The goal of ecology is to understand a natural system’s principles of operation and to be able to predict its responses to change. An accurate understanding of a natural system allows us to successfully mange it, in order to maintain the conditions necessary for our survival within it (i.e. to live sustainably).
As part of my education in Sustainable Living I took a month long intensive course in Ecology–taught by MUM professor Stacy Mauer. In the drop down menu you can find summaries of our assigned readings.
The following is a summary of Iowa’s Natural History. (Iowa was chosen due to the fact that MUM is located in Fairfield, Iowa). —Natural History is the scientific, observational research of plants, animals, and organisms of a natural system; a major part of ecology.
IOWA’S NATURAL HISTORY
European’s began settling Iowa in the 1830’s. At this time, 80% of the landscape was dominated by prairie; these grasslands dominated the western portion of the state. Easternmost Iowa–receiving more annual precipitation than the rest of the state–was dominated by trees and shrubs; this landscape supported oak woodlands and savannas. Twenty to sixty percent of Northern Iowa–with its flat expanses–was wetlands.
The climate was harsh; there were strong, drying winds, sub-zero temperatures in the winter, and the intense sunshine of the summers gave way to wildfires. –These fires cleared the land of debris, opened grassland and woods to sunshine, and–where it burned the hottest–killed many species of trees; this allowed tall grasses to maintain their dominance.
Herbivores played a large role in maintaining the landscape’s biodiversity. A patchwork of diverse environments including bare and vegetated soils, sunny and shaded sites, short and tall plant growth, and transitory and mature communities were created by activities that disturbed and overturned the soil. Examples of disturbance include the burrowing of small animals, the wallowing of bison, and the creation of ant hills.
By the 1920’s industrial agriculture had taken a toll on the land. Years of monocropping, improper plowing techniques, and overgrazing had led to the degradation of Iowa’s nutrient rich top soil. This, coupled with an extensive drought and strong winds, resulted in the dust bowl of the 1930’s. –The soil, having lost its nutrients, also lost its ability to hold firm to the land. As strong winds swept through the plains, dust filled the air. This dust storm–the result of modern agriculture’s shortsightedness–lasted close to a decade.