates? No longer know what it feels like to connect with nature?
Can’t relate to the ancient prairie underneath all of Johnson County’s feet?
A few minutes with author and educator John T. Price, Ph.D., will change your mind.
Price is an author of nonfiction whose work about nature, family and human spirit has appeared in journals, magazines and anthologies, both local and national. His books include “Daddy Long Legs: The Natural Education of a Father;” “Man Killed by Pheasant and Other Kinships;” and “Not Just Any Land: A Personal and Literary Journey into the American Grasslands.”
Price was the keynote speaker at Johnson County Heritage Trust’s (JCHT) 29th annual Prairie Preview event in Iowa City March 8. Price read excerpts from “Man Killed by Pheasant,” and in turned slew his audience of over 200 with funny anecdotes and self-deprecating humor that could move even the most unmovable to appreciate all that nature has to offer.
Price began by offering his response to people who say they can’t relate to the prairie.
“Well, my friend, you are relating to prairie every time you feel vaguely claustrophobic in your hour or office or while driving behind a semi truck on the Interstate, and every time because of that claustrophobia you long to go to a park with open grassy areas. Every time you admire a monarch butterfly and wonder why there aren’t as many as when you were a kid. You are relating to prairie every time a neighbor drops by to ask, ‘Are you ever going to mow that?’ And every time you plant a garden, or a deer eats your vegetables down to nubs, or rubs its ears against your newly planted sapling, or runs out in front of your now-not-so-new minivan, you are relating to prairie,” Price said.
A chance experience with a pheasant made the prairie a personal issue with Price himself, and formed the basis for a chapter and title of his most recent book published by the University of Iowa Press. While driving along Highway 30 one day, Price spotted a group of young pheasants.
“Suddenly, something explodes against the side of my head in a furry of flapping and scratching and squawking. In an act of extraordinary timing, one of the pheasants had flown in my driver’s side window. And being the steel-jawed action hero I am, I screamed,” Price said to laughter. “I screamed like a rabbit.”
Price uses the story to illustrate how the encounter increased his awareness of his surrounding landscape and its wild inhabitants, Iowa grasslands and farm fields and hillsides that are the part of the most ecologically altered state in the union, with less than one-tenth of one percent of its native habitats remaining. Nationally, only tiny remnants of tall grass prairies remain.
Price thanked the members of JCHT and their guests for the work they do to preserve Iowa’s natural areas.
“All of this makes efforts to restore (our prairies) heroic,” said Price, “and it’s also an act of faith, because many of you are working to restore a landscape that you will never see. As you know, it takes decades and centuries to bring it back. You are to be admired, you don’t get the attention you deserve from the environmental community, and I am working to change that. It is an incredible act of faith and dedication to the generations who will follow us,” Price said.
After his presentation, Price said he often uses humor to impart his views on the importance of preservation and conservation.
“I think a lot of Iowans use humor to confront difficult issues,” said Price, a native Iowan himself. “For me, it’s a natural way of talking about those issues. But I also think so many people are overwhelmed by the environmental problems we face, and we can become paralyzed. If we can laugh at ourselves and our fallibility, our own smallness, maybe we’ll have the courage to get beyond the paralysis and do something.”
Audience member Christine Lehman-Engledow of Swisher said she loved Price’s speech.
“I especially loved hearing how entertaining he could make one story,” said Lehman-Engledow. She and many others purchased Price’s books and shared stories of how they related to Price’s experiences in the natural world.
Brad Friedhoff, naturalist with the Johnson County Conservation Department, said he also could connect to what Price writes and reads.
“He tells stories of growing up on a farm, and many people can relate to so much of what he talks about,” said Friedhoff.
Price’s well-received presentation was indicative of the overall success of the event, which brings together dozens of local organizations that set up displays and hand out information on their varied but congruous missions of preserving, perpetuating and advocating for the earth’s natural resources, Iowa’s native lands and healthy lifestyles. Some of the 38 exhibitors included Friends of Hickory Hill Park, Iowa Valley Resource Conservation and Development, Four Seasons Garden Club, Johnson County Soil and Water Conservation District, Iowa Valley Food Co-Op, the Iowa City Bird Club, the University of Iowa Museum of Natural History and the Local Food Connection, among many others.
Friedhoff said he enjoys coming every year.
“It’s my inspiration to get through the busy season coming up,” said Friedhoff, “and get re-energized for another season.”
Price indicated the inspiration was mutual. Price does speaking engagements all across the nation, but he said he enjoys speaking to audiences like the one at Prairie Preview– those who share his interest in the world of nature– the most.
“I hope my work offers a little bit of hope and a little bit of evidence that what they are doing matters,” said Price. “I am the most unlikely nature writer, but it’s because of the work they are doing on the ground that I’ve become a nature writer.”
“Once a little wildness is allowed into the human heart, once it is allowed to become personal, it cannot be easily extracted. We carry it with us always, and no matter where or how far we roam, it calls us back to a community we no longer define by the artificial boundaries of property, and neighborhood, and city, and state and nation; boundaries that are too often used to divide us from each other and from the earth beneath our feet.” ~ John T. Price