There are few places on earth where nature seems so close you can touch it at any moment. Our cities and towns so easily separate us from the wilds. Yet there are communities that through circumstance or through planning avail themselves to the natural attributes of location or environment and are much the better for it.
Driftless and grounded
Such is the case with Decorah, Iowa. Situated in the northeastern corner of Iowa is a section of the Midwest called the Driftless Region. This bit of topography escaped the flattening effects of glaciation years ago. Decorah now sits in a valley where the Upper Iowa, a national wild and scenic river, flows between tall hills made of limestone. These hills are rimmed with dark cedars and vibrant white birch trees. They also guard quiet little secrets of nature, but also nurture.
The vertical landscape is prominent, but not of much use to those aficionados of cliffs and bluffs, the rock climbers. Decorah limestone is crumbly and dangerous even for a casual handhold. Comprised of layers of ocean bottom laid down millions of years ago, Decorah limestone illuminates geological history even as it falls apart and down to the inevitable stream or river below.
Chimneys and valleys
In many places the limestone faces are so abrupt they qualify as true bluffs, chimney bluffs to be exact. These resemble a stone smokestack or other manmade structure. To stand atop one of these bluffs can be disorienting, for they fall away beneath you. Sometimes you are literally standing farther out on the ledge of bluff than the limestone below. The bluffs are gouged out. Ancient rivers started the process of erosion and the bluffs are now undercut except in places where tree roots and plants hold the soil and rock together at the top. The rock can barely stand the brunt of wind, rain or snow and seeps that undermine the cliff face. So they slowly tumble away, adding new features and reconfigurations as you go.
It happens so methodically the change cannot be ascertained in the mere scope of a human lifetime. To human eyes and narrow perspectives, the bluffs seem to look the same each year and decade, yet they are not. Like mountains and heights everywhere, these limestone crags give way piece by piece. Scree piles below the rockfaces are proof of that, like tears of time. If one tries to climb these piles the depth is disturbing and loose, like clambering up a down escalator.
As you get past the scree there are routes to the top that require planning and some dexterity. Deep alluvial deposits form where washes deposit soil. Plants that grab a foothold here are a wishful lot, yet they sometimes succeed because there is not enough human or animal disturbance over most of these places to count for much. That is the charm of the recesses of a bluff landscape.
Deer and other wildlife do traverse the bluffs, especially creatures that like small caves and cubbyholes in which to den and hide. Well-compacted walkways appear just below the vertical base of the bluffs. These could be raccoon trails or even bobcat. One seldom sees them however. There are too many places to disappear in the deep cuts and caves before human eyes can tie them down.
Indeed, within 300 meters of downtown Decorah sits a feature called Ice Cave. It is named for the fact that it literally holds ice in its maw most of the year. In summer months a cool draft of air comes easing out of the earth. Darkness keeps the casual explorer at bay, but anyone with the merest flashlight can reach the first sanctums and either sit in total darkness or illuminate the interior to contemplate what it means to be inside the earth. The humbling fact that human beings are helpless in such conditions is a demonstration of the fact that we are by nature surface creatures, even edge-seekers to a degree. No more brave at last than a mouse hugging a wall on its way from one place to the next.
Coming out of Ice Cave you relievedly breathe the air and look with some relief up at the towering bluffs now knowing that it is easier to scale the heights than plumb the depths of this limestone world.
Just down the road within sight of downtown another local treasure pours out of the hillside. Dunning's Spring is a cascading waterfall composed of cold rivulets tumbling down toward the Upper Iowa. Bracingly cold water wells up from the hill to empty down a long slope. Runners sometimes use this spring to soak tired legs, and thousands of people trek up the rocky hill to gaze at the source, deep and cold, an untappable mystery.
A stone's throw
It is all so close to town that it can be disorienting to take a walk from those wild hills to downtown Decorah and get there in minutes. This was the beauty of the place to me while attending Luther College, also perched on a bluff edge at the northeast corner of town. The Oneota Valley is comprised of hill after dark hill of these limestone bluffs, all harboring secrets to those who dare or want to explore.
Over the years the property dynamic has changed some. New owners seem a little more protective of their borders, whether fenced or not. Cattle still range many of the hillsides. You know you are on a farm mostly from the corn lining the basin of a valley and the cattle trails carved into the dark dirt. They climb and fall at random, these trails. The cows go where they need to make walking easier. Sometimes they make mistakes.
Wildlife is everywhere around Decorah, but it too has its fluctuations. There were once thousands of ruffed grouse breeding in the woods around Decorah. Come spring their deep drumming added mystery to the hills, which seemed to be speaking an ancient language only the wildest of folks could comprehend. Yet the grouse are gone now, for some reason. When asked about it a local at the Kwik Mart told me they had not been heard for years. Had some climactic change or local population crash wiped them out. Years of wet weather even?
Filling that void are large flocks of turkey, which might explain the absense of grouse in some way. Perhaps they occupy a similar niche. Turkey were introduced back into the wild some 40 years ago and now their flocks number in the dozens at times. A flock of turkeys will often explode out of the grasslands and fly up over the trees to float down into the valley below on stiff wings, like vultures rounded off on all ends.
Birds such as pileated woodpeckers, yellow-headed blackbirds and black-billed cuckoos, all prizes on the list of most summer birders, can be found in and around Decorah. The oblong holes of pileated diggings are found in trees right next to town and even inside the city limits in Decorah. The vertical habitat of the tree-lined bluffs provide plenty of space where the birds know they can feed and escape, undisturbed.
Imitation as a form of flattery
When you've explored the hills around Decorah, the place grows within you, almost like time out of mind. When passing through rich subdivisions near home in Illinois, one sees giant installations of limestone outcrops in the side of mild slopes. It occurs to you: "They're trying to imitate the wildness of a place like Decorah."
It is taken for granted that stone sticks out of earth around Decorah. That reality seems to shape the character of the people who live there. One woman who'd moved to Decorah with her husband years ago admitted that the marriage had broken up, but she could not leave. "There are people on their second and third marriages here. People reforming their lives. It seems like a good place to stay." Where the rocks of life stick out, people feel more at ease with who they really are. You can see the character of a person who likes to be here. Life moves on. Old lives crumble away. New lives emerge. And yet the deep reality of that limestone holds firm, like the foundation of creation itself. That you can stand on and feel secure, or at least see far enough to the next set of hills that you do not feel alone.
Lost and found
As a birder I once wandered deep into a Decorah valley shrouded with the frozen mist of late November. Hoarfrost coated the trees. A hush was upon the trees. Only the chickadees moved about. Then a stirring in the trees up ahead shook frost like sugar from a branch, and there sat a bird known as the Townsend's Solitaire. A migrant well off its course from the Northwest to wherever. Its sleek form and dark eye surrounded by a clear white ring were unmistakable. But what was it doing here, in northeast Iowa, nearly in the throes of winter? Those are mysteries we like to keep.
Mysteries like that happen for those that pay attention in and around Decorah. It is a world unto its own yet now celebrated by mountain bikers who've constructed miles of trails up and down and over the hills. Road cyclists cruise the hilly backroads and runners abound. In winter cross country skiing is popular, and hiking in all seasons. The city has now constructed a 12-mile bicycle trail south around the Trout Hatchery and through the huge limestone cut that allows highway 52 to head north to Minnesota.
Despite all this seeming intrusion there are still many hills untapped in terms of human intrusion. The region has a "just around the corner" feel to it in all seasons.
Once I woke from a dream about the place that was so real the visions and narrative of the dream could not be forgotten. The dream featured a dangerous hike past an old farm with a mean farmer and a meaner dog. Yet once you got past the farmhouse the journey took you to a bluff overlooking a valley so beautiful it took your breath away. In my dream I stood there contemplating the fear one overcomes to reach such places. When I awoke from the dream it felt like the place was genuine, and needed to be pursued. Perhaps the dream was based on some long-forgotten hike I'd taken during college. If so, it was worth checking the next time I visited Decorah.
I did go looking, and could not find the way to the farmhouse. But that does not mean it does not exist. There were many roads taken and many hikes on which similar experience occurred in the years I lived and schooled in Decorah. Perhaps someday I'll stumble on that place and find that beautiful valley again. But if I do not, the dream will be worth keeping forever. Because the mysteries of life are what make up our dreams. And a place worthy of those visions is worth a return visit now and then.