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The Landscapes of Life by Tristan Rheingans

artwork by Emma Pillers


Northeastern Iowa is the Driftless Area. It is so named due to the lack of glacial drift it experienced in the times that oceans of frozen water slowly carved away what is now the geography of North America. Characterized by its sheer rocky faces and abundance of cold water streams, the Driftless is a unique landscape, and its bluffs, streams, and even the ways we shaped the landscape are all representations of us. Nature's influences carved away and influenced the landscape over centuries just like the influences of life changed us.

Our family was no stranger to camping trips in the valleys of North Jackson County. It wasn't far from home but the dynamic was far from it. Our entire family came back to the area for our yearly get-together over the summer. Adults sat around the bonfire drinking and talking. Two dozen younger cousins ranging in age from two to seventeen were let loose unsupervised on the landscape.

Significant rainfall in the spring caused an explosion in greenery. What was once a small stream had turned into a small valley hollowed out to about fifteen feet deep and thirty feet across. Trees fell in and set the scene for a much more peaceful relaxing stream, leaving most of the dug-out topsoil uncovered by water.

Animals created new burrows in the walls of the new canyon. Our imaginations flared up: it was a trench for a paintball war, a hiding spot for a game of ghost in the graveyard, or just endless miles of stream across the farmland to wade through and catch up with cousins. Maybe even an exciting new terrain to take four-wheelers through.

The experiences in streams became the most memorable. My four cousins and I waded down through the water, jeans rolled up to the knees and cuffed. It wasn't hard to traverse the uneven and twisting miles of new stream. Each of us since the year prior had changed just as much as the terrain. Some had grown more stout while others grew out their hair. Our conversations changed from our favorite NFL player the year before to politics and what colleges we were planning to attend.

Our conversations switching to our futures was the first natural change any of us noticed. Of course, we were still the same people and still had the same connection just as the year prior but something changed. The battering culture of high school hit each of us and caused us to change. Just like that stream, we had been carved out and had grown in size. The influence of our peers and social media was equivalent to the downpours that expanded the sheer size of the stream's eroded banks. We were all the same stream at the bottom that we were the year before, but it was clear this year's erosion had shaped us in much more drastic ways.

This wasn't all there was, though. The bluffs were bare of most of the small vegetation that used to cling to their sides. Due to storms, a washed new face of limestone cracks and caves called for us to explore them. The woods on top of them were flush with new life, sinkholes, and fallen trees.

We were committed to keeping our adolescent ways and letting loose, but it was evident things were changing. We stood before sheer the rock face. We traversed through crevices and the occasional sketchy pull-up over a twenty-foot drop. Like the new risks we were taking with our older and bolder age, it felt dangerous. Making it to the top of the four-story bluff we found the exact spot our older cousins had created dozens of years ago: a small clearing that Mother Nature had spared from the explosion of vegetation. It was perfect with rocks set up in a ragged semi-circle against trees for backrests. The small fire pit that we had made now filled up with the rock boundary caving in. A clearing in the trees at the edge of the rock face offered everyone in the circle an ever-changing view of sunsets, cattle pastures, streams, and the tents below—allowing us to look out but no one below to look up and in.

Memories flooded back, a broken Corona bottle and a spent bottle rocket stick from the year before. I looked down at the crescent-shaped scar on my hand and remembered the story behind it. Degrading cigarette butts from old cousins who now have kids of their own. The circle of kids coming up here was similar to the bluffs we were on, whose limestone rock face was constantly being eroded and changed. Twenty years of cousins had cycled through the group of minors who would come to this circle, grown and then blown away from the bluffs just like the underbrush that covered the vertical landscape.

Maybe we would eventually look back and miss these days, but then looking down on the scar on my hand and then the same place on the top of the bluffs that had stood for thirty years, I realized these days would never really leave us.

A year later returning to the bottom a few things were evident. The stream slowly dried up. What was more of a small river than a stream two years prior only contributed enough to barely creep over the bed of rocks at the bottom. The bluffs from the year prior were now speckled with greenery and small trees grew out as a new cycle began. I took a moment to reflect on the landscape of the bottom that brandished many scars and memories. Days at a time spent here without leaving, sleeping on the ground, or cooking meals over the fire. A couple of birthdays and an anniversary or two.

Without these trips, I wouldn't be the same person at all. My cousins and I had never grown apart thanks to this place. I was a part of a cycle that took place in this valley. This maze of bluffs, streams, and trees changed almost as consistently as our lives did, being shaped by the influence of everything. I enjoyed every part of the cycle from the age of wearing diapers to the age of driving myself there. I watched some of my younger cousins who I had never really spent much time with begin to climb the bluffs as I took my seat around the campfire.

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