Monday, April 25, 2011

The mythic bird lady of Iowa

Originally printed May 13, 2010.

Gladys Black's life is too unconventional to fit neatly within any straightforward biographical account.

The brief synopsis provided by the Iowa Women's Hall of Fame, for example, says Black was "known for her untiring efforts to educate Iowans about their natural surroundings and the need for protecting the environment for future generations." It mentions her early work as a public health nurse, her many columns on Iowa's native birds printed for the Des Moines Register and the many hikes and educational programs she hosted until her death in 1998 at 89.

But those few facts by themselves don't explain how Black gradually transformed from her more conventional life as a wife and nurse to become what former State Ecologist Dean Roosa called "the Iowa version of Rachel Carson."

Nor do they explain how the name "Gladys Black" became a swear word among Iowa's hunters -- especially those who advocated dove hunting -- as well as a quick prayer offered to the patron saint of all things avian in Iowa.

That's why Larry Stone, a former outdoor writer for the Des Moines Register, and fellow writer Jon Stravers set out to provide a book-length account of that transformation in "Gladys Black: The Legacy of Iowa's Bird Lady."

In many ways, Black's legacy already has been secured for the next generation through projects like the "Gladys Black Eagle Refuge." And her commitment to the outdoors has inspired a second, third and even fourth generation of conservation activists. Stone and Stravers, in fact, seem committed to trying to infect as many readers as possible with "GBS" -- Gladys Black Syndrome.

But it takes a while for the more mythic version of Gladys Black to emerge from this short biography. It's not until at least halfway through the book that Stone and Stravers have the opportunity to introduce their readers to Black as a larger-than-life figure. A figure so recognizable that Des Moines Register cartoonist Frank Miller could use Black's image as a stand-in for all things environmental and anti-hunting. A figure so revered that, after the University of Iowa Press published Black's "Iowa Birdlife," enough people came to her 1992 reading at Prairie Lights that she spent "a couple of hours patiently autographing books for an adoring crowd."

Perhaps, in their attempt to describe Black's legacy, Stone and Stravers might have spent a little more time delving into the mythological rather than the biographical. In Norse mythology, for example, Freyja -- the goddess associated with love, beauty, fertility, gold, war and death -- has a special suit made from falcon feathers that, when worn, allowed her to fly with as much grace and agility as any bird.

Gladys Black -- dressed in her trademark jacket and cap -- never tried to be a goddess, let alone one known for her beauty and feminine wiles. But Black has earned her place as "Iowa's Bird Lady" and hopefully now is soaring with the birds she loved so much.

Honorary Dr. Robert Hass

On Saturday, Robert Hass -- former U.S. poet laureate, regular visiting professor for the Iowa Writers' Workshop and winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award -- will receive an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters at the University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts commencement.

At 7 p.m. Friday, area residents can come to Prairie Lights and hear firsthand why Haas has earned all those awards and accolades. Hass is scheduled to read from "The Apple Trees at Olema: New and Selected Poems" and from his new selection of the work of Walt Whitman, "Song of Myself and Other Poems."

Press-Citizen Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at or 319-887-5435.

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