from "The Smell of Rain"

from Oneota Flow

Chapter One

Scrutiny of even the most familiar and simple elements of experience can lead to surprise. Several years ago, a soil scientist informed me that the most common smell identifiable as "rain" is made up of bacterial spores, bursting into reproductive frenzy with the impact of raindrops on dust.  The actinomycetes bacteria that produce these fragrant spores are also the source of drugs that save people from infections that would otherwise kill us: tuberculosis, leprosy, and cholera.  The smell of rain, for which I long on a hot, dry day, is the birth cry of friendly bacteria.  This knowledge has not changed my imprecise habit of calling that certain delicious smell “rain.” The excuse for my inaccuracy is this: what is obvious to my nose remains invisible to my eye.

This book of essays is my attempt to depict precisely the story of a river that begins as rain.  The chapters bring to light elements of the river’s life and history invisible to casual observation.  I have spent forty years in the basin of the Upper Iowa, a stream that winds from the flat farm fields of Southern Minnesota through the wooded valleys of Northeastern Iowa to the Mississippi.  As a child I fished and swam in the river.  As an adult I cross the river every day.  My office overlooks the river, winding out of sight in two directions; with my windows open on warm days, I hear the raspy crowing of pheasant cocks in tall grasses along the river’s bank.  On the map, the Upper Iowa is a blue line that, together with the crossing of two state highways, explains the position of the town I call home. 

The blue line masks the complexity of the river’s course, and makes it easier to think of the river and the people who live along the river as having separate lives.  But people and the river are like the smell of rain, a mix where one element runs temporarily out of sight in the other.  We are mostly water: water that runs through us in a circular stream.  We tap into that stream drinking a glass of water or a cup of coffee.  With an additional load of nutrition and oxygen, that water eddies through the farthest-flung capillaries of our fingertips.  Having done that in any number of round trips lasting less than a minute, it passes from us, continuing its necessary errands, fanning out salts, acids, and unused additives like caffeine into the watery world of which we are a mobile part. 

The sense of being an intermittent but integral part of a river system was innate in the people who gave their name to the Upper Iowa.  The Ioway called the water world nyí, and their sophisticated vocabulary for water distinguished between the ripples made by a river rock or a moving animal, or between a flood caused by rain versus a flood caused by snowmelt.1   In an 1837 treaty signing, the U.S. government asked No Heart and Moving Rain, representatives of the Ioway, to draw a map of their tribe’s ancestral territory.  They drew a diagram of Iowa rivers, branching, like the veins in a human hand, from the intersection of the Missouri and the Mississippi.  After nearly a thousand years of familial residence in the place, the basic orientation of these two Ioway men to the land they called home came to knowing where its rivers ran.

Unfortunately, our sense of being physically connected to a river system is no longer innate.  Though forgotten, the connection is gradually being reaffirmed for us by science.  Forensic tests of hair can now plot the geography of a person’s life.  The change in the hydrogen and oxygen isotopes of rain clouds passing over land gets registered in drinking water.  The place-specific weight of isotopes gets passed on to the hair, teeth, and bones that water builds. Conversely, the cocaine level in a river is a fair measure of the drug problem in cities upstream.  The levels of caffeine and antibiotics in the Upper Iowa, measurable by sensitive tests, are a modern revelation that residents are really, like No Heart and Moving Rain, walking tributaries of the nearest stream.  If I am home and healthy I am a brim-full extension of the Upper Iowa.  My water and sewer bills ensure that the valves stay open between the rest of the river system and me.

The relationship between people and rivers is reciprocal.  While we depend upon rivers like the Upper Iowa, they also depend on us.  Since piss and dishwater are part of our contribution to river systems, it is easy to think of them as waste disposal mechanisms, something we would rather forget.  But this lack of mindfulness takes a harmful environmental toll.  Witness my home, Iowa, the most ecologically altered state in the Union.  In a frenzy of development the settlers of Iowa replaced its horizon-to-horizon prairies and wetlands with furrowed fields, efficiently drained by a network of tile.  Their descendents have resisted the river-cleansing rules of the 1972 federal Clean Water Act for a quarter of a century.  The state’s waters typically run brown.  In February 2006, as legislators considered passing rules that would bring Iowa’s municipal water treatment up to the 1972 federal clean water standard, a lawyer for interested environmental groups complained, “There is no state that is out of compliance like Iowa.”2 

Though the Upper Iowa is the Iowa river most intensely used for recreation, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) classifies it as “impaired.” Its load of soil, chemicals, and human and animal waste has lethal consequences up and down the river system and up and down the food chain, from an increase in bacteria to the disappearance of mussels, which are canaries in the mineshaft of my liquid element.3   The river, like a keen memory, carries a record of the past to which we too easily deny our contributing part. 


1 Lance Michael Foster.  "The Ioway and the Landscape of Southeast Iowa." Journal of the Iowa Archeological Society 43 (1996): 1-6. p.

2Albert Ettinger, quoted in Perry Beeman, “No Clear Solutions to State’s Tainted Water.” Des Moines Register, February 12, 2006.

3 Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Watershed Monitoring and Assessment Section. Category Five of Iowa’s 2006 Integrated Report: The Section 303(d) List of Impaired Waters.  October 2007. pp. 6-7.