B.O. Wolden (1886-1968) was a prolific naturalist, an amateur botanist, and an advocate for conservation. Born to pioneers in rural Emmet county, Olaf witnessed drastic ecological changes during his lifetime as European Americans reshaped the tallgrass prairie bioregion. For nearly forty years, Olaf shared his observations of the natural world in a regular newspaper column called Nature Notes.
The Observer: The Life and Writings of Bernt Olaf Wolden was written by Amie Adams in partnership with the Iowa Master Naturalist Program and Emmet County Conservation. The book contains a biography of B.O. Wolden (written by Adams) and a selection of 100 of Mr. Wolden’s “Nature Notes.” Readers will learn about Iowa’s natural history and this fascinating Iowa naturalist. Copies are available for purchase online and at the Emmet County Nature Center. All proceeds support conservation and nature education in Emmet county.
Please enjoy the following excerpts from the book.
“If we have once become aware of the wonder of little things in nature, we never get done learning about them, looking at them and for them. Learning about them does not mean acquiring a scientific knowledge of them, or how to classify them scientifically, but to take the time first to notice them, then to observe their beauty and to see the unusual and strange things about them. There are folks who make but little progress when they walk through a wood because at every few steps they see something to wonder about.” -B.O. Wolden, 1961
A Child and A Tree
Pale teardrop-shaped seeds borne by snow-white tufts float on the June breeze. They strand in twigs and grass and multiply into heaps like mislaid snowbanks. Seeds that fall into fertile soil burrow a snaking taproot into the earth and release a tender shoot that turns firm and woody, soon to unfurl a shake of heart-shaped leaves.
In 1884, ten-year-old Hannah Wolden planted a cottonwood seedling next to her family’s farmhouse on the shore of High Lake. Two years later, her mother—Bertha—gave birth to the fifth Wolden child, a son with blond hair and blue eyes whom she and her husband Peter named Bernt Olaf. Close in age, the boy and the tree grew up together, part of the same landscape. The centenarian still lives in Wolden Park near where the farmhouse once stood. Five years prior, in 1881, Peter and Bertha moved from Minnesota with toddlers Hannah, Petra, and Magnus to settle in Island Grove with a community of Norwegian immigrant farmers. They planted flower beds, cleared trees for pastures, filled their windows with indoor plants.
Peter took the job of postmaster at the High Lake Post Office for the first few years, and later Olaf would recall Hannah’s stories about riding her horse back and forth from the post office along the shores of the lakes and sloughs. As a young boy, Olaf ’s world consisted of his family’s farm and flower gardens, the company of his parents and five siblings, a network of neighbors—including the first pioneers who settled the area—and the rural schoolhouse he attended at the southern end of High Lake. His forays through the woods and groves to and from school and on Sunday hikes led by his sister Petra revealed pink moccasin flower, yellow lady’s slipper, rare orchids and ferns, and flocks of sandhill cranes and pelicans.
As an adult, he cited these formative childhood days as the reason for his wonder and appreciation for the world of nature. Emmet county teetered toward the extent of its settlement during Olaf ’s childhood years. By 1900, rural population density would peak statewide, with fifteen or more residents per square mile, but Island Grove, positioned at the receding edge of the elusive frontier, was a holdout for wet prairie, peat bogs, and wooded groves where fisher, otter, and rare plants clung to their habitats. It was an ideal home for a naturalist-in-the-making.
Nature Notes Begin
During the tumultuous years of his first marriage, the birth of his children, and the long months collecting plant specimens, Olaf began the work for which he would be most remembered—his Nature Notes. His first article elaborated on a phenomenon he recorded in his journal each year, the appearance of furry catkins on the pussy willow. This inaugural article follows a structure that Olaf seldom deviated from during his writing career. His articles tended to feature a plant or animal, share its history, its connection to Emmet county, and something of his personal experience with it. Other common elements were remarks about the conservation status of the subject of his article and—if it were a particularly well known species—a quotation from a writer or poet about that plant. He liked to quote Bryant and Woodsworth in particular.
What made the year 1930 the time Olaf chose to start writing for the general public? By then he had published four papers: two in The Proceedings of the Iowa Academy of Science and two in American Botanist. Although publication of “The Plants of Emmet County, Iowa” was still two years away, the paper’s introduction gives a good indication. He wrote:
The impulse which started the author on the road to a better knowledge of the plant life among which he had grown up and in which he had been interested since childhood, was the perusal of a local flora of a northeastern Iowa county. He would feel well repaid for any work spent if this paper could awaken in any of our boys and girls an interest in wild flowers and plants and their preservation, as well as nature in general.
For this reason, Olaf included the common names of most of the plants listed in his forty-five page flora and included brief notes on where many of the plants could be found “with the hope of adding local interest.” But, simply providing locations in his flora would not generate the level of local interest Olaf desired. A newspaper column, however, provided a space for Olaf to share stories from the field. By 1930, extensive plant surveys had taken him throughout Emmet county, where he had observed a bountiful, changing landscape. Surely there were many reasons that Olaf decided to begin his newspaper column: a friend could have suggested it, becoming a father could have inspired him to pass on his love of nature, changes in the landscape and the disappearance of species once common likely instilled in him a desire for conservation. The project may have steadied him in the uncertain years of his wife’s illness. Whatever the reason, the publication of his first newspaper column marked the beginning of a project that would continue for the rest of his life and bring stories of the natural world to readers of all ages.
June 26, 1930
Prairie Flowers Are Still to be Seen in County
There are probably young people born and raised in the prairie state of Iowa who hardly know what a prairie looked like. In many localities prairies are a thing of the past and hardly a patch can be found except perhaps a narrow strip along railroad tracks and along some by-roads where some prairie plants still persist. In our locality several small stretches of prairie may still be found, although many more have been made into pasture in recent years.
There was considerable difference between high prairie and low prairie in general appearance caused largely by the difference in vegetation. Most of the prairie we have left is high prairie consisting largely of gravelly knolls and hilly land near the Des Moines river.
The prairie in its virgin state has a charm of its own to the nature lover. Early writers tell of the glories of the Iowa prairies. They tell of the rolling sea of waving grasses, of the masses of flowers that brightened their vast expanse; of the myriads of birds of all kinds. We are told that June was the wonder month of the prairie. Then the prairie rose and prairie phlox lent color to the waving green. Interspersed were golden meadow parsnips as well as other variously colored flowers. From the upland bush sounded the songs of many plovers and curlews circled over the low swells uttering their flute-like calls. In the numerous ponds and sloughs nested the wild ducks and Canada geese.
Efforts have been made by the Iowa Conservation Board to obtain a few of the remaining spots of prairie to be preserved so future generations may know what Iowa’s prairies looked like. We can, however, here get many glimpses of prairie flowers as we drive through the country, especially on the by-roads.
Early in June several species of meadow parsnip scatter gold along the roadside. The prairie rose appears with flowers of numerous shades from white to crimson while sometimes they are strangely variegated. Later in the month the prairie phlox becomes conspicuous. Its flowers also vary from pure white to red or purplish. Probably the finest display we have in this locality of prairie phlox may be seen along the railroad right-of-way between Estherville and Superior.
The flowers of the prairie change as the season progresses. During the summer there are many purple flowers but in August the goldenrods and sun flowers predominate, to be followed in September by the blue, purple, and white of numerous species of wild asters.
August 28, 1930
Mr. Heron Has Big Time With Bullhead Meal
The dry weather of this summer has left most of the marshes and sloughs entirely dry, and even some of the shallowest lakes are dry or almost so. The water birds and waders have been forced to seek the open water of the lakes, where they are mostly without hiding places and can be easily seen. The blue herons are unusually numerous around the shores. These large birds are quite wary and difficult to approach in the open. Along the river banks they can be more easily observed. One evening before dusk I stalked a young heron and watched his actions through a glass. He was walking along with slow and measured steps when, suddenly, he grabbed a small bullhead, probably four or five inches long. The fisherman stepped on shore with his prey and went through several maneuvers in an attempt to swallow it.
An early Iowa ornithologist writes that he once took a sucker, fully ten inches long, from the stomach of a blue heron. According to that, this heron should not have any difficulty with his little fish. But he was not a full grown bird, and besides, he didn’t have to do with a sucker—but a bullhead—and this member of the fish tribe is a provoking thing for anyone to handle. And so, the heron also had his difficulties with it.
One of the reasons for this was probably that the proceedings were not at all to the bullhead’s liking and it wriggled a vigorous protest. The heron wanted it to go down head first, but since that is the big end of a bullhead, it was not easy to get started. Of course, the heron thought too much of the linings of his throat to have it go down the other way.
However, he finally succeeded in getting the fish started the right way, and then, while the bird was going through difficult contortions in his efforts to swallow his tiny meal, the slow progress of the poor fish down the long and narrow throat could be easily seen. By this time, I had stepped out in full view, but the heron had been so busy with his meal that he forgot his wariness. Only when his prey was safely swallowed did he notice the intruder and silently take to his wings.
April 3, 1960
The Annual Miracle of Spring Wood Flowers
At various times in the past some of the early spring flowers have been discussed in this column. It is now several years since this has been done. Young people are growing up and among such there may be a budding Thoreau, Burroughs, or Mills. Or persons who are just lovers of wild things and who love to go out among such. Therefore it should not be amiss to call attention to the beautiful things that may still be seen in what remains of the woodlands that Estherville and a few other localities in the county once had.
There are many flowers of early spring which adorn the wonderful woods along the Des Moines River on the south and west of Estherville and westward in the glen through which flows the picturesque little stream named School Section Creek by the old timers, which 40 years ago became the heart of Fort Defiance State Park. Not all the wild flowers in the area are found in this valley and along its slopes, for some kinds are found in rugged and picturesque ravines and ridges across the river on the south.
It is now well past a century since white people began to come to this vicinity; adults at first, but soon young people and children, for there was a schoolhouse in Estherville a century ago. These hillsides and ravines were—then as now—adorned with the same beautiful flowers as we see in what remains in a natural condition today. Long before that, they had been planted by an unseen hand and still continue to grow where there is a spot of soil in which to cling.
We do not know how many of the pioneer children and young people went into these woods that were almost at the doorsteps of some of them, but we are safe in thinking that many did. Some of us know that two-thirds of a century ago there were children and adults who roamed the High Lake woods to see each year the annual miracle of the awakening woods. Among such there were those who know the wild flowers well, but perhaps not by the names in books, but just as descriptive names, invented, or suggested. We may feel safe in assuming that there were such who frequented the glens at Estherville as well.
We live in a materialistic age when utility is what is demanded; when changing and constructing are the only things that count. This is progress. It is rarely recognized that to preserve and conserve nature and beauty is also progress, and that the contrary is retrogression.
There are left within our city limits many beauty spots, little ravines and odd wooded corners where spring flowers cling tenuously: hepaticas, snow trilliums, bloodroots, dicentras, fawn lilies, and many other delightful jewels of the woods. And not only spring flowers, but numerous other fascinating nature forms and objects at all times of the year. It would seem that it would evince a forward look to safeguard some of these spots that still remain for wildflower refuges where a bit of nature could still be accessible to adults as well as children, nature museums preserving bits of what was growing there a century ago.
It is reasonable to think that there are adults who would cherish such places, not only for the early spring flowers but for other growth from spring through later fall and for the songs of birds which make their homes in such spots, which may be wood thrush, oven bird, and towhee.
We may remember the thought expressed by the poet who went in search for God but found Him not where he looked, but in untamed woods where grew the wild flowers. “I saw His footprints in the sod.” In such spots any searcher might find His footprints, not necessarily only where there may be a flaming scarlet lily, for we do not see such in the woods here in the spring, but rather in the numerous modest but lovely little flowers that appear perennially at the call of the sun and of the south wind. Like fairies, these appear, sometimes overnight, but often more hesitantly, as if tiptoeing into the sunlight out of their dark winter quarters.
Lovely eloquent prose, thank you
Wolden died in a year when general U.S. public support for conservation was on an upswing. I was a conservation-minded teen back then. 1968 was the year I attended my first public hearing, about pesticide use.
Iowa in 2023 is very different. Senate File 516 has gotten little attention, but it is a new kind of low point for conservation in this state. And of course it is an Iowa Farm Bureau bill. It's a kick in the teeth for the Iowans who have dedicated their lives to protecting what survives of Iowa's natural heritage. And that the kick was essentially delivered by the majority of Iowa voters in the last election makes it more painful.