Connecting to Worlds Actual and Virtual

What is the future of humankind? And what parts of its past remain relevant?

Big questions, and if you are coming to this blog for answers, I’m afraid you’re looking in the wrong place. It sounds like the kind of big question you could type into an answer bot on a web site, and artificial intelligence (AI) could take a stab at it. Or that you could go out into nature and contemplate for a while.

This week, both of those things—the quiet of the garden and the cacophony of new computer frontiers—were relevant to my experience.

I’m reasonably sure that AI will come up with a plausible sounding answer to your philosophical query. One thing it’s likely to state is that “this is a question people have been asking for many years.” Thanks, Captain Obvious AI. I guess when you’re based on chewing up billions of pages of random text and spitting out sentences based on grammatical rules and predictive algorithms of what word would likely come next, you end up sounding a bit like a gifted (grammatically correct, right?) college freshman padding an essay.

AI will also, apparently, sound sexist and racist.

Dr. Robert Todd, a math professor at Mount Mercy University, gave an interesting talk on the nature of computer Artificial Intelligence Sept. 27. It was part of a Fall Faculty Series of talks on Humans and Machines. The next talk, on Oct. 4, will also be on AI. Its influence healthcare will be covered by Dr. Melody Jolly.

Included in this week’s presentation was Rob calling up an AI web site for some “dialogue.” One of the odd aspects of today’s AI is that it’s good enough that if you’re not paying attention, you might think there is a person at the other end, when there’s not.

Dr. Robert Todd speaks about vectors, which could be RGB colors.

Besides showing samples of texts between human and machine, Rob asked another AI site to create some watercolor portraits of “a university president.”

The resulting faces looked a bit scarily abstract. As another professor in the audience remarked, this AI bot painter apparently thinks there are serious problems with a president’s nose. AI also thinks presidents are all white men wearing western-style business suits.

Rob was pointing out that AI is based on the texts fed into it. And there are strong gender biases and racial attitudes built into the source texts.

Will we all soon be working for robot overlords? Maybe, but Rob noted that the biggest worry he has is that only large corporations are rich enough to construct and host the most complex of AI these days, which adds to the developing trend of a digital elite. On the other hand is the ability to ask and process scientific questions that would be impossible without the massive data processing of AI.

“The opportunities for science and new learning are unparalleled,” he said.

To explain a bit about how AI works without getting into concepts that are too advanced, Rob illustrated how colors in the RGB model—which you, dear reader, are using to see the hues on the screen you’re reading this blog on—can be plotted as vectors in three-dimensions. And as mathematical vector they can be added. Plus, there are paths that can be formed—a shades of grey route through the middle of the resulting color cube, for example. Rob used the analogy of a building, where things would be so many floors up, and so many doors to the right or left.

He also noted how often we already use AI. The way Google or Meta constructs our online realities by predicting what comes next after our clicks, for example. The dawning of self-driving cars. The Turnitin system many professors us to detect potential plagiarism.

It was a scary and thought-provoking look into our evolving computer-controlled reality. As a partial antidote or counterpoint, it was great to hear a different speaker on Wednesday focus on earth—literal earth, the dirt from which life springs and to which it can be therapeutic to attend to.

In recent years at MMU, a librarian, Robyn Clark-Bridges, has been tending gardens near the library. It started years ago with some Hostas from her home that she divided, and, with permission from the facilities department at MMU, planted in the shade of some pear trees.

Robyn Clark-Bridges answers questions from students in a PR writing class Sept. 28.

I invited Robyn to a media writing class where PR students are learning to write feature stories—I figured that the story of the gardens would be an interesting topic. Little did I know.

For one thing, Robyn’s interest in gardening has many levels. It’s both therapy for recovering from childhood trauma, plus connecting with the divine—the garden is a place where she can pray. And her interest in plants is not casual—she took the time to become a Master Gardener, and was appointed the first “Neighborhood Captain” by Trees Forever in a local effort to replant trees following a devastating storm—a derecho—that took out much of the local tree canopy in 2020.

In “Robyn’s Garden” by the library—named not by her, but the facilities department—two of four pear trees that flanked the library were taken in the 2020 storm. At personal expense and at great effort, Robyn managed to secure two American Hornbeam trees to replace them. She is watering the young trees. If they survive, unlike pears, which are invasive and short-lived, the native Hornbeams may live for a century.

Butterfly in Robyn’s Garden by the library, photographed on Sept. 28. Asters attract many insects.

Connection to a living legacy is one pleasure for those of us who love and plant trees. Gardening, besides being good for the psyche and soul, also creates wonderful, peaceful places to be. “It’s very grounding,” Robyn said. “It’s easy to forget any outside worries.”

The students did well. They asked interesting questions, but most of all, Robyn did well, freely sharing personal anecdotes for the class. I’ll look forward to reading the resulting stories.

And after Tuesday’s foray into the constructed realities AI is capable of, it was nice to be reconnected on Wednesday to our ongoing connection to nature in our gardens. All in all, an interesting week on campus.

Leave a comment

Filed under Environment, Flowers, Science

Early Fall in Iowa: Beauty and the Beasts

Caterpillar in morning light. Don’t get too close–are those pretty spikes also stingers? Don’t know, but it’s true of some caterpillars.

Nature is a toothy, beautiful place. It’s been a gorgeous early autumn in Iowa (I know, the equinox is not here yet, but in weather terms, we’re in fall). While in my heart I would prefer a bit more water from the sky, I also am loving the beauty of this time of year. And dodging the fangs.

For example, I’ve been admiring some pretty caterpillars. By the library at the university where I teach, I’ve seen several monarch butterflies, although one librarian told me how caterpillars she was watching at her house disappeared suddenly one night. She suspects a frog. We may admire those pretty babies, but to others in nature, they are food, not friends.

MMU Monarch caterpillar.

In my own garden, I’ve been charmed on several mornings by pretty fuzzy yellow caterpillars. Still, I keep my distance. Many “hairy” caterpillars are covered by stinging quills, and I don’t want to test whether the pretty here comes with the poison.

Morning shine. Pretty light.

Well, at least one fuzzy is clearly not dangerous—not a caterpillar, just some grass behind a Morning Glory (which is a noxious weed).

Fall—I’m loving it. And watching my back.

Morning Glory. And fuzzy that merely tickles, not stings.
Pretty. But it has fangs, too.

Leave a comment

Filed under Flowers, Garden, Weather

Saying Bye, Seeing Hope in a Bee’s Butt

Cupola of Warde Hall looks pretty as I get ready to ride home, Aug. 30, my birthday. So, yes, even if I was lazy that day, I did do some work.

And so, on Sept. 1, I bid adieu to August, a milestone month for me. Tuesday was my birthday, and I turned 64.

Yeah, there probably will be a link to a Beatles song or a cover somewhere in this post, it’s almost inevitable.

So how does 64 feel? Sadly, it’s been a bit challenging. As bad luck would have it, I have had bouts of vertigo lately, serious enough that I had been to the doctor last week and I’ve had two sessions of physical therapy. Our balance is partly governed by crystals on a membrane in our inner ear, and my crystals are being jangly and uncooperative right now.

Cover 1: Cheap Trick

But Tuesday was a decent day, floating in an unstable universe wise. I didn’t have any classes that day, and I was being a bit lazy—sort of relaxing on a Joe Day where my birthday by chance fell on the one day this week when I was not heavily booked. (Note, my bosses did see me on campus—I was a bit lazy, I didn’t avoid work entirely.)

I wandered outside in the morning. Although we surely need rain, at least a late August drought is not like a mid-summer drought—much of the vegetation is hunkering down, and dryness at this point won’t hit everything as hard. I went out to water plants, but I was also idly seeking some sign of good luck from the universe—maybe I was feeling a little blue because my main squeeze is away visiting a grandson and his attendants (parents) in San Francisco. And vertigo.

Cover 2: The twins.

I looked for, but did not find, a four-leaf clover. Given the amount of clover in my yard, I’m sure one is there, but I didn’t have time to keep searching. Meh. I honestly didn’t mind that much—an extra leaf on a kind of grass always seems a bit iffy to me as a significant sign of luck anyway—and mostly I was hoping for something more interesting.

Like a hawk or hummingbird or blue jay—something to remind me of the beauty of this humble part of the planet. Some late summer flowers were in bloom, and I like my Morning Glories even if I know they are also obnoxious weeds. They can attract hummingbirds.

Cover 3: Sangah Noona. Plays it, then sings it and plays with her dog, too.

None were to be seen. But there, in the hibiscus, some lady was mooning me. She was a bee, covered in pollen, going about her morning business.

Well, I like bee butts and I cannot lie. As bees do, she moved rather quickly, but I got some images of her. From there, the day was looking up. One of my daughters invited me over for supper, and we enjoyed Thai take-out food, plus the chocolate cake she and her son had selected (at my request, chocolate cake is my traditional birthday treat). Afterwards, I went home and had a couple of beers (one more than usual).

The pretty birthday bee butt on a bloom in my garden.

I toasted my next year. Now that I’m here, vertigo aside, 64 doesn’t seem bad. Here’s hoping for more—years and pollen-coated bee butts, too.

And there it is.

Leave a comment

Filed under Garden, Mount Mercy

Taking Stock of the First School Day of Fall 2022

Saw this caterpillar Monday by the library. Could not find it today–I hope it has crawled off somewhere and formed a chrysalis.

With hope in their hearts; excitement on their faces; and new, fresh clothes on their backs, students in many local schools headed back to classes yesterday.

At the university where I teach, classes began today, Aug. 24, 2022. My wife, who is retired this year (and was flying to California today) took a picture of me, an all-grown-up old man version of the many first-day images that I’ve been seeing on Facebook or WhatsApp.

Me, first day of school

I think, all things considered, that I look pretty good. Not as good as the grandchildren who were among the elementary and secondary school photo subjects, but I’ll take it. And, yes, I did put sandals on my feet and a helmet on my noggin before I mounted my old mountain back and sallied forth to do battle with ignorance and evil.

It was only day one of the semester-long struggle, but I think it was a good day for neither ignorance nor evil.

I’m pleased that all of my fall classes are a “go.” The smallest section, a public relations writing course, has six students in it, the point where a class is considered viable at my university. And I am teaching two oral communication general educations class, both with a good number of students. I have many students who have lived their entire lives in Cedar Rapids, and students from others places such as distant states—California, Tennessee and Florida are among them. My students are also from China, Germany and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Of course, a student from just down the block in Iowa is a unique human with an interesting life. Still, it feels good to have students with a diversity of backgrounds and experiences in my classes.

The week at Mount Mercy University began with convocation. New students, faculty and staff packed into the Chapel of Mercy. Lacey Ritter, an assistant professor of sociology, gave an entertaining and rousing speech—but I didn’t take any notes, so I can’t really report much of the content. I was very impressed with the rapport that Dr. Ritter had with her audience, her humor and enthusiasm.

Dr. Lacey Ritter speaks in Chapel of Mercy.

On Tuesday, an annual Clubs and Organizations Fair was held on the Rohde Family Plaza. Students, new and returning, went from table to table, hearing short sales spiels about various campus groups. I don’t know whether I gained any staff members for the Mount Mercy Times, but I did get several students to scan our QR code, which means the paper will be sending them information on joining the staff. I hope some respond. As the newspaper’s faculty advisor, I am hardly a neutral source, but I do honestly believe that student journalism experience is one of the most valuable a student of any major can gain while in college.

Learning to talk to people, extract relevant information from them and translate that information for an audience—those are fungible professional skills that translate into many professional settings.

Mount Mercy Times reporter covering start-of-school event–the Monday convocation.

Anyway, it’s always easy to be pleased at the end of day one. And it does feel good to see such new beginnings. May the journey this year benefit my students and all other students. And may it also benefit all of us who are, as one speaker said in a workshop last week, “walking stress triggers,” a.k.a., teachers

Well, buckle up buttercup. As it always is, it will be a sometimes-wild ride. And wild rides are the best.

More faces from the opening of school at MMU:

Leave a comment

Filed under Mount Mercy

Teaching in Pandemic Year 3

Another summer gone and fall about to begin. It’s been a strange few years to be a professor, and I wonder what this new academic season will bring.

My department chair just asked about ordering office supplies, and N95 masks are still on the list. I said “sure,” but I’m unsure where we stand. The pandemic is still a thing, yet we seem to have given up. At the same time, the virus has morphed in its impact, becoming both more infectious and less deadly.

Well, the scary thing is that virus evolution is not inevitably in one direction. The COVID-19 variants may be settling down to be only as deadly as the flu (remember the ignorant nut jobs who cried “it’s just the flu” about 1,000,000 American deaths ago?), only that seems like faint praise. Every few decades the flu morphs into an especially nasty strain and always has the capacity to produce its own pandemic, and the tens of thousands of deaths the flu virus causes each year aren’t trivial. So we wait to see what the next strain of COVID-19 will be, and just trust to luck that chance won’t make it especially dangerous.

Because, as a society, we’ve did a pretty sucky job of trusting in science.

Morning Glory, late summer flower, blooms in my garden as the school year looms.

What an odd few years it has been. In March of 2020, my wife and I fled San Francisco for home during Spring Break as shutdowns took hold. The spring semester then ended in online chaos. The 2020-2021 year was all about limiting congregation, wearing masks, hybrid classes. Then 2021-2022 brought Delta and Omicron, fights over mask rules, a slow easing into the sudden surrender to the virus that we now live in.

For over two years, I’ve evaded this wily virus. I don’t think I’ve been especially careful, just extraordinarily lucky. In any conflict, there are always a few unlikely survivors. Am I going to get the virus at some point? Odds are strongly yes, but it hasn’t, to my knowledge, happened to me yet.

So I ordered a new box of N95 masks. How much will I wear then? We’ll see.

Warde Hall in August, 2022. The oldest building at Mount Mercy University is getting a new roof and paint job on its wooden trim, which is nice to see. Even if change is inevitable, it’s good to keep the good things from the past, too.

As the new school year dawns, I do wish for former days. Yet, as the main character in “Turning Red” noted, things don’t ever stay the same. And it’s year three of the “odd times.” I have no idea what’s coming, but will try to roll with it, as I have these past years.

I am comforted, in an odd way, that this is the start of my final years. I will teach, fate willing, for just three more academic cycles. I want to finish my final three years strongly, to do as well for my students as I can and to thus retire with no regrets.

And no virus. On that score, odds are not in my favor.

I’ve spent a little time each day at the end of summer hunting in my garden for monarch butterfly caterpillars–intending to raise one indoors and give one to a friend whose adopted caterpillar didn’t make it to the butterfly stage. Although I saw several caterpillars earlier this season and had at least one wild butterfly emerge in my garden, so far, no luck. Like a virus, cats are an unpredictable part of the web of life. All I can do is keep looking and hoping.

Leave a comment

Filed under Mount Mercy, Science

Can This Butterfly (and Us) Be Saved?

Butterfly that has emerged from chrysalis in my front garden dries its wings before its first flight July 17, 2022. No male spots on lower wings, so it’s a female.

Bad news today, from the world of those who love butterflies.

The July 21, 2022, headline from The New York Times: Monarch Butterflies Are Endangered, Leading Wildlife Monitor Says/Researchers cited climate change and habitat loss. But they also said that we can help give the insects a boost.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature declared the species in peril because of steep population losses in recent decades. At first, the main threat was loss of winter habitat in Mexico. Mexico has stepped in, and although habitat loss there is still a problem, there are more protected areas where the migratory butterfly spends its winter. Farther north, here in Iowa, for example, changing farming practices—the introduction of herbicide-resistant crops and the increased resulting use of herbicides—have reduced the availability of Milkweed, the only kind of flower the Monarch butterfly lays eggs on and eats as a caterpillar.

Milkweed is not one species, but a family of plants. In my yard, I have lots of Common Milkweed, plus Butterfly Flower and Swamp Milkweed. All three support the butterfly (and all three have attractive flowers, too—one tragedy is that “Common Milkweed,” a very pretty native wild flower, has such a sucky name. “Tall Pink Firework Flower” maybe would give it better PR).

A Monarch caterpillar seen on “Tall Pink Firework Flower” in Hanna Park. I made this image there while on a late afternoon bicycle ride July 2, 2022.

Many home gardeners these days plant Milkweed, which is a good thing. But there is a third leg of the stool of death that the Monarch faces—climate change, apparently, can play havoc with the natural cues that a migrating insect depends on. Early in its move north, it crosses the increasingly arid American southwest. Climate change brings more storms, more droughts, more challenges for all living things.

Such as us. We’re on the same boat in space as all of the dying critters around us, and the universe is trying to tell us something important. I hope we listen.

Pretty butterfly–but not a Monarch–on Butterfly Flower, a species of Milkweed, in my garden July 1. Milkweed of all varieties benefits more than just Monarch Butterflies.

Anyway, the U.S. doesn’t list the Monarch as endangered yet, but it’s clear that it’s numbers have plunged.

The news came out on what started has a very happy day for me. We adopted a monarch caterpillar from the Indian Creek Nature Center here in Cedar Rapids, which held its annual Monarch Fest earlier this month. Today, the caterpillar that we had named “Fiona” emerged from her chrysalis and flew off.

July 21, 2022–the day Monarchs are declared endangered, Fiona, a caterpillar we were raising in our kitchen, emerges and leaves us. Fiona, as fate would have it, is female (you can’t tell the sex in the caterpillar, but can by the appearance of the wings in butterflies). Here she is after flying up into leaves of a birch tree in our front yard.

The name was because grandchildren who attended with us also adopted a caterpillar, and named theirs “Shrek.” Shrek emerged the day before Fiona, and, as chance would have it, Shrek was male and Fiona female. May their journey bring them together and result in many fertilized eggs, which Fiona is welcome to lay in my gardens.

I know, it’s a bit weird to fixate on the Monarch. It’s just one insect. Many pollinators are in danger, and many of species of bees, for example, that are in decline just aren’t as sexy as a giant orange butterfly.

Yet I do hope that my great grandchildren can look up in the summer sky and see the many generation offspring of Fiona and Shrek flitting about. I hope they can pour soy sauce—from beans pollinated by bees—onto their food, and have apple pie, from fruit also pollinated by bees.

Global warming is a huge problem. The globe is bound to continue warming as our economy is not a simple system that can change quickly. Still, may we attend to the fate of the Monarch Butterfly.

It’s worth saving. And in this extinction event that we’re currently in, there’s plenty of evidence that we’re the asteroid. Unlike most space rocks that pummel planets and destroy ecosystems, however, we’re self-aware star dust that has the capacity to recognize what we’re doing and change course.

And if a cute butterfly maybe helps wake us up, a bit, and if we plant more native flowers, burn less gas and slowly learn to live on this planet rather than consume it, well, that’ll be something.

Leave a comment

Filed under Flowers, Garden, Grandchildren, Science, Weather

Midsummer: Fall Flowers Start to Appear

July 18, 2022–Tiger Lily glows in morning light on a warm Iowa day.

In this year, 2022, it’s clearer than ever that Global Warming is not some fantasy. We have a daughter who lives in England, and she’ll be here with her family in the states soon. And it will be cooler in Iowa when she gets here than it is this week back in Merry Old—their temperature will soar there to triple digits. Not that it’s cool here in Iowa—it was flirting with 90 today and should be Iowa warm when our guests from across the pond arrive—but not super-hot.

But right now, parts of the globe are baking. In Iowa, this summer, so far, has turned out better than I expected. We had a dry, hot stretch in June, usually our wettest month in Iowa. Old rules don’t seem to govern an increasingly erratic world—what seemed like the start of a very hot, very dry summer turned out, so far (don’t want to jinx it) not to be the case.

Rains did come, and while it stayed summer warm, it did not got extraordinarily hot in our area, at least not yet (there is still a lot of summer ahead). The June heat wave subsided, and the young trees and plants that managed to survive the harsh dry June spell are thriving.

July 12, 2022–Hummingbird feeds at trumpet vine in my back garden. Trumpet flowers are a bit audacious to plant–they are very aggressive, but since they are both a native plant and attract hummingbirds, I enjoy them.

Now, we’re again in a dry week. The lawn is getting tired, as it did for a time last month. But in the second half of July, a dry spell doesn’t feel so weird or out of place.

We’re in the second half of summer in Iowa—warmer, dryer in most years. Trees will slow in growth and start to consolidate the year’s gains. Corn is well past knee high, and roots are reaching deeply down to get at the rains of last week.

July 18, 2022–Tall phlox in back garden in bloom.

We should have a dry fortnight—good news for RAGBRAI next week, but we’ll be looking for a key rain or two to quench the dry earth after a stretch of sunny days.

Meanwhile, we got derecho 2.0. Some trees in the neighborhood were damaged, and we had some cleanup to do—but luckily, knock on wood, the derecho of 2022 wasn’t a massive disaster as the storm of 2020 was. Of course, we’re not out of the storm season yet—the devastating 2020 derecho was an August event.

Global warming. It’s real, it’s already here. Are you paying attention, Joe Manchin?

Anyway, today was a big day in my garden—it was the day the first morning glory bloomed. This aggressive annual will be blooming when frost arrives in late September or, these days, sometime in October. In the front yard, three mums returned from last year, ready to add their touch of color when fall is closing in.

July 18, 2022–A foreshadowing of the late summer garden, a bloom on a morning glory, a plant whose bloom season will last until frost. Beside it, a blackeyed Susan is almost ready to bloom, too.

Seed pods are forming where common milkweed was blooming earlier this month. We’re awaiting Fiona’s emergence—the caterpillar we adopted from the Indian Creek Nature Center. In the meantime, we’ve seen some wild monarch caterpillars, and have seen one chrysalis this month, with a female butterfly emerging just days ago.

It’s a girl! Butterfly that emerged in front garden on July 17, 2022.

Monarchs, which seemed scarce in June, now abound. Days are growing shorter and warmer. High summer is on the way.

We’ll see what kind of summer Fiona ends up being released into. It’s anybody’s guess, these days.

Leave a comment

Filed under Environment, Flowers, Garden, Weather

What Flying Critters I Enjoy or Miss

A VW micro bus, image from Wikimedia Commons by Ralf Roletschek / This is a 1960s bus, judging by the lights and bumpers, and the color is not exactly the same, but this is very similar to the family van we should have used for Sunday drives in 1967 or so.

When I was young, one of the rituals in my family was the “Sunday drive.” I didn’t happen every Sunday, certainly only when the weather was good, but once in a while my parents, particularly my dad, would get in the mood to see what was doing out there in the world.

I was 8 when we moved to Iowa from California, and my memories of Sunday drives mostly come after the move. The family car was a 1959 chartreuse VW micro bus, somewhat battered (it had been dented in, of all things, a salt storm in the salt flats of California). Not every drive involved the entire family—sometimes, I remember my mother and some of my sisters staying home. And there was no assigned seating in the micro bus, so I’m sure there was some jostling for position.

I was, however, sometimes up front on the drives. The 9-seater vehicle had three rows of three seats, and there was a middle seat in front. I can recall seeing the corn fields ooze by, watching the speedometer and being irritated if my dad didn’t maintain a steady 60 mph. The speed limit on most rural two-lane highways of the 1960s was 60, and I knew enough math to know that if an old VW micro bus managed to rattle along at 60 mph, it meant that we covered a mile in a minute, and if I watched the time, I could then figure out how far we went. If daddy slowed to 55 or so, who knew? For a 10- or 11-year-old Joe, that was calculation beyond my mental capacity.

And I often got bored on the rides. I would agree to go along, but after what seemed forever in the late afternoon watching farm fields, my attention would wane. Probably, I could enjoy it for 20 minutes or so. As was not surprising for a man in his 50s who was driving, my dad had far, far more patience for the drive.

Here we are, decades later. My dad is gone now, as is the Sunday drive. The comparable activity for me today, I suppose, is the daily bicycle ride. Fewer miles, but I have a computer that tracks those for me, so I don’t have to be irritated with old Joe for not maintaining a steady 60 mph on those rides.

And an older adult sees the world differently from a pre-teen child. I watch details more. I’m far more likely to notice the deer, or the goldfinch or the baby monarch on a milkweed leaf.

In those late 1960s summer rides, as the light faded, the bugs would be out in hordes, and the car would get very messy with splats of expiring invertebrate flyers. Today, when I do have to drive, my minivan or SUV finishes the drive far cleaner than that VW bus did, and that’s a shame. As insects go, so, eventually, do life forms farther up the food chain, something we should attend to.

Anyway, I’ve had an interesting summer so far, in 2022, as far as flying things are concerned. On my daily bicycle ride, I take my good Nikon camera. I’m on a personal quest to document any cooperative monarch butterfly I encounter—but so far, while I’ve had a few sightings of those pretty creatures, they’ve been flitting quickly, in motion. In short, from a photography point of view, not cooperative.

However, on a bike ride on the Boyson Trail, I recently made an image of a monarch caterpillar on milkweed, and shortly after that, on Independence Day, found one in my own garden.

It’s the Fourth of July! Monarch baby in my garden, next to a fireworks burst of milkweed flowers. Common milkweed has a soft, pleasant smeel.

And, even if the cars stay cleaner than they ought to, this has been an interesting summer as far as flying things go. On June 27, on a bike ride to Ellis Park, I paused at the Cedar River on the south-west side of the river. There are large cottonwood trees on the opposite bank, and bald eagles sometimes nest there.

An eagle couple seen across the Cedar River on June 27, 2022, bike ride.

Sure enough, as I sat on a bench and enjoyed a sandwich I had packed, I spotted a pair and made some pictures of them.

In my own yard, this year of avian flu has also been the year of dinosaur diversity. There is a cardinal couple that apparently owns my backyard, but that’s not unusual—robins and cardinals often nest in the many bushes and trees that I have. But this year, I’ve spotted (briefly) a Baltimore oriole.

And, just today, July 6, I spotted a goldfinch feeding on zinnia seeds from flowers planted in pots on my front stoop. As I made images of the bright yellow bird, I noted a very similar one, not as bright—so I had a couple on a date, eating seeds together.

Well, cool. One reason to have a jungle of a back yard (Lets see, seven oak trees, two catalpa trees, four crab apples, two apples, a tulip poplar, a linden, two magnolias, a ginkgo, a willow, a buckeye, two pears, a dogwood, at least three red buds—how many trees is my small lot crowded with? I’ve listed 28 here, and these are just the “planted” trees that I care for, and only the backyard. There are five more trees in front.) is the diversity of birds that decide to come by. I’ve got an elusive hummingbird feeding off of the trumpet vines (home to the cardinals who oversee the yard). My neighbor tells me he’s seen many orioles, and he speculates that maybe piles of wood left in public woods behind our houses, refuse of a derecho storm two years ago, is providing extra nesting habitat.

Anyway, gas prices are too high for Sunday drives these days. I would not mind, now, being able to share a ride with family in the country, looking for the plants and animals of Iowa.

But, I’m pretty happy that this summer, I can just stay at home, look out at my own yard, and be pleasantly surprised as the diversity of flying critters I can find there.

Leave a comment

Filed under Environment, Flowers, Memories

The Year Many Trees Bloomed

June 1–Apple growing on one of the two apple trees I planted about 15 years ago.

June! This is my favorite month of the year—the one month I mostly ignore my job. Not totally—I’m going to clean my office this month, and I have to confirm and share the campus newspaper schedule for next year, and I have an annual state advisors’ meeting to attend—but, still. My favorite and least busy month.

And this June is a bit special. Despite the sucky news cycles we’ve been living through lately and an ongoing pandemic, I’m at least enjoying an unexpected bit of psychic relief courtesy of nature.

It’s been a bit of a dry spring in my part of Iowa. Oh, we’ve had rain, and the world looks June lush and green right now, but you can see, especially in the tired looks of some mowed lawns, that more rain would be welcomed by Iowa gardeners (and, now that most fields are probably planted, by Iowa farmers, too).

And yet there is some good news from my little corner of Mother Nature’s planet. This was the year that almost all of the trees at my house decided to bloom.

Of course, many of the trees on my property bloom every year—I have numerous crab apples and enjoy the sight and scent of those pretty trees every spring. But I also have two apple trees, planted more than a decade ago. Last, year, they had a few flowers. This year, something unexpected—both trees burst into copious bloom. On June 1 of this year, they were both forming multiple fruits.

Before the derecho in 2020, my tulip poplar, almost 20 years old, had a few flowers. But in 2021, as it recovered from the shock and lost limbs of 2020 (and what living thing on this planet has not had a lot of self-work to do to recover from 2020?), the tree paused in its plumage. The pausing seems to be over, as this June 1, there are many pretty flowers to enjoy, if you have binoculars. This very tall tree seems to bloom mostly way high up in the canopy.

May 31–Tulip tree in bloom.

I have not checked out my linden tree. Do they bloom now, or is the linden flower season passed? It may be the one tree that has yet to flower as it should.

But I am pretty excited for other tree flowers coming later this month—I noticed one of the catalpa trees I planted in my yard is finally is producing buds. Catalpas make very large, pretty flowers, and this month I should see them for the first time in my own backyard.

June 1–buds on catalpa tree.

This was also the year that helicopters again flew in my yard. A very large maple was so damaged by the derecho that we had to have it cut down, but a child of that tree is planted in the yard, although it was, until now, apparently too young for tree sex. But, this child tree channeled its inner panda, bloomed this spring (although not as a red peony, although my most common peonies are red—OK, I’ll try to drop the Pixar references, forgive me) and in May produced its first large crop of seeds. I know maple helicopters are a pain, a surefire gutter clogger, but I can’t help but enjoy their random cascade in late spring.

And, by the stump of the old maple tree, a young dogwood tree this spring produced a few flowers. Not many, but it did bloom.

Overall, linden possibly excluded, this was an excellent spring and early summer for flowering trees in my yard. I have a young grandson who is very excited for the apple trees forming fruits and is convinced he will consume an apple from my yard—I hope he’s right, although I’m also amused because he’s quite an apple sauce eater, and he drinks apple juice—but eating an apple? Not his thing. Yet.

Maybe his taste for the actual fruit will bloom this year. Like almost all my trees did.

Just because it’s June.

Leave a comment

Filed under Environment, Flowers, Grandchildren, Weather

Reacting to Horror; Our Governing Crisis

Flag at half mast in mourning, Wikimedia Commons. Mourning for more innocents dead, and our inability to agree as a body politic on anything to do about it.

There is clearly something wrong, but what it is and how to cure the disease gets quickly lost in the noise of the disease itself.

Our representative government is close to broken. The influence of influencers on our supposed democracy didn’t start with the Citizens United court ruling a decade ago, but that ruling, which unleashed a flood of money into our already money-soaked political system, made the rot at our core much worse.

And then, of course, there is our media system, which has been shifting for 40 years from a flawed but relatively responsible model to a Wild West of social media infotainment where we feel free to choose our truths, which is not how rational thought nor governance works at all.

So we again lose children in an elementary school, this time in Texas, as a lone shooter unleashes unfathomable violence on the innocent. Uvalde, Texas, gets its 15 minutes of fame for all the wrong reasons. We become enraged, we mourn, we can’t fathom the depth of this horror—and we’ll almost inevitably do nothing.

Background checks on gun purchases that the vast majority of Americans support? Dead in the Senate, hijacked by arcane traditions that mean nothing will get done without 10 Republicans joining Democrats. And Republicans joining Democrats shouldn’t seem like such a farfetched notion. That it is so unlikely is a symptom of our political disease.

Wikimedia Commons: Photo of Goddess of Democracy statue at the Vancouver campus of the University of British Columbia. Replica of the statue created by Chinese students in 1989 in a failed attempt at democracy there. May our democracy prove more persistent.

We rightly fault Vladimir Putin for trying to put the bullet through democracy in Ukraine. Yet, we seem incapable of recognizing our own country’s governing structures are at risk, getting shaky, no longer trusted by We the People. We’re dying by slow political suicide.

The enemy is us. When we ignore good journalism for bad. When we immediately demonize opposing views and refuse to seek common ground—when we can’t compromise between left and right in some semblance of a middle.

I’m overwhelmed. In the short term, it feels like, oh no, not again. But withdrawing from the news, from the dirty game of self-government, feels like exactly the behavior that feeds the beast, that makes only the crazies active. I don’t mean it’s wrong, if you’re overwhelmed, to tune out and go outside and hug your children and seek some peace—I just mean that’s clearly only a short-term, self-preservation act. In the medium term, pay attention and vote in the next election, and the next, and the next.

What do I want? I don’t know, for sure, except I want grief about the tragedy to turn into action before it fades once again. I want transparency in our politics and rational action to counter the influence of money. I don’t think we can prevent people from volunteering to donate to their chosen causes, nor should we try, but in both all campaign contributions, and frankly, on social media, making the powers that be at least identify who they are seems a minimum, to me.

I want less knee-jerk reaction. Yet here I am, quickly reacting. As a writer, I don’t feel I can ignore the big issue of the day, yet I also confess I feel inadequate. I don’t think I have the answers.

Sadly, I worry that we’re losing our ability to collectively come up with complicated, long-term answers, or even understand each other’s questions. And I’m very, very tired of it, tired of the death, the violence, the sense of hopelessness and helplessness.

The sick sense that none of it matters, that it inevitably will happen again.

No. It will happen again. But it’s not inevitable. And I refuse to check out of self-government because I don’t think it’s working as I would like it to work.

Ultimately, complex problems like gun violence in American can only be overcome over time. Yes, I want action now—pass the darn background checks, at least. Yet, I also want to recognize that’s not a magic bullet, not the cure. There are no magic bullets, just the metal ones that end up too often ripping through the bodies of victims.

We can’t make it stop, instantly. But shame on us if we don’t make it stop. We need to come back from our grief determined to work together to find the hard answers to our complex problems.

Will we? History does have examples where long-term, intractable problems can get better. At our founding, education was not universal. Slavery was enshrined in our Constitution. Most people lived short lives and were cut down by infectious diseases. Big issues may take generations for us to change, but we can, by our individual and collective acts, still bend history towards solutions.

And we can reduce the rot at our democratic core.

1 Comment

Filed under Freedom, History, Journalism, politics