I was of many minds on the Friday afternoon in the Fall of 2021 as I drove into Joy Hollow Girl Scout Camp to prepare for the upcoming weekend immersive outdoor retreat, “On Common Ground.” The collaborative intersection of the arts and sciences had been two years in the making, with the Covid-19 pandemic wrenching our plans for a gathering the year before. Foremost in my thoughts, though, was gratitude: to have this time to connect with nature, engage with community, and to celebrate a venture with so many interesting, talented people. This included prominent, big-name authors I’ve long admired like Connie Mutel, Dan O’Brien, John T. Price, and Patrick Hicks, theologians (Kristen Drahos & Vince Miller), prairie restoring land owners (Bill & Dotty Zales, Jerry & Norma Wilson), and ecologists, students, and others who all shared a common desire to go further, to dive deeper, and to connect with people and places and ideas and feelings in a way that can only be experienced with others, especially because, for most of us, this weekend gathering would be the first time in the company of strangers since the Covid-19 pandemic began. 

I was especially satisfied to be engaged in this project with Dr. Brian Hazlett, an environmental science professor at Briar Cliff University and a former colleague. Brian and I had worked together dozens of times over the years on efforts to create genuine intersectionality between the arts, humanities, and sciences, both at BCU and out in the community as well. We co-sponsored the annual “Little Readings on the Prairie” to celebrate Iowa Prairie Heritage Week and attended and presented at the Loess Hills Prairie Seminar. So, when Brian approached me years before and shared the book, In the Blast Zone, a text about a gathering of artists and -ologists at Mount St. Helens, the idea for our own Loess Hills version, our “Common Ground,” was born. 

Our end goal was to execute a multidisciplinary, multimodal project that would ultimately lead to various media, namely, a film, a book, and educational content to foster integrative collaboration between the arts and sciences among those who’ve devoted their personal and professional lives to protecting the Hills and those new to the unique, micro-climate topography. So that’s what we did. 

On Common Ground: Learning and Living in the Loess Hills (Ice Cube Press) aims to increase the awareness of and appreciation for the Loess Hills by representing opportunity and showing potential—for discovery, for understanding, and for growth. 

The poet Joseph Brodsky writes, “Geography blended with time equals destiny.” We sought to test this premise in western Iowa. At the soul of this project are fundamental questions: What can literature and visual images bring to the study of the Loess Hills and its preservation that science cannot? What can science show us about the Hills that the arts appear to miss? How will understanding the ways we approach knowledge help us to better understand and ‘know’ the Hills? 

Thankfully, our community partners and funders, including the National Endowment for the Arts, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources REAP program, and the Margaret Ann Martin Everist Foundation, could all recognize the value of this effort and the proposition for what it might be able to produce.

The On Common Ground collection of essays, poetry, photographs, and sketches represent the shared pursuit of this understanding and a commitment to our collective cause: to better understand the land and our relationship to it, and how this informs our identity and purpose. 

The On Common Ground text draws on collaborative literary projects such as Land of the Fragile Giants (1994), Forest Under Story (2016), and In the Blast Zone (2008). We believe society’s big questions and issues are better addressed when the humanities and sciences collaborate. We believe it because we witnessed it over the course of a weekend together in the Hills and out beyond in the pages of the text. 

But to be fair, Brian and I never really knew what would happen, just that if we got enough magical, brilliant people together around some fire and some bison, something amazing would transpire. And it did. IT happened sitting in circles at mealtimes. IT happened practicing yoga and meditating at sunrise and jamming and dancing to a Mike Langley musical performance at sunset. It happened in all the walks and talks with each other during the days and in the solitude and quiet of our tents, rooms, and cabins late at night. 

I hope there’s a little bit of something for everyone within this On Common Ground text. We all look at these same Hills but see with such beautiful, wild, unique eyes: like Patrick Hicks, who looks to the Hills and sees Irish history, or Vince Miller or Kristen Drahos, who unveil Genesis, or Jerry Wilson through the politics of climate change, or Aric Ping, who in “Joy, Hollow,” explores the Loess Hills of the mind. It’s not just a written story, though. On Common Ground is a visual journey as well. Nan Wilson’s graphite sketches and acrylic paintings reveal relationships—to one another and to the plants, the lead plant and yucca, and goldenrod- that so enraptured our attention and imagination. And the photographs of Jeremy Covert and his team, especially the aerial drone shots of the burn, reveal the scale and scope of the prairie landscape, and the smallness, despite our impact, of our place in it. 

At one point in the weekend, Scott Moats, the Nature Conservancy’s Director of Stewardship at Broken Kettle, said a line that still sticks with me today. “Everything has an impact.” How much we need each other, how much we need this land, how much we need to love this land and each other, is a lesson still resonating within me today. And although we’re about two years removed from our time together in the Hills, what happened there, what we learned and lived there together for those three days, will live on now. We all get to have a new adventure together. 

You can join us. On Common Ground: Learning and Living in the Loess Hills (Ice Cube Press) will be out on August 1, 2023. ISBN 9781948509459. You can order here at or join us in person in Sioux City to celebrate the release at Briar Cliff University at 7 p.m., Thursday, August 24th, and at Book People on Sunday, August 27th, from 12-2 p.m., for a short reading and book signing.

By Ryan Allen & Meghan Nelson

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