Essays and poetry
Scroll down to read winning entries from the youth and high school/adult divisions.
The Hawk — Mary L. Zachmeyer, Mount Pleasant
Two roads meet like old friends,
known to people as Windmill Corner —
to the rabbit as home.
Cottonwood leaves clap,
vie for the wind’s power
as the sun rests on cornstalk stubs.
A red-tailed hawk slices the wind like steel
while vapor streams intersect in sky streaks behind him.
The bird swoops — its odor smothers the rabbit
like an invisible cape, petrifies him to the earth.
The hawk nicks his prey and drops of blood trickle.
Wind bends the cottonwoods
as winter reaches its arms over the prairie.
Trees shout bittersweet oranges and raw siennas,
but the winds belong to January.
Rabbit knows it’s time to ready his hutch
for his winter coat sprouts, itches like hop vine.
He looks up, no soaring enemy in sight
but his legs freeze — cemented to Mother Earth.
Finally, he hops.
Shadowed by an old tree stump, Red-tailed hawk
glares at his meal now on the run.
Wings lift like flags in a tornado,
eyes slant to a sliver of ebony,
beak lowers into his chest,
wings part air like speed and sound.
Suddenly, a boy darts out from the trees
scaring hawk and rabbit alike.
The child smiles as the rabbit leaps
to his nest under the old windmill.
To Watch a Wooly Worm — James J. Sandegren, Keokuk
A black and brown striped woolly worm appeared to her one day.
It caught her eye and bid her stop her dance across the lawn.
She watched in deepest interest as it ambled on its way.
And instantly she stooped to watch it crawl 'till it was gone.
"Where did it go?" she asked the doll which cuddled 'neath her arm.
The doll just smiled with no reply its painted face to tell.
Her eyes had searched both high and low to see its gentle charm
And she was nigh to walk away when from a weed it fell.
"Ah, there it is." she cried and bent to take it on her hands
So it would crawl from hand to hand before her smiling face.
It felt so light and as it moved the ripples of its bands
Would tease the skin on which it moved so hurried in its pace.
She ran to show it to a friend with interest that would show
And they would work to fix a jar to keep it safe and warm
From cold and snow which winter brings with wretched winds that blow
While in the jar it spends the days protected from all harm.
The winter snows have come and gone to expectations high.
Her woolly friend has changed its shape before her startled gaze.
A silk cocoon it has become as Spring comes quickly nigh
And through the house the eager minds await the warming days.
And then one day a miracle occurs within her view.
Her silk cocoon has changed again, amazing all who see
That now a lovely tigermoth appears so sleek and new
As natural wonders bring new life each year so faithfully.
The little girl is outside now as bright the Sun shines down
And as she frees her winter friend she knows it cannot stay.
The tigermoth which now is free to fly to blooms now grown
And as she waves and calls good bye, her wonder flies away.
The Country Woodlot — Jan Blankenburg, Donnellson
He worked there
Not hard but steadily
Providing tomorrow's ease
It settled him this private time
Outside with a task at hand
That was solidly real
Adjusted his mind
To the approach of winter
Giving him fortitude
To face the gray days
Shortened by the declining sun
And the coming of long nights
And heavy snows
His axe a talisman
His woodlot a piece of ground that took on power
A place where for the time he occupied it
He felt a lifting of his spirit
Call of the Wild — Jane A. Willan, Burlington
The animal sat ramrod straight on the edge of the city walking trail. Nose up and eyes alert, the last beams of the setting sun caught the edges of his large ears making them nearly translucent. Without taking my eyes off of him, I stopped in front of him and stood perfectly still. At first glance, I thought he was a dog; a skinny golden retriever off-leash. I imagined his owner frantically calling the dog’s name out the backdoor of some nearby apartment. Or perhaps it was simply a Dog Park escapee, free at last, free at last. Then I saw it. The wildness. A wild beauty captured in bones and flesh and fur. I stood face to face with the cousin to the gray wolf, a coyote. His quivering, untamed presence spoke of tawny limbs racing through canyons, of a head thrown back in a piercing primal howl, of the camaraderie of a pack huddled together against a snowstorm, of the lithe movement of legs chasing, jumping, crouching. And even though I could hear rush hour traffic behind me, for one moment, I stepped into the wild with him.
The coyote looked young; an almost-grown puppy, gangly and curious. I nearly held my breath afraid he would turn and vanish into the small stand of trees at his back. Instead, he cocked his head slightly-perhaps as interested in me as I was in him. The coyote, a Native American deity and portrayed as cunning and swift in mythology, has adapted surprisingly well to the urban sprawl of the American city. Canis latrans, also known as prairie wolf, once freely roamed the American plains. But unlike other species that disappeared with the loss of their habitat, the coyote now lives successfully in our urban communities, perhaps making a comfortable den in a storm drain and a healthy diet from a garbage can. For all the beauty in my coyote pup, humans are finding the urban coyote a nuisance and even, a danger. Interestingly, we destroyed their natural habitat, but now resent that they have entered ours.
The coyote on the walking trail reminded me of something I had forgotten. He reminded me that the world we live in was first a wild world. Twenty yards from my favorite Indian restaurant and a blinking stoplight with backed-up traffic, sat the gathered strength of an ancient animal; a predator which has survived since the Pleistocene Era on physical prowess and primitive instinct. And continues to survive-despite what humans have done.
In the middle of rush hour sat the calm dignity of the primordial forest. And for one moment, I left the city and entered the coyote’s world. For that I will always be grateful.
Flock of Friends — Allison Alison, Burlington
"Good Morning, Hank! Good Morning, White Duck!" These words set in motion a wave as geese and mallards propel themselves toward the shore, spilling out of the lake for a bit
of cracked corn. Magic.
Such moments began last fall when I saw a goose listing in the water, one leg hanging limply. I began toting cracked corn for him. After two weeks, though, "Saul" disappeared. He may have flown away, but the coyote spotted racing to the lake one morning may offer another, more realistic clue.
After that first day I fed Saul, three other geese and a couple dozen mallards quickly learned someone carried corn. Now, noisy honks and quacks herald each morning visit. From the beginning, the goose christened Hank showed so much moxie I laughed. He's an animated goose with attitude, noisy, wary, and ready to fly in an instant; yet, his black, black eyes demand the Farm King corn.
On the first day, I held out a handful of feed. He considered the offer then plunged his beak into the gold treasure, emitting soft, throaty notes. If I don't present it quickly, Hank snakes his neck toward the sack. Gently, I admonish his greediness, only because I don't want him to slice the bag. Millie and Melvin, part of Hank's flock, follow but hesitate to eat from my hand. Still, the flock watches for the woman and her cattle dog to appear before the pink of winter dawn.
Understandably my dog disquieted them at first. After all, they have seen both real and imagined coyotes, and Tess' prick ears, lithe body, and long tail resemble a coyote's (though I suspect geese and ducks react to any dog). In the beginning, if Tess so much as flicked an ear, Hank, White Duck, and the rest scattered in a whoosh, wings beating and legs whirring. Gradually, they learned Tess sits quietly as they eat.
Now, most anticipate breakfast and hustle to the bank as we approach. Recently, one of the female mallards began taking kernels from my hand; her beak skims my palm instead of pinching it as Hank's does. The birds often place me in a circle; from within, I watch their frenzied pecking. Their steady murmurs and muted honks and quacks calm me. I marvel daily at the deep blacks and browns and purples of their feathers. Their webbed footsteps score the earth, a natural mosaic.
Unlike Hank, who protects his food by hissing or even striking at any bird that draws too near, White Duck herds the other mallards toward the corn, even returning to the lake to usher stragglers forward. They waddle, waddle, waddle, looking as if they have important business with me. On the coldest mornings, the geese fluff onto the ground, tucking their leathery looking feet and legs beneath their feathers, then peck at the corn scattered around their bodies. Sometimes, ice crystals adorn their backs like delicate jewels. On warmer days, water droplets roll off them; I never fully appreciated the cliche, "Like water off a duck's back" until now.
The first morning the lake sported a scrim of ice, Hank used his chest to plow through, crinkling the ice while the others paddled behind. When ice glistens the rocks rimming the lake, the flock does not clamber up them, wings flapping for balance like tightrope walkers; instead, they heft their bodies and fly to the bank. However they can, they come to me.
Their merry greeting has become a morning ritual and a daily adventure with Hank, White Duck, and the others. I treasure the limited, wild trust they bestow upon me. As Wordsworth believes, we can remember a pleasing image from Nature in our pensive moments and thus restore our balance. Hank, White Duck, and Company do so for me.
The Mighty Mississippi Mystery — Mary L. Zachmeyer, Mt. Pleasant
A friend once asked if I liked the Mississippi River. A silence as big as the river itself grabbed me. As if a sacred icon had been desecrated, I replied, "You don't use the word 'like' when you talk about the Mississippi."
The Mississippi. Its very spelling has been a game for children for generations. I remember dancing around the playground on tiptoes, the double lettering sliding off my lips. Its spelling was like our very own nursery rhyme in southeast Iowa.
The River's education continued in school. We learned of its breadth and length, how it is the longest, widest river in the world (with all its tributaries). "The Mighty Mississippi''' were words that rolled off lips like prayers on a rosary. To live within her breadth held bragging rights. And it belonged to us. In a town of 30,000 in the 1950's, to possess any greatness was to hold up one's head and strut around the world, such as it was.
When I was a child, I learned that the railroad hugged her banks. We walked the rails to go fishing. My grandparents warned us to be careful, "Don't get your foot stuck in its thick iron claws!" On summer days, we gathered bouquets of wild daisies and purple phlox, putting them on old graves. We made dandelion necklaces and caught catfish with the whitest meat ever seen from the mighty River's abundance. We swam in her waters and squished mud between our toes.
In the 1950s, the toll to walk across the Mac Arthur Bridge was a nickel. I walked to the center of it one time. The view of constant, churning waves below was more than a young girl's stomach could endure. And probably, even now years later. Some people hold their breath while crossing a body of water. They soon learn the Mississippi is too broad for that. The River demanded great respect. Its whirlpools carried many children and adults to their deaths. Sadly, people often used her strength and depth to swallow them in their depressed states.
Facing east on our front porch, storms approached as lightning fell and ascended in great symphonies of silver. There was no fear, only God in all of His magnificence as He orchestrated a cantata of River and Storm.
Countless mysteries have been created about the islands gathered around the shores of the River. One June morning when motherhood lay heavy on my shoulders, I walked along her beach. A milky shell glistened in the sun drifting like memories. I recalled wading in these dark waters, shading my first born with an umbrella. The world seemed perfect in 1962.
Then, the children became teenagers and life was falling down a shaft. I scooped up the shell on the beach, inspected its hidden rainbows, its character as I had done my son, so red and small years before. A rusted pop can drifted and I dug with my fingers to bury its ugliness. In the wetness of sand, I saw the baby playing in her sandbox. She squealed as she built a castle. "Mama, look," sapphire eyes tearing as her brother stomped on her creation. Parts of me disappeared as I soothed, taught, tried to do it all as a mother. Years later, I agonized when the sandbox child became defiant, as undisciplined as a tornado.
That day, I followed the trail winding up the hill where Blackhawk spirits engulfed. Indians made these trails. I could see their faces, wrinkles deep as eroding hillsides, skin smooth, tan as leather. I needed times like this to winnow my feelings, the trees forming an arch as though cradling me. Sparrows twittered. I found peace that June morning.
The Mississippi River runs through the center of the United States like the aorta. It runs through the veins of those who live and die within her reach also. You are always conscious of her, like a newborn child or elderly parent. You love and respect her and know that a part of her belongs to you. One cannot like the Mississippi. She possesses you forever.
Home — Ethan Orth, Burlington
Clear dew drops on the green tree sprouts
Morning gold light illuminating the crystal streams
along with the souls of all who contemplate its beauty
unbearable stress rupturing the fragile bone of a twig
deer scatter at the clamor caused by their own feet
the stampede begins with a blink of the eye
and is ended with equal haste
The lowly chipmunk charges for its home in the sycamore
spring gales sweep through the bewildering landscape
causing leaves to dance at my feet
along with the scent of wild flowers
a hummingbirds red-throat glistening in the in the sunlight
trout in the glass brooks
blank stares in their eyes
appearance of smiles upon their faces
Vines entwining the late tree behind me
animals surrounding the land behind me
oblivious to anything outside the small enclosure
no trace of man ever treading foot through the fruitful soil
grass carved of emerald
honey bees stealing nectar from a nearby flower
the perfect place
a place to be called:
Nature Walk — Abbey Timberlake, Burlington
As I walk by
This crystal clear lake
I see the reflection of the trees
The sight brings me to my knees
I watch the sky
As birds fly by
Like a little kid learning
To ride a bike
And they distract my eyes
With beautiful blue feathers
On the outside.
As I try and walk away
The sway of the trees
Made me stay.
Black Sky — Brennan Creelman,Burlington
li was almost quitting time
We were packing up our gear
For a long trip of disappointment
We hadn't seen a bird all day
It was a zoo with no animals
For what we paid to get up here
It wasn't worth it
Until one of my buddies
Saw one bird then
Ten then a hundred
It was like giant clouds of black
So we got our
Guns back out
And got ready to shoot
My gun could feel the adrenalin in me
But then I yelled,
"Stop! Don't shoot!"
They all looked at me and said "Why?"
Cause they are migrating home
Let them feed
We'll come back tomorrow
My Favorite Place — Parker Hanks, Burlington
Camp Eastman is my favorite place in the world to be outside. I love to be there out in the woods walking trails exploring it is like a whole new world. There is much to do in three hundred acres that most people will never even now know. I have been there over and over and each time it feels better and better to be there. When I go I want to walk all the trails but there just isn’t enough time. It always smells like hot dogs being cooked by many fires. Our campsite has been the neatest it is way far back and every day we stay there we try to take a different trail to the mess hall and our classes if we have any.
Sometimes when I have a lot going on I will get out there and walk the trails, explore a little. Nothing bothers me when I am out there nothing is annoying. No one can get a hold of me no cell service just a place to go and be alone and clear my head. The animals there are fun to watch usually you get close enough to watch them eat without scaring them. Another good reason it is good to get away you can’t solve all your problems by going to Wal-Mart you have to think and you have to know what to do next. The colors are so pretty too. You could paint a lot of great pictures out in the middle of the woods. If I was a good artist I would go out there and paint as much as I could. I enjoy going out there. If I was a good artist I would go out there and paint as much as I could. I enjoy going out there.
Berries — Sasha Zelenski, Burlington
As I sit on my ancient, gray chair, I wonder how long I will have to keep picking the red currant berries that grow on my grandmother’s farm in Ukraine. It is hard work, made even harder by the relentless midday sun and the stinging nettles that guard the little red berries.
I pick some more, then decide I am hungry and go into the orchard to pick myself an apple. I manage to find one that isn’t home to some ants or rotten.
I chomp on the bright green apple, I wonder what I will do on the train ride home, for my grandmother and uncle don’t live in the same city as their farm. It’s a long one hour train ride to their apartment.
I finish the apple and throw the core over the fence where the old cathedral is. Nobody has any money to rebuild it so it just sits there. Some small bushes and beech trees have grown inside.
I hear a weird clacking noise and look up. A stork is standing on what is left of the derelict cathedral’s roof. I remember what I was doing and go back to picking the red currant berries. I pick for about ten minutes, then I move my chair to a spot that has more berries.
It is also a home to several spiders. I try to avoid most of the spiderwebs, but it is almost inevitable that I will get some on my hand. I continue picking the berries and dropping them into the seemingly bottomless bucket, then I forget to be careful and get stung by the stinging nettles.
It hurts so I go dip my hand into the giant stone basin my grandmother uses to catch rainwater. The pain lessens so I go back to the berries. My last thought before I fall into the zen of picking berries is, Why can’t all America be like this, unpolluted and natural? Why have we destroyed the thing that gave us life?
Good Ol' Days — Alex Furnald, Burlington
A long time ago, there used to be rolling plains or prairies where peaceful creatures could rest and roam around. There used to be clear, blue lakes where geese and other animals could drink from and swim in.
Then out of nowhere men appeared with a plethora of tools and machines. They started hacking at the trees and fields looking for a place to settle down. Hacking and hacking and hacking they destroyed all of the gigantic, great green maple, oak, and birch trees.
They slowly multiplied and that meant more space. They cut down more trees and fields so they could prosper. They constructed houses, churches, schools, courtyards; anything you could think of. Soon they built roads for their carriages.
Birds and other wild animals now had even less room to roam and make a nice, cozy home. One bird’s home was an enormous spruce tree that stood as tall as the heavens. But, like all of the other trees, it was chopped down. It was made into logs that soon took form of a small log cabin. The birds that lived in it had to flutter away to seek a new place to live.
All of the other animals had the same exact problem: they were losing their original habitat they once earned. The groundhogs and moles and other soil dwelling animals were killed so the people could make farms and recreational centers. The deer were killed to make soft, fancy rugs, and so they could be eaten at a feast.
After a couple centuries, people realized that they needed to help to save these animals so they don’t become extinct. They started to make state parks that hold a great amount of animals and trees. They started to plant more trees, and recycle more. They made laws so you could only hunt animals in a certain season.
People are learning different ways to help conserve our amazing, green trees that give us oxygen. Also to help save animals that are close to becoming extinct. Someday I hope that there will be as many trees and animals there once were before.