Last week we had the opportunity to visit the Iowa Department of Natural Resources' Prairie Resource Center (PRC). The PRC provides prairie seed to public lands (state wildlife areas and parks) across Iowa.
Their operations are primarily located at Brushy Creek State Recreation Area in Webster County, with additional facilities at North Central Correctional Facility in Calhoun County. Staff and volunteers visit remnant prairies in different parts of the state to harvest local ecotype seed. They then clean and store seed, and share it with public land managers within the respective eco-zones.
From DNR's PRC website: "A plan was devised to divide the state into 3 zones, the northern 3 tiers of counties, the central 3 tiers of counties and the southern 3 tiers of counties. (This plan is in synchronization with the Iowa Ecotype Project/University of Northern Iowa which works with private seed producers.) For instance, pale purple coneflower is harvested from several prairie remnants in the north zone. Seed is cleaned, grown into 4-6 inch plants in a greenhouse, and planted into a single-species, cultivated row with other plants from northern Iowa. Seed is collected by hand or by use of a small combine and returned to public land in northern Iowa. Native grass seed is collected, planted in larger field situations and harvested with a combine equipped with a unique rice-head stripper. This allows seed to be harvested yet the valuable residue remains as winter cover for a variety of wildlife species."
Map of Iowa's eco-zones:
Photos of some of the harvested seed to be cleaned:
A variety of equipment, both large and small, is used to remove seed from hulls, chaff, and other debris, The leftovers are kept separate and returned to fields to provide nutrients to the prairies.
An example of cleaned seed:
In addition to seed harvesting and cleaning, the Prairie Resource Center has a greenhouse where they grow native plants. Most of the plants are used in their seed plots. Seed plots provide an easy way to harvest specific species, planted in rows, versus searching through prairies to find one species and harvesting by hand.
Due to the scale of operations, the DNR uses tractors and combines for some seed harvest, in addition to hand-harvesting remnant prairies.
Below is an example of a seed spreader that is used to sow prairie seed.
Golden Hills would like to thank Laura Leben with DNR for providing the tour.
We recently received a Specialty Crop Block Grant entitled Perennial native seed production for rural resilience. With this project, we will be working with public and private landowners to establish native seed production plots. Project updates will be posted at goldenhillsrcd.org/prairieseed. Email email@example.com with any questions about this project or the PRC visit.
Western Skies goes through four counties (from west to east: Harrison, Shelby, Audubon & Guthrie. The Byway Corridor includes all four counties, primarily along Highway 44 with a spur along Highway 173, a loop on F32 in Shelby County, with the western end on Highway 30 and the eastern end along P28. Located directly on the route are 12 incorporated communities: Missouri Valley, Logan, Woodbine, Portsmouth, Panama, Westphalia, Harlan, Kimballton, Elk Horn, Guthrie Center, Panora, and Stuart (from west to east).
*please note this was published in 2021 and sites may be different this year*
With the early sunset and long nights, you may be hesitant to travel after dark. With proper precautions (watch for deer!), you can drive through any of these communities through the next couple weeks to see a variety of public Christmas and holiday light displays, Although it's technically a few miles off the Byway, we also recommend visiting Audubon to see the downtown area and Albert the Bull decked out for the holidays. In addition to many private residences and businesses. Most main street and downtown areas have lights and decorations that are visible from dusk 'til dawn. Check out the photos below for a few examples of what you can see (apologies for the poor quality; these were all taken with a phone...if you have photos you'd like to share, let us know).
The Guthrie Center display in Mitchell Park has a large drive-through display that even includes some moving light displays:
Take advantage of the unseasonably warm and dry weather and explore Western Skies Scenic Byway!
December 5th is recognized as World Soils Day. Iowa, perhaps more than any other state, owes its agricultural heritage and economy to some of the most fertile topsoil in the world. The dominant soil order across the region is called Mollisols (dark green in the below map). Mollisols are grassland soils that developed over centuries or millennia within prairie ecosystems.
Within the order of Mollisols, Udolls (green in the map below) are the predominant suborder:
Udolls align closely with the tallgrass prairie region, while Ustolls (another suborder of Mollisols) dominate the mixed- and short-grass prairies:
More than 99.9% of Iowa's tallgrass prairies have been destroyed by human development, and largely replaced with corn. Corn is a plant within the grass family, and like the many types of native grasses, it is well-adapted to thrive in the Udoll soils. The former tallgrass prairie is now aligned closely with the Corn Belt:
Iowa is divided into several soil regions (map below). In western Iowa, you've probably heard the term "loess" before. Besides the Missouri River Alluvium (14), which is floodplain soil on the flat bottoms of the Muddy Mo, most of the region is covered in a layer of loess. East of the alluvial plain are Missouri River Bluffs (13) and Very Deep Loess (12), which includes the Loess Hills landform. The Loess Hills are typically defined as having at least 60 feet of loess, though many of the bluffs adjacent to the Missouri floodplain are much deeper than that, even up to 200 feet deep.
Loess was deposited through aeolian processes (wind-driven), with prevailing westerly winds dropping the deepest soils closer to the Missouri River. Moving east, the depth of loess gradually decreases over southern Iowa. The Des Moines lobe was glaciated more recently and lacks this loess.
The depth of loess aligns closely with the EPA-designated ecoregions of Iowa. 47d (Missouri Alluvial Plain) is the same as soil region 14 above. Ecoregions 47m (Western Loess Hills) and 47e (Steeply Rolling Loess Prairies) are similar to soil regions 11 & 12.
In the map below, purple areas have Peoria Loess, and green areas are alluvial soils. Most of western Iowa is either purple or green. The Des Moines lobe stands out as not having loess deposits.
Loess is highly erodible. The maps below from USDA show how the deep loess soils of Iowa, along with the loess region of the Palouse in eastern Washington, have some of the worst soil erosion on the continent. Fortunately, however, conservation practices like terraces and grassed waterways have significantly reduced this erosion over the past 40 years.
While many people think of soil as just dirt, there are complex ecosystems living within it.
“Essentially, all life depends upon the soil… There can be no life without soil and no soil without life; they have evolved together” - Dr. Charles E Kellogg, Soil Scientist and Chief of the USDA’s Bureau for Chemistry and Soils.
Even if you don't farm or garden, the food you eat on a daily basis depends on healthy soils. If soil is treated "like dirt," these webs suffer and soil health declines.
Our agricultural economy, waterways, and wildlife also depend on soils to thrive. Historically, poor soil health has contributed to the collapse of entire civilizations. This is why President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “The nation that destroys its soil, destroys itself" following the Dust Bowl. Soil health is becoming increasingly important in agricultural discussions and we should not overlook the humble humus beneath our feet.
In September and October, Golden Hills had funding from The Gilchrist Foundation to continue our Prairie Seed Harvest project in the Loess Hills. We also have funding from Pottawattamie Conservation Foundation to do prairie seed harvest at Hitchcock Nature Center specifically. At each event, Project Coordinator Lance Brisbois provided a brief training on identifying species and ripe seed, then showed how to harvest the seed.
Through these events, we engaged more than nearly 100 volunteers of all ages totaling approximately 187 volunteer hours, worth well over $5,000 of time that would have otherwise been incurred by local conservation agencies with limited time and budgets. The seed we harvested was combined with seed purchased from other sources to be used on prairie restoration projects totaling several hundred acres.
All seed collected from state lands was donated to Iowa Department of Natural Resources staff per state regulations. Most seed collected from other areas was given back to local conservation agencies for their prairie restoration efforts. Golden Hills saved a small amount of seed (with written permission) from land owned by county conservation boards for native plant propagation in partnership with Iowa Western Community College. We will grow some of this seed in their greenhouse over the winter and host a native plant sale in spring 2022.
Some of the seed has also been saved by Golden Hills to start a small native seed bank. This seed will be stored long-term and added to each year, with the intent of growing a seed bank of local ecotype native species.
We thank all the volunteers who helped this year, and look forward to hosting more seed harvest events in 2022. Thank you to The Gilchrist Foundation and Pottawattamie Conservation Foundation for their financial support.
As part of this year's Giving Tuesday (November 30), we have a goal of 40 donors and $4,000 to support our Prairie Seed Harvest project. Learn more and donate here.
The Iowa Tourism Economic Impact Report was recently released, and it shows that even through the pandemic, tourism has been a major contributor to the state's economy. "The results of this study show the scope of the travel sector in terms of direct visitor spending, as well as the total economic impacts, jobs, and fiscal (tax) impacts in the broader economy." Even with a 29% drop in 2020, tourists' direct contribution to Iowa's economy was $4.6 Billion.
Because international travel was restricted and many people did not feel safe flying, more people chose to road trip closer to home. The pandemic also caused many people to choose more outdoorsy destinations and rural areas where they could easily distance, instead of more crowded cities and larger or indoor tourist attractions. In western Iowa, this has largely been beneficial since most of the communities are rural with abundant parks, trails, wildlife areas, and small towns & businesses.
Tourism is especially impactful along Iowa's Scenic Byways. Loess Hills National Scenic Byway runs through the 7 Loess Hills counties from Plymouth to Fremont. Western Skies Scenic Byway, which crosses the region west-to-east from Harrison to Guthrie counties, is a popular alternate route to Interstate 80 between Omaha and Des Moines. Glacial Trail Scenic Byway is a short loop that runs through Buena Vista, Cherokee, Clay, and O'Brien counties in northwest Iowa along the Little Sioux River valley. Data for these Byway counties from the tourism report is summarized below.
Note that Harrison County is included on both Loess Hills and Western Skies, as both byways run through the county.
Not all of the economic impacts are directly from Byway travelers only, but the counties are considered part of the Byway Corridors and thus the data include significant overlap. Golden Hills is proud to coordinate these three byways and all that they contribute to the region.
Broken Kettle Grasslands, owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in Iowa, recently held their annual bison roundup. Partners and volunteers from throughout the region helped round the bison up to check the health of the animals, weight them, and vaccinate them before releasing them back onto the prairie. Bison were, for thousands of years, an integral component of prairie ecosystems. TNC reintroduced bison to help control invasive species and improve prairie habitat. Broken Kettle, north of Sioux City along Loess Hills National Scenic Byway in Plymouth County, includes the largest remnant prairie and largest roadless area in Iowa. This area is the only known site with a population of prairie rattlesnakes in the state. The bison at Broken Kettle came from Wind Cave National Park and are called genetically pure since they have no cattle ancestry like most other bison found in the country today. The herd totals more than 200 and they spend the rest of the year roaming approximately 1,900 of the preserve’s 3,000 acres.
by Seth Brooks
Fall is the best time to hike in the Loess Hills: temperatures are cool, humidity is low, insects are largely gone, and a mosaic of red, yellow, and brown paint the hillsides. According to the Iowa DNR, this week the southern Loess Hills should reach peak color. The forecast for the last weekend of October looks perfect for a leaf-peeping hike on any of the publicly accessible lands in southwestern Iowa. While the wind and rain that swept across Nebraska and Iowa this week will have knocked off some leaves, the precipitation could give rise to another wonder of fall: mushrooms! It will be difficult to keep your eyes on the colorful canopy when fantastic fungi are fruiting from the forest floor. Put on a jacket, grab your hiking boots, bring a basket, and go hiking this weekend!
Waubonsie State Park, named for Chief Waubonsie of the Pottawattamie tribe, is perhaps the best place to soak in the fall forest atmosphere. The park, one hour south of Omaha just off Interstate 29, is divided into two sections divided by Highway 2. The northern section has multi-use trails and is frequented by horseback riders. We will focus on the southern section of the park as its trails are open only to hikers.
Sunset Ridge Trail is the park’s main trail, taking in sweeping vistas of the Missouri River Valley and diving into hardwood hollows. If you combine Sunset Ridge with Mincer Trail, you can make a nice 2.5-mile loop. However, three other trails--Ridge, Bridge, and Valley--are also worth your time. Linking them all together via the Overlook Trail is about six miles round-trip (there are trail maps available at the park, so feel free to make up your own hike).
The ideal trailhead to start at is in the southwestern corner of the park. The trail immediately descends into a hollow only to steeply climb up a ridge. This climb could be slippery after rain. If so, hiking poles are recommended. Follow this ridge north with great views of the Missouri River Valley on your left. Recently installed interpretative panels provide information on the Loess Hills region. The trail turns east after half a mile but continues along the ridgetop.
After a little more than half a mile, you will have a decision to make. Turn south to follow Mincer Trail and then the park road back to the trailhead. If you have more energy—or your mushroom basket is not yet full—continue north following Overlook Trail. You will pass a shelter and viewpoint before reaching a fork: left follows Ridge Trail, right Bridge Trail. Both are excellent choices and mostly shaded, so keep your eyes peeled for mushrooms pushing through the forest floor.
Ridge Trail is exactly that: it stays atop a ridge which gives you great views back towards Sunset Ridge Trail. This is an out and back, so feel free to turn around at any time. Bridge Trail is also a pleasant walk but does have a descent toward the end. However, this area might be prime mushroom foraging. You will have to climb back up the ridge as Bridge Trail is also an out and back.
As you return, you have the option on your left to follow Valley Trail. This trail descends into a hollow and then climbs back up behind the park office before connecting with Overlook Trail. From here, you can follow Overlook and Mincer trails and then the park road back to the trailhead. Whichever trails you follow, Waubonsie State Park will surely provide you a vigorous yet refreshing fall hike.
Another excellent option for fall colors is West Oak Forest, eight miles northwest of Glenwood, Iowa, and managed by the Mills County Conservation Board. While not as large as Waubonsie, West Oak Forest does not lack enchanting woods to explore. The most used and best marked trails are in the southern part of the forest. It is a steep climb from the parking area, but once you reach the top, you are rewarded with typical Loess Hills topography of hilltop prairie, both remnant and restored, and hardwood forest in the hollows and ravines below. As you follow the trail to the south, take the spur trail heading west to a wonderful lookout point with views of the Missouri River Valley. There are some beautiful, twisted bur oaks along the trail to the lookout point. There is a steep path that leads down from the viewpoint, but this would not be recommended after recent rains. Instead, turn around and head back to the main trails along the ridge.
The best part of West Oak Forest, in my opinion, is the trails in the northern section of the park. I wandered this section in May, so my memory might betray me, but there are fewer trail markers here, making it easy to get lost along the several trails that go deeper and deeper into the forest. Just remember how to get back, which includes a nice climb to get your heart rate going after a leisurely stroll in the forest.
Nearby, both Mile Hill Lake and Pony Creek Park are other stellar options to enjoy what looks to be a splendid fall weekend. And if you forage for mushrooms: if you cannot identify it, don’t eat it.
By Seth Brooks
Today, let’s go on a hike through the northern section of the Little Sioux unit of the Loess Hills State Forest. This is my favorite hike in all of the Loess Hills for a variety of reasons. The distance (6.5 miles) is perfect for a day hike, there are some inclines to get your heart rate pumping, and the terrain covered is a perfect representation of today’s Loess Hills.
The trailhead, a fifty-minute drive from Omaha, is located at 1369 Geneva Place near Pisgah, Iowa, in the Soldier River Valley. There is ample parking and a picnic shelter at the trailhead. As with all state forest land, keep in mind hunters also use the land so check if it’s hunting season and wear appropriate clothing.
The trail begins behind the picnic shelter and briefly parallels the road before reaching a farmhouse. After passing the farmhouse, you’ll see a pond to your right and an open field before you. At the time of writing this blog post (October 8, 2021), there was a fence crossing the trail and cattle grazing in the field. Since this trail is on state forest land, hikers should have access; just remember to close the fence behind you and take precautions if any cattle are near the trail. This fence was not here during the winter and spring of 2020/2021 and the cattle were penned up near the farmhouse, so perhaps in a few weeks the fence will be gone.
As we continue hiking, the trail climbs steadily through the open meadow. As the trail enters a wooded area, it climbs steeply to reach the top of a ridge. This area appears to once have been farmed with row crops but is now restored prairie. If you have a field guide, take some time to identify the various prairie grasses.
Follow the trail atop the ridge for 0.3 mile until you reach a trail descending on your left (a trail marker used to mark this junction but was absent as of October 2021). Continue straight atop the ridge (you will loop back to this junction as you return to the trailhead to finish the hike). Keep to your left at a fork--the trail is slightly obscured by an eastern redcedar at the fork. Soon you will pass an unmarked trail on your right that leads to a stand of pine trees. If you are curious about the pines, take the trail leading through the pine grove but return to the trail you have been following. There are signs of a recent fire that has stripped the pines of the needles on lower branches and turkey tail mushrooms growing on the forest floor.
Back on the trail, at the two-mile point of the hike, the trail intersects with Brent’s Trail. Turn left to follow the trail markers for Brent’s Trail (shaped like bur oak leaves) but only for 0.2 mile. When you reach a fork, leave Brent’s Trail by taking the right fork that descends down the hillside to a beautiful mixed grass prairie below the ridge. The grass here, if not recently cut, grows to over five feet. Look across the meadow on the opposite hillside: perhaps you’ll see whitetail deer foraging.
As you approach Fulton Avenue, turn left at an unmarked junction to climb back up to the top of the ridge (you can avoid this climb by staying atop the ridge and following Brent’s Trail, but you will miss the beautiful mixed grass prairie).
Once you’ve climbed back atop the ridge, you have two options: turn right to head due southeast following Brent’s Trail along the ridge; or take a shortcut, avoiding the ridge, and continue straight to descend to the field on the east side of the ridge. This second option cuts one mile off the total distance of the hike. I recommend following Brent’s Trail along the ridge until it descends through redcedars and arrives at an open field.
There is a parking area near where you can rest under a large cottonwood. However, before reaching the parking area, turn north to hike along the western edge of the field for a half mile. You’ll arrive at a fork and keep right as the trail heads east to climb up a ridge and the junction that was described earlier to return to the trailhead. It’s 1.5 miles back to the trailhead, passing once again through the restored prairie on the ridge and the open meadow near the farmhouse and pond.
August 19 is World Photography Day, "an annual, worldwide celebration of the art, craft, science and history of photography."
Golden Hills Project Coordinator Lance Brisbois is an hobby picture-taker who takes many photos of western Iowa's Loess Hills and surrounding landscapes. Here are a few of his tips for taking landscape photos using your smartphone.
Before you go
Some basic photography tips
The “Rule of Thirds” is one of the easiest ways to improve overall composition of a photo. This “rule” is one of the most important for framing your subject. Imagine your frame has two horizontal lines one-third the distance from the top & bottom of the frame, and two vertical lines one-third of the way in from each side. Most camera apps have a setting that will show the lines when you’re taking a photo. Avoid placing major lines or subjects right in the middle of the image or too far towards the edges. Focal points don't need to be exactly on the lines or points, but close to them.
Level the horizon – Camera apps can help you straighten the horizon showing the one-third lines. Make sure the horizon is level with either the top or bottom third line and not higher on one side of the photo.
Spatial inhomogeneity is fancy way of saying add some diversity. Layers help create depth and different spatial dimensions. Some negative space--unoccupied areas around a subject--is often good. But you can have too much of it. A photo that is nearly all empty blue sky, a grassland from a distance, or a large body of water with nothing in it can be too much negative space. If your photo includes a large prairie, for example, try to find a rolling hill, or treeline, or a stream to add to the lower third to create a sense of depth. Instead of having two-thirds of the photo without many features, try to limit it to one-third. A photo of a lake could include a boat or dock to break up the negative space.
Difference in elevation (hills and valleys) is one good way to introduce diversity. A mixture of natural and human-built features is also visually appealing to many people--this could include a crop field with trees in the background, a river with a boat, or a hiking trail through a prairie or woodland. A large tree surrounded by grassland, such as an oak savanna, is another good way to break up homogeneity.
You can, however, have too much spatial inhomogeneity. A photo with many lines and objects can be overwhelming. Experiment by framing one, two, or three or more subjects and see how the photos compare.
Use "leading lines" to draw the viewer's eyes through the scene. Trails, roads, rivers, and streams are all good ways to create depth and draw the viewers’ eye along. Place a leading line along a vertical one-third line and/or make the point end at a horizon on the horizontal one-third line.
Frame before taking shot – The best way to crop a photo is to frame it before you take the shot instead of afterwards. It's often more difficult to crop to the rule of thirds
Try different angles and heights. Move around from left to right and closer & farther from the subject to capture the best lighting and color. Place the camera higher or lower than eye level. This can also help you align better with the Rule of Thirds and play around with negative space.
Take many photos and sort later – If you’re shooting different angles and distances from the subject, you will take a lot of photos. To save time in the field, take a lot of photos from different angles and delete duplicates later.
Take advantage of the magic hour – The “magic” or “golden” hour is within about an hour after sunrise or an hour before sunset, depending on time of year and other factors. The sun is low in the sky and casts warm, golden hues. Harsh lighting and shadows are limited. Human activities cause more air pollution throughout the day, so sunsets are generally less clear than sunrises.
For sunrises and sunsets, you want some clouds to create colorful and interesting skies, but not too many clouds that they completely drown out the sunset. Western wildfires in the summer can create interesting orange lighting, but too much smoke can completely wash out the sunset into a gray haze. If you're going out during the Golden Hour check what time the sunrise or sunset time.
Don’t zoom or use flash—photo quality typically suffers on smartphones when you zoom or use the flash.
Scenic Solutions lists several important variables that can help determine what might appeal to more people:
"Coherence is the ease of cognitively organizing or comprehending a scene – “good gestalt.” It involves making sense of the scene. It includes factors which make the scene more comprehensible to organize it into a manageable number of major objects and/or areas. Research indicates that people hold onto information about scenes in chunks and that up to five can be retained in the working memory. A scene with about five major units will be coherent. Repetition of elements and smooth textures help to identify an area. Changes in texture or brightness should correspond with an important activity in the scene – where it does not, the scene lacks coherence."
"Mystery is the promise that more information could be gained by moving deeper into setting, e.g. a trail disappearing, a bend in a road, a brightly lit clearing partially obscured from view by foliage. New information is not present but is inferred from what is in the scene, there is thus a sense of continuity between what is seen and what is anticipated. A scene high in mystery is one in which one could learn more if one were to proceed further into the scene."
"Complexity is the involvement component – a scene’s capacity to keep an individual busy, i.e. occupied without being bored or overstimulated. Often referred to as diversity, variety or richness it used to be regarded as the single most important factor. The Kaplans describes it as how much is “going on” in the scene – a single field of corn stretching to the horizon will not have the same level of complexity as many fields of many crops on undulating land with hedgerows and cottages. The more complex scene will tend to be preferred to the simple."
"Legibility is the ability to predict and to maintain orientation as one moves more deeply into a scene. It entails “safety in the context of space” (Kaplan, 1979) and is similar, though much broader, to Appleton’s concept of refuge. Legibility, like mystery, involves an opportunity to promise to function, to know one’s way and the way back. It thus deals with the structuring of space, with its differentiation, with its readability. Legible scenes are easy to oversee, to form a mental map. Legibility is enhanced by distinctive elements such as landmarks, smooth textures, and the ease of compartmentalizing the scene into parts. While coherence focuses on the conditions for perceiving the scene, legibility is concerned with movement within it.".
For much more detail on these variables, check out Scenic Solutions' Landscape Theory page.
The science behind the art
While every person is different and like different things, there are trends and factors that tend to be more universally appealing. Certain types of landscapes are more attractive than others to the public overall. The reasons behind this is not fully known, but several theories exist. The next few paragraphs may be way too much information for beginning photographers, but can be helpful for figuring out what makes a "good" picture and why.
“The philosopher Dennis Dutton has suggested that the open rolling plains with occasional trees, that are so often represented in landscape art, are beautiful to us because they resemble the savanna of the Pleistocene epoch, when Homo erectus was first developing an aesthetic sense (Source: Science Focus).
"Habitat theory postulates that because the habitats in which humans are believed to have evolved were dominated by grasslands and scattered trees with water in close proximity, this became a preferred visual landscape for humans....The preference for park-like landscapes is the only landscape form that appears to have endured across the millennia. (Source: Scenic Solutions).
Research across cultures shows innate preferences from a young age for savannas and even specific types of trees (Source: Psychology Today.)
The chart below from Howley indicates that "Water related landscapes attracted the highest mean scores by respondents. Cultural related landscapes are also highly regarded by respondents as all of the images in this category also attracted relatively high mean scores. In relation to the agricultural landscapes, respondents rated all of these quite highly as all the mean sores were at the upper end of the 6 point scale. The agricultural landscapes that respondents appeared to like least, however, were the more intensive farming landscapes such as the images showing wheat, potato and sugar beet fields. Wild unmanaged vegetation and bogland were the landscape types that respondents liked the least" (Source: Howley).
One reason the Golden Hour lighting might appeal to us is because "Red sunsets would have been a familiar part of these landscapes and in an era when night was the most dangerous time, making sure you were safely back at camp to appreciate the last dying gasp of the day was probably especially important" (Source: Science Focus)
It's possible the golden lighting is also preferable because it reminds us of the golden glow of a campfire. Cooking around a fire is one of the factors that made us human. An evening fire with family and tribal members would have provided a sense of community and safety that was not as prevalent while roaming the savannas during the day.
A person's life experience can also affect what landscapes they prefer. Farmers tend to like agricultural landscapes more than non-farmers, for example (Source: Journal of Landscape Ecology). Familiarity with a specific landscape also makes places more attractive to certain features. "People prefer landscapes experienced during childhood, but seem to attach more easily to qualities that are suggested to have an innate significance" (Source: Landscape Research).
The rule of thirds relates to the Golden Ratio, and Fibonacci sequence, which occurs commonly throughout nature, science, mathematics, and art. The Golden Ratio has been used for many centuries to create broadly appealing visual artworks. In addition to the composition of a photo, the dimensions (length x width) can also look better if closer to this ratio.
Fractals are another variable commonly found in both nature and art, that human eyes are drawn to and find aesthetically pleasing. River systems, tree branches, and our own circulatory system are examples of repeating fractal patterns. Although the reasons are not fully understood, research indicates that looking at fractal patterns can reduce stress levels (Source: The Smithsonian).
Hopefully all this wonky science stuff isn't too overwhelming. Golden Hour, Golden Ratio, fractals, and some complexity & negative space (but not too much of either) are a good summary of things to look for when taking photos of the land. Our landscape in western Iowa was once dominated by grasslands with a few scattered trees. If you can find an oak savanna, you will likely find it to be beautiful. The dramatic bluffs of the Loess Hills and meandering waterways also tend to provide attractive scenery good for photographing.
After taking photos...
Editing - I use the Snapseed app, which is free, but there are many others available. I turn up the brightness on my screen when editing. I usually start by increasing the "Ambiance" setting, then "Shadows," then any others to fit my preference. The "Saturation," "Structure," and "Sharpen" settings are good in moderation but can easily be overdone. Keep in mind that a photo that looks good on a phone screen may not keep resolution or look good when enlarged. The best way to edit is to practice and play around with the different settings to see what you like best.
Organize – This can take a lot of time, but in the end you’ll thank yourself . Name photos based on the subject and put the date in the file name. For example, “Old Town sunset 10-20-20” will make it easier to search and find a photo than the string of numbers that the file is automatically named. This is useful if you want to find a specific photo of a place or time of year. I do this by tethering the phone to a computer and finding the files.
A few more general tips:
Outdoor recreation opportunities a abundant in the Loess Hills Missouri River Region of Iowa, which includes Harrison, Pottawattamie, and Mills counties. Golden Hills recently worked with many partners to develop promotional videos highlighting some of the outdoor amenities available to locals and tourists. Visit wanderloess.com for details on attractions and amenities in the tri-county region.
Harrison County has thousands of acres of public hunting on state and county public lands plus thousands more acres of Iowa Hunting Access Program (IHAP) where private landowners allow public hunting. Dozens of miles of Loess Hills hiking trails and scenic views are available throughout the county, including Murray Hill Scenic Overlook, Brent's Trail, and Loess Hills State Forest. Camping and cabins are available at the popular Willow Lake Recreation Area.
The Mills County video highlights state and county public lands with hiking, biking, paddling, fishing, camping, and other summer activities. Willow Slough Wildlife Area features more than 600 acres of wetlands and is popular for hunting and fishing. Mills County Conservation Board's Mile Hill Lake offers paddling, fishing, hiking, and more, and West Oak Forest includes panoramic views from Loess Hills ridgetops with several miles of hiking trails.
The Wabash Trace Nature Trail, owned and managed by the nonprofit Southwest Iowa Nature Trails, Inc., runs diagonally through Mills County and passes through several small towns. The trail is known for bridges like the West Nishnabotna River overhead truss bridge highlighted in the video.
In summer 2020, we created two videos highlighting parks and wildlife areas in eastern Pottawattamie County.
View the Pottawattamie County videos here
Thank you to our many partners, including: