October Is Here and Summer is Hanging On


New blue flower in front for October.

I am pleased to report that the tall weed in front turns out not to be a weed at all.

For much of this summer, a tallish plant has been growing past 2-feet in the small garden by my front door. Because I planted some unfamiliar plants there, and because it looked a little like a variety of milkweed, I decided to let it go and just see where it went. My wife became convinced it was swamp milkweed but I did not think so—swamp milkweed doesn’t wait so long to bloom, and although the leaves looked OK, the branching pattern of the plant didn’t seem right to me.

Oct. 1 Aster in front in is visited by busy bee.

And then came late September. That month, bulbs started to form, and by month’s end, pretty blue flowers that attracted bees and butterflies started to bloom.

A quick google image look at flowers of Iowa quickly revealed the secret. This was an Aster, a pretty fall flower. I’m sure I got it at the Indian Creek Nature Center this summer, where they gave away pollinator plants. I know that I added some milkweed, but I’m sure I got the Aster then and promptly forgot where I planted it.

Well, cool. It’s a plant a Gazette story called an “essential perennial,” and I’m happy to think these pretty blue visitors will be back, blooming full force around Oct. 1 when so many flowers are fading.

Butterfly flower gone to seed in front garden.

October 2021. We are in the second year of a pandemic, but nature carries on. New blue flowers are in bloom, and a butterfly flower is spreading its seeds. I’m letting some blow away and plant where they will, but I’ll collect some, too. Common milkweed in front has formed seed pods, too, and I’m pretty excited to plant more of that.

In September, I saw many monarch butterflies crossing The Hill at Mount Mercy University, where I teach. In recent days, not so many. I think they are mostly south of us now.

Not all migratory species have forsaken us yet, as summer hangs on into fall. On Oct. 2, I got up early and was making my breakfast. I stepped out into the sun room in dim early light, and something silent was flitting about the just-opening morning glory flowers there.

Final day in September, morning glory.

A hummingbird, feeding up for its coming journey. I grabbed my Nikon, but the bird was too fast and the light too dim, I only got a few blurry image.

Oct. 2–Not easy to see, long shutter speed in dim morning light, but that’s a hummingbird getting some breakfast.

It’s not the only nice recent cool dinosaur seen my yard. On the final day of September, I caught an image of a goldfinch in a young oak tree. On the first day of October, a woodpecker posed for me on a pear tree.

Even in the age of the pandemic, there is beauty in nature. And that is some comfort.

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A Giant Bug by Basile


This post is a break from any serious contemplating as summer slides into fall.

I was busy today and needed coffee to keep going. So I grabbed a cup from the coffee shop on campus to drink with my lunch before prepping for my afternoon class.

It worked, if avoiding a siesta is “it worked.” I’m rather fond of naps, but have to concede this manic Monday was not built for any midday snooze.

As I exited the shop, I noticed a huge praying mantis on a garbage can. I walked quickly to my office, popped my lunch into a microwave, and grabbed my camera to walk back, just in case.

And the beastie was still there. A woman who cleans Basile Hall came out to admire it, and the big bug started tracking her, following her back and forth. It was amusing to see, and we wondered if the predator was perhaps getting a bit too ambitious.

Ready for the hunt by Basile Hall.
Hands of blue to give scale to this large predator.

Although I also wondered if tracking is more the mantis hoping Big Pinkie will startle some hopper into the air, which would make for a tasty lunch.

As fall comes to The Hill (as the Mount Mercy University campus is called, for good reason), I’ve been observing many monarch butterflies flitting their way across campus. There is a change coming, and they sense it, and they are sweeping across our hill, headed for parts south for their winter repose.

Well, I’m not a snowbird nor a snowbug. I enjoy having four seasons. Fall is my second favorite (I favor spring a bit because it means the end of winter). Apple harvest, pumpkin flavored everything, the sudden appearance of copious bags of candy corn—bring it. Every year, I fall in love with fall.

Ms. Mantis just makes it easier.

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Scars on My Hand, on the Land: Joe at 63


My left wing earlier in August. The ring rash has cleared up. Not many scars from this angle, but they are there.

63—how did I get here? I’m at an age where birthdays are still welcome, but are also reminders that I’m no longer young. Although I may have a generous number of years left, who knows? John Green recently posted on the Vlog Brothers channel that he wants to live to age 97, a nice prime number.

Even at 63, 97 seems like a nice number.

I like that goal. I’ll adopt it, too, so I’ll assume for this post (with no real evidence or likelihood) that my life is approximately two-thirds in the past and a third yet to come, although actual results may vary.

And on this, the day after my 63rd birthday (actually 64th because I was zero on the first one) I’m thinking about that life journey and the marks it leaves, specifically on my hands.

Looking at those most human of paws, one point quickly become obvious. Like one of my children and my delayed twin sister (one of my six sisters was born on my fourth birthday which was actually my fifth—happy birthday, Brigid!) I am left-handed.

Which is an odd thing to be—that is, most people aren’t that because their brains are wired differently than mine. Handedness is a very human trait—not all mammals have such a strong preference for a limb of one side or another. Here is a video that explores that topic:

A genetic test revealed I am more Neanderthal than most other modern humans. But even they were mostly right handed. (And like most people with traced of Neanderthal genes, they are only traces.)

Anyway, one consequence of that fact of my 63 odd years on this planet is that my left hand is way more beaten up than my right one is. I got the first permanent scar on my dominant wing when I was age 8—on the playground, I collided with, and broke the glasses of, another third-grade student.

My most battle-weary digit, the left index finger. Oldest scar at the base, newest just below the final (permanently bent, permanent tendon damage) joint.

Sorry about that, by the way. Eight-year-old Joe was socially awkward and shy, and I don’t know if I expressed regret adequately at the time (although I recall the boy and I being in the school office together after the accident and there was no animosity—perhaps we were both to blame or perhaps the collision was the result of some violent childhood game of the era like “pom-pom pull away”).

Anyway, my left hand index finger has a crescent moon shape mark on it between the knuckle and first joint to remind me not to run into other boys wearing glasses.

My second scar was on the side of my left pinkie—I broke a glass drinking glass while washing dishes. I think I was about 11. Scar two, by the way, is much larger and more impressive, the start of an unfortunate trend because my most recent and most serious scar is from a bean can incident in which I sliced a tendon on my hapless left index finger—that key digit (for a southpaw) has a bit of an odd bend to it and odd nerve sensations still, almost a year later.

Note another crescent shape just above the first joint of the pinkie. The most popular shape for scars on my left hand.

In short, my left hand has led an interesting life that has left its marks. My right hand, in contrast, is cleaner, more pristine. It has not been up to as much chicanery. On the north paw there is a single scar at the base of the thumb, where a knife slipped and embedded.

A knife held, not surprisingly, by that rascally left hand.

I am pointing with my second finger at the scar on my right hand, which is so light that you may not be able to see it. My under-used right hand has slipped through life mostly unscathed, which means most of the fun belongs to the left hand.

Life leaves it marks. Your body is like the internet, it never forgets. The most important ones aren’t the ones you see. Like carpal tunnel syndrome which is creeping up on both hands, or my iffy back that complains now and then (thankfully, not now). And there are scars in our psyche based on our sometimes-rocky life road. Our hidden scars are often the ones that really matter, and one thing that’s important for all of us to keep in mind is we never know what the hidden scars are of the person we are dealing with.

Some marks, fortunately, are temporary. I’m not wearing my wedding band on my left hand, not because my status has changed, but because I got a serious rash in July under my ring. I had to get a prescription cream and it took 10 days for that rash to clear up. The ring has to be thoroughly scrubbed to remove any plant oils that may have brought on the rash, and at the advice of my resident medical expert (my wife is a nurse), I’m temporarily going sans ring until gardening season ends. I expect to be visibly married again soon.

My body is not the only marked thing on my mind at this birthday time.

My house still has scars from a storm a year ago. Here, more than a year after the derecho struck Iowa, my city, my state, my house all still bear its visible marks. But that same house is surrounded by gardens that are currently awash in morning glories, a flower I could never grow before the derecho brought in the sun. Like laugh lines near the eyes, not all remnants of experience are unattractive.

As I enter year 64 of my life (I’m 63, remember? With the zero year that means this is my 64th year on the planet), I feel I’ve earned the wrinkles and white hair and I hope I wear them proudly.

We remember the scars we have, and we don’t always remember the stress that led to them. My poor left hand. It’s hasn’t improved in its dexterity. I am a bit clumsy. I can’t handle tools well, and am not one of those guys who is leaving his mark on the world through the work of my hands.

Except you’re reading the work of my hands right now, in the form of words.

I hope you enjoy reading them. I enjoyed writing them. Even with a scarred and worn left hand.

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How I Plan to Survive the Pandemic, Part What?


Top of Warde Hall. Fall Semester is starting at Mount Mercy University.

COVID-19 is not letting go. The new variant is causing a third surge of this virus. The divide between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated grows more bitter.

Not everyone legitimately can get the vaccine. So here I am, facing another school year of wearing a mask. If it were up to me, I would require shots for students, staff and faculty alike, but it’s not up to me. At least, at the private university where I teach, masks will be required indoors and in class.

We can do more than public universities in Iowa are allowed to do. Even as hospitals start to strain under the added load of yet another surge, our Republican lawmakers and governor refuse to follow science and health advice or to allow local governments to do so.

“Iowans will do the right thing,” Gov. Kim Reynolds says. And yet our vaccination rate is not all that high. And masks are rarely to be seen in our stores. Iowans are human and may need some leadership or nudging to do the right thing, but Reynolds doubles down.

As public schools poise to open, none of them, including universities, can require masks.

Sad. The mask is not my favorite thing. I will enjoy the day when they are no longer needed. But that day is being delayed by a viral infection—not just the corona virus, but the viral infection of shared ignorance and a stubborn refusal to recognize and do the right thing.

Sign you will not see at a public school in Iowa. But you should …

Well, here we are. In spring, I was so excited to get my shots. And I don’t know how we’ve gone from scarcity to abundance of shots—a situation where the state is having to discard doses—except too many Iowans can clearly not be trusted to do the right thing if they can do the Far Right thing.

Well, last year I had a lot of anxiety about surviving the pandemic. It’s still not a guarantee. Given the conditions of this fall, I’m expecting I am perhaps more at risk of contracting COVID-19 than ever before. But, being fully vaccinated and with treatment improving, I’m more confident that the odds, which were always in my favor, are more steeply in my favor.

Knock on wood, I’m likely to survive this pandemic. Sadly, more than 600,000 Americans did not and death continues today. Mostly, but not totally, among the not vaccinated.

It should not be necessary to say this. But, if you can, y’all get your vaccination. Don’t be too contrary to do the right thing.

Like too many Iowans.

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Forming Narrative Memory and Morning Glories


Aug. 7–Morning Glory on bird feeder pole.

What is the deal with Morning Glories? The name of a family of plants, some varieties of this pretty garden vine are considered invasive and noxious weeds.

And yet, each year, I plant them. The ones I plant clearly aren’t all that aggressive—although they can re-seed, in most years I don’t get flowers so it’s not an issue—no flowers, no reseeding.

Why do I optimistically plant Morning Glories despite consistent past failure? Well, like many of my gardening decisions, it comes from a lack of planning coupled with selfish personal preference. I just get what flowers I like and try to find a place for them. And in previous years, apparently, my shady backyard (someone who plants what he likes also happens to like a lot of trees) has been too dark for this annual flower to thrive. I tried to selected the lightest spots I could for these vines, but I would barely get them to grow a few feet tall, where they would stall, pathetically hang on, and survive until frost but not bloom.

The tale of Morning Glories in my garden, in the past, was a sad one.

One reason I favor some particular plants is due to a long-term personal connection to them. During my late elementary school years, we lived in Clinton, Iowa. Most of those years were in a house on Seventh Avenue South, and many plants in my current garden reflect what was growing there. I have always been fond of Peonies, and that yard had several peony patches. I have lots of lilac bushes—one feature of that backyard in Clinton was a giant lilac in one corner. I favor roses, one of my mother’s favorites.

Morning Glories? There, things get a little complicated. I seem to recall them as part of my childhood, but don’t associate them with the ancestral childhood gardens of my youth along the mighty Mississippi.

We did have clothesline poles in back—did my dad plant Morning Glories one year back there to climb those poles, but not every year? As an annual flower, it would not always be there like Lilacs or Peonies.

Then again, Morning Glories have thousands of varieties and grow in many climates. An annual in Iowa, garden Morning Glories are perennial in milder climes. Part of my growing up was in California—do my vague, but unclear memories of pretty, blue trumpet flowers and heart leaves date to those years on the left coast? Are they vestigial memories of an even earlier time—did we have them in New York or Tennessee?

Sisters? Your brother with the notoriously poor memory of his own childhood appeals for your aid.

Did we have some Morning Glory vines in our past, or am I just assuming we did because I like them and plant them? Maybe I just remember seeing them on the way to or from school—I know a minor appreciation I have for Honeysuckles comes from memories of vines next to a California schoolyard.

To be fair, not all plants in my yard have a strong narrative connection to my past—we never had a Magnolia nor Catalpa tree, and I have several of those. I’m hoping a severely damaged Ginkgo tree in the back may make a comeback—and again, it’s a not a tree I have any past connection to, I just like it.

I’ve been thinking about narrative memory this year. The pandemic has made these very unusual times, and I do wonder what the next generation will think when they look back on 2021.

Also, we’ve been blessed the past few weeks to have visitors from California—my oldest son, his wife and their 18-month-old child.

The young boy had a good time, I think. The outdoors is one of his favorite places, even back home in San Francisco—and there is so much more outdoors conveniently available here in Iowa, in a way. My grandson and I spent a lot of time in my shady backyard. He has a serious swinging addiction, and spent a fair amount of time in a swing we hung in back.

I got some practice speaking Spanish, his primary language, although it’s humbling that an 18-month-old boy who is not yet forming sentences has, it was clear, a larger vocabulary in a language I’ve studied for several years. Natural learning is a powerful thing, and humans absorb language naturally in their early years. Well before their narrative memory of their own biography kicks in, they are learning the sounds, structure and vocabulary of their mother tongue, whatever tongue that is.

They know what a Morning Glory is—or a “gloria de la mañana”—long before they can have any memory of a particular vine in a particular place.

While my Spanish-speaking grandson was here, the Morning Glories were in bloom (and still are now that he’s back home). Pretty blue and pink trumpets are to be seen most mornings. The derecho storm, which destroyed a huge maple tree in our backyard at the end of last summer, had several side effects—among them, 2021 becoming the summer of Morning Glory glory.

I put in some small arbors in the garden by the sun room, and Morning Glory vines quickly took them over. However, most of the flowers I have enjoyed so far have been on sparser vines growing up poles we use to hang winter bird feeders. The less vigorous vines in a nearby garden have produced the most flowers.

June 30–Morning Glory (and Moon Flower) vines take over arbor.
July 21–Morning Glory vine and bud on bird feeder pole.

I am waiting to see what August brings. I suspect those profuse vines by the sun room might yet produce flowers, and maybe have many more blooms than the other ones. I am hoping they will be covered in blooms at some point, and I’m waiting to see if that will be true. I dream of more glory that the gardens may or may not match.

But in any case, hooray for the Morning Glories that are already appearing. I often head out in the morning, camera in hand, to catch these one-day blooms. They often set my mind on this tune:

The Morning Glory blooms make me feel contented, in a vague, unclear way. They connect me to a maybe past that I can’t seem to quite remember.

Will they do the same for my grandson?

Aug. 20, 2021 update: I posted a link to this essay on a Facebook family group. Three of my sisters chimed in:
Sister 1: There were blooming vines in Rancho Cordova that attracted humming birds, but they were in the yard behind ours. That’s what I recall, but there is a nagging thought that we may have had some in Clinton, as well.
My reply: I am thinking California…were they blue? The blue ones are the ones that feel most familiar.
Sister 1’s reply: Joe Sheller I think so, I always associate them with blue and purple.
Sister 2: I associate Morning Glory with Clinton, too. I didn’t know the names of most flowers, but I knew those. Back by the lilac bush, maybe? I can sort of see the seed packet in my mind’s eye.
My reply: I associate them with both California and Clinton. I do not recall them being by the lilac, but they could have been on clothes line pole in that corner of the yard. (Added aside, not on Facebook—I recall the package, too. Must have been an event when my dad planted these.)
Sister 3: I know I’ve always liked them too, but I don’t remember us having them. I think maybe a neighbor had the pale blue ones?

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Besides Baby Monarchs, Another Milkweed Bonus


Under tree in back garden–got several plants from Indian Creek Nature Center Monarch adoption event this month, here is one of the plants

The main reason to plant milkweed, of course, is to aid the monarch butterfly. Habitat loss and the increasing scarcity of the plants that this pretty flyer depends on have left this creature vulnerable, so I plant milkweed.

And, although I have not seen a chrysalis in nature this summer yet (I see one in my kitchen from a caterpillar we adopted at a local nature center), I have seen butterflies and caterpillars this summer, so I’m hoping my plantings are helping.

Busy day on cone flowers in my back garden–swallowtail and monarch butterflies.

Beyond the helping hand to an insect species not even aware of my existence, there are other benefits, too. “Milkweed” refers to several plants, each with its own features. The swamp milkweed is a tall flower with pretty clusters of deep pink buds and flowers. The butterfly flower is a shorter, medium-height perennial with pretty orange blooms. Both have flowers that attract a variety of pollinators—bees and butterflies—so are both attractive on their own, and nice for the company that they keep.

And so, in recent years in summer plantings, I have slowly added to the number of both of those types of milkweed.

Bee on butterfly flower.
Swamp milkweed starting to bloom in back garden.
Butterfly flower in front garden in bloom, with visitor.
Among the blooms on a swamp milkweed plant in back garden–monarch caterpillar.

But I do have a special affection for their larger cousin, the “common” milkweed plant—a big-leafed, tall and interesting flower with unique blooms.

It produces clusters of pretty pink blossoms in a festive pompom. I’ve had the stuff growing for several years, and note that it is hard to get started but once growing, it quickly spreads via root. But it has taken a couple of years for my newly established common milkweed stands to bloom, and this is the first summer where I’ve been able to enjoy these blossoms in my own garden.

I have seen these flowers a lot in the past, of course—as a biker, I frequently encounter milkweed and have admired it’s blooms in ditches and prairie clusters before.

One reason I like this plant is that the plant itself is interesting—its big leaves and tall stalks are distinctive. It’s a great plant to have in fall, when it browns and its seed husks form—it’s the tall dandelion fluff plant of an Iowa autumn.

July 20–Drinker on bloom of common milkweed in front garden.

It is a plant to be a little careful with, in your garden. Its milky sap, or so I’ve read, is potentially irritating, particularly to eyes. I’ve never suffered any ill effects and I’ve handled milkweed a lot, although I try to be careful when I remove leaves to feed an indoor caterpillar. I try not to touch the sap, I remember not to rub my eyes and I do wash my hands afterwards.

This year, in the first stand of milkweed I managed to establish in my front garden, I noticed an unexpected bonus. As I said, this is the first summer common milkweed has bloomed in my own gardens, and I did not know before that it has an uncommonly pleasant smell.

Because its scent is subtle, and I’ve been in big outdoor places when I’ve encountered the blooms in the wild, I had never caught the scent before. Common milkweed flowers make a sweet, pleasant fragrance. I am not sure how to describe it—our language does not have a great smell vocabulary. It’s a soft smell, like a rose, rather than a “heavy” scent like lilac or crab apple. It’s not strongly perfumy, but you think flowers when you catch it. It’s sweet, and unlike the showy, aggressive plant it comes from, it sneaks up on you.

If you manage to get some common milkweed going in your own gardens, your nose may be in for a pleasant surprise! All the more reason to continue planting this attractive, native flower.

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Enjoying 5 Summer Bad-Ass Garden Flowers


Cone flower in July.

What are your favorite summer flowers? I like many of them. A sunflower unexpectedly has popped up, from seeds a grandson brought over and that we halfheartedly planted. Morning glories are growing like wildfire, and although they have not yet bloomed, I think this will be the year that they do.

Well, both of those are annuals, which can be cute, but I tend to favor perennial flowers. And some of them can be, well, a bit aggressive. I can respect that, the tough, take-no-prisoners, I-own-this-ground bad ass attitudes of certain perennials, which you plant at your own risk, because you will spend years battling the spread of these spreaders.

Still, I planted them, I like them and I’m happy to see them this summer. What are the bad-ass perennial stars of my July gardens?

Here they are five of them, in no particular order:

Tiger lily glows in summer sun.

Tiger lilies. I think day lilies in general have an odd name—I know that the name refers to the idea that each flower lasts only a day or so, but each day lily plant has many bulbs, and this class of flowers, in general, blooms for a fairly extended season. Of all the day lilies, the most vigorous in my corner of Iowa isn’t any fancy hybrid or version of something common to buy in a store like “stella de oro,” but the common Iowa ditch lily. Although some Asian lilies share the same name, in Iowa these aggressive day lilies are known as tiger lilies. And they are tigers. You have to be ruthless with them and cut some out now and then because the will conquer your garden, but with their tall, pretty orange flaming flowers, they are still worth planting.

Bees on cone flower.

Cone flowers. I don’t have any of the more subtle yellow native Iowa ones, and hope to add those, too. These are purple cone flowers. I have tried planting various other styles and colors, and purple seems to rule. The large flowers become prickly seed heads that I tend to leave because I like them in winter—but they are full of seeds and they spread like crazy. Like tiger lilies, cone flowers, when established, spread quickly on their own. But they are pretty, attract lots of pollinators and are tough plants that can handle dry Iowa summer.

Swallowtail butterfly seen on common milkweed (seen while on bike ride, not in my garden).

Common milkweed. I have planted butterfly flowers and swamp milkweed, and I like them both, which are arguably both prettier than common milkweed. Common milkweed, however, is something special. It not only produces copious seeds, but spreads underground via roots, something the other milkweed varieties don’t do. In my experience, common milkweed is the hardest to get going—it doesn’t germinate easily, you have to plant in it fall so the seeds can overwinter, and it only grows where it really likes the environment. But if starts to grow, it doesn’t stop. It is aggressive and hardy and easy to admire.

Hosta in bloom.

Hostas. A plant related to day lilies, but way more fond of shade, these plants tend to be grown more for foliage than flowers, although I do like their pretty little flowers, too. I know many gardeners get miserable fighting the spread of these flowers, but I like them. They do burn up and fade if it their spot gets too sunny, but are kings of the shade. And, personally, I have planted a lot of these, and although they can take over a garden, I just let them and enjoy.

Buds on trumpet vine.

Trumpet Vine. Most aggressive of all of these plants which all try to spread, plant this climbing vine only if you’re ready to engage in battle with it in future years. Via both root and seed, this native plant is ready to take control. I planted one vine a few years ago in the east end of my garden, and I am constantly having to pull these vines as they try to spread beyond where I want them. But it’s a pretty flowers and if you don’t mind the future fight, I say go ahead and plant it. Just realize that if one survives, it will be dozens in a few years, and in other areas of the garden, you’ll be constantly cutting back and pulling this pretty, but bad-ass aggressive, native flower.

In my gardens, July is the month where most of these are in bloom. Common milkweed has already bloomed, but is putting out buds for future blooms. Many hostas have already bloomed and faded, but there are some still going strong. Mid-summer is Tiger Lily season, and these tall, proud, sassy Iowa flowers are going full throttle right now. My trumpet vine is a little late—with a new fence project, the original monster vine was cut way back, but it sprouted new growth (of course) and that growth is covered with flower buds (of course), and it won’t be long until the trumpets are blaring in their orange beauty in my summer gardens.

There you have it, five of the meanest, sassiest, nastiest summers flowers that I love and plant and am enjoying in my Iowa gardens. What are your favorite July flowers?

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Seeing Past Seeds and Future Flowers


Flag Day was this month and the Fourth of July is coming. Yay, America. I hope your democracy, in a bit of danger these days, manages to survive.
June 2021—People are living their normal lives as if the pandemic was history. It’s not. Delta is on the rise, cases are starting to increase in Iowa, the number vaccinated has stalled—all the good scientific work that went into quickly creating the tools that could end the spread of this disease are in a deadly race with a mindless virus that constantly changes as it replicates—and we silly humans are serving up too many petri dishes for the virus to reformat itself in. I thought aobut writing another “how I survived the pandemic” post in which I explore how I have not survived the pandemic yet. I decided not to. Yet, the pandemic is on my mind. I recently flew to Massachusetts. I have a son who moved to Des Moines in June, and I was going there to help him drive the family car back to Iowa—as well as to escort the family dog. One minor bright note: The Wolf Dog apparently can be picky which his human relationships, and he in particular is typically not wild about men who are strangers. Nonetheless, the dog and I somehow hit it off right away. We are both overweight lazy creatures with arthritis, so maybe there was an old bro kinship going on. Most likely, I was not as alien as other men—my son is half me, and he is the dog’s best male friend and was very comfortable around me, something the dog may have sensed. Whatever. It was a good trip, with long conversations. I don’t know if I converted my youngest son into a “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” fan, but I tried. The trip was interesting, partly due to the very mixed masking picture. I’ll concede that I’ve started sometime shopping without a mask—I am fully vaccinated and the CDC says it’s OK. But a part of me wonders. The more urban an area is, the more masks you see. The rural parts of New York and Ohio we passed through are as if there never was a pandemic. Oddly, Indiana was more masked—hardly a deeply democratic stronghold. Maybe Hoosiers hold on to this life with a bit more caution.
Hollyhock at my youngest son’s new house in Des Moines.
Another Des Moines flower, I like the tri-color effect.
Anyway, for now I will move on. Maybe things will get better. In the meantime, what did June bring in the gardens? Summers flowers, summer heat and summer rains, in an unexpected order. The month began with weeks of dry, hot weather. Iowa is partly in a drought, and we felt it in the first half of June.
Cedar Lake on a warm June day in 2021. Update…used my own random posted images from June. In previous post, this was correctly identified as Prairie Park Fishery.
The second half of June was dramatically different. Rains suddenly appeared—June is usually the wettest month in Iowa, and the dry weeks were disconcerting. Honestly, even with some flash floods in the area in the past week, we’re still on the dry side for the month overall, and parts of the breadbasket of the world are still a bit arid.
Rainbow, second half of June, pretty and good to see. I’ll take the rain, please.
But the gardens have, for the most part, been pretty happy. The morning glories on the back arbors are going crazy—and I may finally see some blooms from this annual that I plant every year and never see results from. There were several flowers that bloomed this year that took more than one year to get to that point. In particularly, various kinds of milkweed are spreading—and the common milkweed in front of the house bloomed for the first time this year.
Monarch drinking form milkweed that bloomed for the first time this year.
The new trees all seem to be doing well. I trimmed some of the old ones and staked up several that were leaning due to the dercho. We’ll see how it goes. All in all, I’m happy with the flowers of summer. Not so happy with the odd weather this summer, which seems a sign of things to come as this globe warms up.
Young hawk on front lawn of Mount Mercy University, new life in June.
But lets savor, on this first day of July, that at least Iowa provided a lot of beauty in June. Past plantings from previous years are looking good in 2021. New trees are growing to replace the storm losses. There is plenty to be concerned about—Delta and global warming and an ex-president who can’t handle the truth—but there are signs, of hope, too. Maybe that’s the best of June.

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With Sudden Hot Summer, Baby Cat Arrives


Prairie Park Fishery seen on a hike this week–summer is suddenly here. Today there weren’t any clouds. A dry week, little rain in the 10-day forecast.

We’re on the edge of a drought here in eastern Iowa, with hot days and little chance of rain in the forecast. June is normally the wettest month here, and so far, it’s looking pretty dry.

And hot. It got to the 90s today, and despite the lack of rain, was also humid—ah, the Iowa summer one-two punch, hot days where the wet air feels used, like it was just exhaled by an angry hippo.

Well, we’re merely dry, at this point. Maybe the summer pattern will shift and some of that humidity that makes the days so miserable will form clouds and rain and wet the arid ground.

The gardening news is good, at least. Two trees look like they are busy dying from indirect derecho damage—a willow and a ginkgo tree badly chewed by deer this winter and don’t appear to have made it. But the three new trees supplied by the county are all doing well—one oak faded for a time, but after watering has come back and looks good.

And we have some new irises blooming, which I am happy to see.

New iris in front.

Lots of weeds in the back garden—I’ve been busy with family things and have not adequately weeded. With the giant maple gone, what was mostly a shady garden is now filled with sunshine, and perhaps all the wild seeds are taking advantage.

Still, there is a lot to like in the outdoors. Clover planted last year has come on strong. New clover planted this spring is also looking good, but not blooming yet. It appears our yard is more clover than grass friendly, as the backyard, in particular, has never looked so lush and green.

I was a bit taken aback this spring, because many plants came on strong, which is nice, but not milkweed. So, I asked Mr. Google, and the internet reminded me that milkweed is notoriously late, one of the last perennials to emerge. By the last part of May, what had been AWOL was suddenly showing itself—and once milkweed started, it suddenly came on strong. I don’t think I lost any of the butterfly flower varieties, the swamp milkweed in the side garden suddenly began to push past the lilies that are crowding it, and common milkweed is uncommonly aggressive.

Common Iowa milkweed spreads by root underground—my brother-in-law said it migrated in his gardens, and it certainly has spread a bit in my gardens this year.

And today, I felt some sense of fulfillment. My wife and I bought 4 perennial plants Friday, and I put them in—a shasta daisy because we have some on one side of the birch tree in front, and I’m trying to balance that garden a bit, two new butterfly flowers to add by the mailbox (I plant some milkweed every year), and an iris—with the back garden being sunnier, I am trying some there.

Planting is nice, but that’s not what felt so fulfilling.

I noticed it, and pointed it out to a 5-year-old grandson, whose reaction was just right. He had to run into the house and shout for grandma to come and see it!

A baby monarch, there on a leaf of a milkweed plant. I have not seen lots of butterflies yet this summer, but clearly they are around.

On milkweed in front garden, baby seen today, June 5, 2021.

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Trio from Class of 2021 Face Unknown


Shadows on Mount Mercy Campus, March 1, 2021. It seems a long time ago today on a damp, warm late summer May day. Time marches on.

May 16 was graduation day at Mount Mercy University. It’s part of the normal rhythm of university life—students, we hope, will move beyond their college experience and live a fulfilling post-graduation life.

It doesn’t always work that way—there are too many variables in personality, skills, luck, connections—but life never comes with certain guarantees. Yet, over the years I’ve seen MMU graduates do amazing things. I hope that the lessons students learn on The Hill prove useful to them. And college isn’t just about jobs or career—it’s a step to being an educated person, a better citizen, a more complete human.

As a professor, I’m neither the success guru nor the happiness fairy—and frankly, I have lived long enough and seen enough to believe that even if success is earned, it’s also capricious and sometimes elusive to the deserving and easy for the wrong people. We can gird our loins and dress for battle—make plans and prepare for the future—and yes, success does usually come to those who work hard for it. But as they say, in battle it’s not the bullet with your name on it you fear the most—it’s the one that says “to whom it may concern.”

Both good and bad fortune await—unforeseen circumstances, unexpected calls early on a random Tuesday morning, partings and losses or unexpected windfalls.

In this life, it does make sense to gain what knowledge and skills you can, to discern a path and to work diligently along that road to the destination you want. Yet it’s also true that the uprooting of a long-planted tree is only a derecho away. None can see all fates, least of all their own.

I think the wisdom of the wizard is useful to invoke. In “The Fellowship of the Ring,” when Frodo says that he wishes that Bilbo had killed Gollum when he had the chance, Gandalf replies: “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. … Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

Sure, I think success awaits most of those who work for it, and I hope all of our graduates have learned that lesson. But even the very wise cannot see all ends.

Anyway, while I am not an oracle and cannot foretell what lies ahead, there are three women in the class of 2021 that I worked with over time, who I will especially miss, and, I hope, will achieve great things. Not coincidentally, all three were active on the campus newspaper at Mount Mercy University, so they’ve heard countless hours of Joe as DJ playing Tom Petty or Taylor Swift or Tessa Violet, and yet they came back for more. They have dived into life in the deep end, and positioned themselves with loads of good karma, which is likely, knock on wood, to come back to them in many ways.

Let me briefly ruminate on the dynamic trio of Courtney Hoffman, Veronica Jons and Caroline Groesbeck.

Caroline Groesbeck during a newspaper meeting in the Times office in 2019.

Caroline left the newspaper staff in her final year, as she took on a full-time writing gig in the marketing office of the university. She finished her final year as a full-time professional employee and simultaneously as a student—in a pandemic year, no less.

Thus, I haven’t had the chance to be in contact with her as much in the past year but she is intelligent, funny and a good writer—a powerful combination that I hope will launch her into the kind of adult life she wants.

Veronica Jons in Times office in pre-COVID19 days.

Veronica was the head student editor of the Mount Mercy Times for two years in a row—a long haul for what is usually a one-year gig.

She is an iconoclastic straight-shooter. With Veronica, you’ll usually find out what she thinks—and the world needs sharp-elbowed intellects who have the courage to state what they believe. That’s Veronica.

Courtney Hoffman in the Times office. Listening to yet another Tessa Violet song?

Then there is Courtney. An only child, Courtney felt, to be honest, a little like a lost Sheller daughter. Maybe that’s because she took an early class from my wife as a freshman, and as a result, our conversations sometimes took on a familial air. Courtney most tolerated my musical tastes—her parents apparently educated her in classics like Tom Petty, so the sounds of the newsroom weren’t alien to her ears.

Do all three have bright futures? Yes, I say. 99 percent guaranteed.

It’s Tessa doing a cover rather than one of her own–but a song sung by Tessa for the class of 2021.

I guess this pandemic year still has me feeling like life’s path can be mysterious. Yet in my heart, I believe these three women will all do great things. They are poised to launch their post-college journey. I guess in Caroline’s case, she’s sort of leapfrogged into year two of her post-college journey one orbit of the nearest star sooner than is usual. Veronica has talked of law school. Courtney is trying to find a copy-editing role somewhere.

Good luck to them, although the way they work, they can subsist on a bit less luck than average—luck is partly, I’ll concede, a symptom of energy, attitude and persistence.

Courtney, Veronica and Caroline aren’t alone. There are Josh and Dennis and others leaving The Hill whom I will miss and whose future successes I anticipate.

Getting the ideal first job that you covet is nice, but honestly, knowing that the wise don’t see all ends and doing your best to both play and enjoy playing the unexpected hand that life will deal you is a key to any journey.

Congratulations class of 2021. You made it. It always feels a bit like the end of one life and the start of another, but I think in this year there is an even huger sense of relief in crossing that finish line.

The pandemic isn’t over yet, our hurting democracy is going to require attention and care if it is to be preserved, our polluted planet is undergoing an extinction event that must be reversed before we become the big dinos—it’s an uncertain and unsettled time. Success awaits many of you. Others will have a harder road. My hope is that most of you find the former experience rather than the later—but I hope the love of your fellow Mustangs will follow you and encourage you and help you deal with whatever twist, turns, bumps or viruses that may lie ahead.

God bless you and keep you. If your road is hard, so be it, go with hope and treat each day as a challenge you can meet—because the journey is the point. If, as I hope happens to most of you, the journey proves more fruitful because you win life’s lottery, be generous and share and don’t gloat.

“For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

Annie Barkalow and Jada Veasey, who will lead the MMU Times in 2021-2022. The journey continues.

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