Talking Turtles and Prairie Aesthetics


Dr. Neil Bernstein describes the almost accidental way he started studying turtles and their sand prairie lives.

Is blowing, sandy soil and patchy grass really pretty?

Well, yes.

Dr. Neil Bernstein gave a presentation Tuesday night in which he sold me on the idea that the sand prairies of Iowa have value and beauty.

Of course, it helped that some of his research was done near Muscatine, Iowa. I recall riding my Schwinn Continental down a steep hill to the flatlands south of town—the beginning of the Muscatine Island, home of the Muscatine melon. I have a soft spot for that area, so I guess I was primed to believe a sandy expanse of land has its own kind of appeal.

The critters and flowers he showed pictures of didn’t hurt, either.


Talking about pearl button industry of Muscatine.

The presentation was thoughtful and engaging—but a bit wistful, too. Iowa was once a vast prairie land mostly filled with tall grass prairie. The sand prairie that Dr. Bernstein studies is a different habitat—dryer and, well, sandier. Some species that migrated to the state thousands of years ago when the climate was much dryer are not disappearing—as has most of Iowa’s prairie land.

According to Dr. Bernstein, Iowa leads the nation in destruction of its original habitat. We learned to plow the prairie and grow corn, and not much is now left of the original landscape.

Well, I hope we keep what little is left. And not just for the sake of box turtles and cute, dryland mice. Much of what is out there in the natural world has a quiet beauty that is worth keeping for the future.


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