By Larry A. Stone
“Disaster area” says the sign on my filing cabinet – except you can’t see the sign because of the file boxes piled in front of it. And the file piles on top of the file boxes.
But crammed into that filing cabinet – and a half-dozen others in my office and basement – lurk volumes of history, just waiting to burst forth. That’s what we pack rats collect: history. Don’t believe your spouse or anyone else who tries to tell you the notes from that 1982 column on farm pond fishing for bluegills are just more junk that should be thrown away. Those filing cabinets, folders, boxes and piles are brimming with ideas. I think of them as mountains of nostalgia – veritable treasure chests of literary jewels in need of only a bit of polish.
When Peasants Forever editor Mark Herwig asked if I could do a piece to commemorate PF’s 20-plus years of habitat restoration work, little did he know I would dig out notes and photos from stories I’d written two decades ago. Or that I could track down and photograph again the 1980s people and tree plantings for a before and after update.
Some writers might have tossed that old “stuff” after the first story was printed. But not this pack rat. I never throw anything away. You just never know when you might need to refer to those notes again.
One of my first columns when I went to work for the Des Moines Register back in 1972 featured wildflower expert Sylvan T. Runkel. At the time, I naively thought of him merely as a good source for information about spring flowers. But I soon learned this amazing Iowan was becoming a legend not only for his wildflower books, but also for his public TV appearances, his conservation work with farmers and his passion for preserving natural areas.
I interviewed and photographed Sy many times over the next 20 years and kept all those photos and scribbles. When a friend conned me into writing Sy’s biography, “Sylvan T. Runkel: Citizen of the Natural World,” that bulging file labeled “Runkel” gave us a running start. And the names and notes from previous stories opened doors to more contacts as we researched the book.
My Iowa collection also came in handy when the Iowa Department of Natural Resources needed a writer for what was to become an award-winning book, “Iowa – Portrait of the Land.” I’ve always believed that I got that contract as much for my filing cabinets as for my writing ability. As we traced the shaping of Iowa’s landscape from presettlement to the present, I regularly rummaged in the old files for facts, figures, tidbits and anecdotes to help paint that “portrait.”
Same goes for another book that I wrote for the Iowa DNR, “Whitetail: Treasure, Trophy, or Trouble? – A History of Deer in Iowa.” Sure, it helped to have enough gray hairs to prove I had lived through – and participated in – the lion’s share of Iowa’s modern deer hunting seasons. But having a “deer” file packed with old regulations and annual stories and notes and letters from hunters sealed the deal. Sure am glad I didn’t pitch that assortment of odds and ends – some of which seemed pretty dull at the time.
Now, immersed in my next book, I’m again thankful for the riches in the less-than-tidy stacks of information that surround me at my desk. I first met Gladys Black, “Iowa’s Bird Lady,” 35 years ago. I subsequently interviewed and photographed her dozens of times. And I never threw away any of those pictures, papers or notepads. What’s more, I kept clippings from other reporters who wrote about her. And I filed away all the folksy columns Gladys wrote during her 15 years as an occasional columnist for the Des Moines Register.
I continually refer to those old, fading papers, still-crisp color slides and well-preserved audiotapes. And, as a bonus, the second look at past references often turns up a new angle, nuance, or slightly different perspective on a quote that’s lain dormant for a couple of decades. Those “archives” (they’re no longer “piles”) have become a real gold mine as my co-author and I pull together the legacy of a woman who may have done more to promote bird-watching and environmental education in Iowa than any other person.
Am I just rationalizing my inability to tidy up my office and get rid of the clutter? Perhaps. But you never know when that dogeared notebook or decades-old Kodachrome might produce a name, image, or idea that will catch a modern editor’s eye, grab a new reader – and bring in a paycheck! ◊
Larry A. Stone is a freelance writer and photographer with four books and 25 years of newspaper experience to his credit. He’s a resident of Elkader, Iowa, and a 37-year member of OWAA. Contact him at email@example.com.