Category Archives: Weather

The Summer of Milkweed and Butterflies


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When I shot this image in June, this was a mystery flower–it’s swamp Milkweed.

It began in spring. I have for years planted Milkweed seeds in my gardens, with almost no results. Last year, I purchased some “Butterfly Flower” Milkweed plants at a local nursery, and at least those plants did grow. Also last year, for the first time, a few baby plants that maybe could be Milkweed were spotted in the garden, but didn’t grow much.

This winter was a bit mixed. We had some cold. It was not a particularly harsh winter, but it lingered and the spring that followed felt very truncated before hot weather suddenly appeared.

And somehow that odd combination—a chilly winter and quick spring, followed by Iowa hot—seemed to be what Milkweed had been waiting for. While in past years, results had been limited, suddenly in the front garden last year’s baby Milkweed sprang up like, well, weeds.

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Final day of RAGBRAI, West Liberty, I stop to get some Milkweed seed balls to toss in ditches.

The Butterfly Flowers didn’t all come back, but the plants that did grew robustly and bloomed with pretty orange flowers. The common Milkweed didn’t bloom yet this year—but several of the plants grew to several feet in height.

And in the side garden, a tall spiky stranger appeared, an impressive, 3-foot plant with pink flowers. I didn’t know what it was until we attended the Monarch Fest at the Indian Creek Nature Center, where there were pictures of Swamp Milkweed.

And not only was Milkweed suddenly present in the gardens, but Monarch butterflies on whose behalf these plants were installed didn’t waste much time in finding my Milkweed patch. Suddenly, this year, there were those distinctive black, yellow and white caterpillars. Indeed, the identity of the Swamp Milkweed was confirmed by the presence of baby Monarchs.

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Caterpillar on Swamp Milkweed this week.

Well, it’s August and the press of school work is starting. I have syllabi to prepared, a newspaper staff to help organize and a bike club to encourage. The end of RAGBRAI, in my universe, is sort of the unofficial end of summer.

And this summer, we adopted a caterpillar from the Nature Center, fed it and had the pleasure of watching it fly off.

My gardens had a few losses from the winter that have not been restored—my two Rose of Sharon bushes both died, for example. I like that kind of flower and eventually will replace them, although I didn’t find them this year. No butterfly bushes are growing in my gardens this year despite the welcome presences of many butterflies—that perennial is dicey in my region of Iowa and is really almost an annual.

But this was the first year the dogwood tree in back bloomed, and the first year in which Milkweed firmly took hold in my gardens. All in all, I’ll list it as a successful growing season.

And now summer is psychologically, if not physically, over, the fall bulb catalogs are arriving, and the year is marching onward.

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Peonies, Roses and Daddy Longlegs


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Earlier this month, Daddy Longlegs on flower in side garden.

The odd, ever changing summer in Iowa continues.

On Tuesday, dodging rain, my wife and I had gone shopping, and we picked up a few of the season’s last plants on clearance. We got two small rose bushes and two pink peonies.

My plan was to plant them under a birch tree in our front yard. I think my back yard is just getting too shady for these kinds of flowers.

Anyway, when I went out to garden Wednesday, I started by taking my good camera and making a few images of the fine morning. It had rained Tuesday and was very damp, but fine and nice on Wednesday—usually this summer, we’ve been either very humid and warm or downright wet, so Wednesday was one of the precious in-between days. No rain and no extreme heat—it was just Iowa pleasant.

I was impressed by the number and variety of Daddy Longlegs I found this morning, crawling at the edge of plants, on patrol for food to scavenge. I learned via a PBS article and a DNR web site that these non-spider arachnids basically don’t hunt—they are walking around looking for dead insects or decaying leaf to eat.

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Pair of Daddy Longlegs on Hosta. They shed legs as a defense, and according to a PBS article, if a male wants to mate and the female is not in the mood, she may rip one of his legs off.

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On Milkweed.

And, if attacked, they shed a leg and move on. More than half of Daddy Longlegs will lose at least one leg in escaping a predator (or potential mate) during their life.

Well. It was not the only interesting nature note of the morning.

As I planted my roses and peonies, a bit of a disturbance broke out in a nearby ash tree. A small bird was being chased about by a tiny bird—a hummingbird was swooping at another bird, which was complaining about the harassment.

I’ve seen hummingbirds several times this summer, but never caught an image of one. I pointed the good camera up in the ash tree, hoping to be lucky. And I was, because it appeared the hummingbird actually roosted, waiting for its next opportunity to be macho or birdo or dino—whatever we should call it.

And when, on the computer, I looked at the image, I realized the tiny bird was not sitting on the branch—it has a tiny nest in the ash tree.

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Hummingbird on guard in nest.

The city is cutting out ashes, and this is a city tree, so at some point it will be removed. I hope it’s after the fall migration.

And I hope to see some pretty pink peonies next spring!

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June is Busting Out in Peonies


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Peony in my front garden. I shot this image on May 28.

I grew up in various places in the United States—I was born in Tennessee, although I was so young when we moved from there that I don’t have any memories of that place. I have a few dim snatches of memory from Schenectady, New York, although we moved to California just before I turned 4.

From ages 4 to 8, we lived in several towns in California. I have numerous California memories, but honestly, they tend to be a rather confusing knot that doesn’t specify time or place all that well. My son lives in San Francisco, and I know I visited that place in the 1960s, but when I took a trip out there to see him, absolutely nothing at all looked familiar (my main memories of 1960s California were that we toured a Canadian destroyer which had steep stairs, seemed huge and was a dull grey; and a minor earthquake had occurred and some storefronts had broken glass. As an adult visiting the city by the bay I saw zero Canadian destroyers and no broken shop windows.)

My more organized narrative memory, which honestly is not all that great, really starts in Clinton, Iowa. For a short time, we lived in an old rented house on Third Avenue South, but then we moved to a house on Seventh Avenue South after, I think, about a year, which means we lived there from about 1967 to 1972.

In my mind, that house in Clinton is probably the one I think of as my boyhood home. I learned to mow grass and appreciate girls while I lived in that house (the two are unrelated). There was a huge hedge in back, and while I sort of liked it sometimes, I’ve never been tempted to plant a hedge in any of my houses. They get big and get out of control.

My father planted numerous trees while we lived on Seventh Avenue, and the tree-planting bug clearly took root in me. I am glad to say that I have three live redbud trees in Iowa in a place where the climate is pretty much the same as Clinton—we tried planting that kind of tree in Clinton and they always died. I don’t know why.

The house in Clinton had a large front porch with a porch swing (whose chain my sisters and I occasionally broke through rather rambunctious swinging). That porch served as lookout post, pirate ship and thunderstorm hangout. The house also had a lip on the wooden siding that the brave or foolhardy could use to travel all the way around the house, toes on the lip, fingers braced on the underside of the siding, sidling across a 10-foot chasm over a driveway cut into the basement.

It was in this house that my father grew a small garden that for some reason yielded plenty of tomatoes, sweet corn, cucumbers and other garden treats for a large family. My father’s ability to grow food for the family is something I have always envied—and never been able to emulate.

And there were a few flowers at the Clinton house. In the back by the alley, at a corner gap in the hedge, there was a big lilac bush, and its blooms always smelled sweet and heralded the coming of spring and the ending of another school year. I disliked school and learned to love lilacs.

On the east and west sides (the house faced north) of the back yard, beyond the hedge on the west (there was no hedge on the east) were lines of peony plants. And perhaps because they also heralded the end of tedium and boredom known as a term at Sacred Heart School, I have kept a lifelong appreciation for the peony.

And this year, June 1 is just past the peak of peony season in Iowa. These pretty flowers mean the transition away from spring to early summer—the prevalence of ants, the appearance of fireflies, the freedom from school (as a professor, my attitude towards school has grown a bit more positive, but I will also freely admit that my favorite months of the year still are any that start with J and don’t end in anuary).

Peonies! You fresh pom-poms of color. I plant more than I ever get to grow and bloom, but I do have some that bloom, and I like that. They are pretty and smell nice—they have a subtler fragrance than a lilac, you have to lean close to experience it, and it you do, be careful of the ants or bees when you sniff.

They are the flowers that announce the best time of the year is here in Iowa. Hip-hip hooray!

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May 29–Peony blooming at Mount Mercy University.

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Another May 29 image of peony on MMU campus.

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Planting Trees on Arbor Day, 2018


eco clubWe were lucky it was a warm day. Earlier this month, we had several snowfalls in Cedar Rapids, and it seemed the ground would be pretty frosty.

But a tree planting event was scheduled for Arbor Day, today, and as luck would have it, the weather has changed. I know, Iowa, right?

Anyway, the MMU ECO Club coordinated the tree planting events, bringing 17 trees and a DNR expert to campus.

The original plans were to start at 8 a.m., but the club wisely changed that to a 10:30 a.m. start, assuming that the club and volunteers might get the trees into the ground by the planned lunch at 12:30 p.m.

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Zachary Ceresa, president of MMU Eco Club, getting ready for tree planting.

Indeed, the planting went quickly. There were probably 5 or more volunteers per tree, and although tree planting can be work, if you only have to plant one and four other people get turns at the shovel, it’s a fairly quick, fun process.

I’m a tree person. My tiny yard is virtually a forest due to all of the trees my wife and I have planted—I’m not even sure what the current tree census is at casa de Sheller, but it is quite a few.

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Rachael Murtaugh, Mount Mercy director of sustainability. She uses dandelions in all of her decorating.

And I have always enjoyed tree planting. It seems like an intuitively generous act, in a way, in that you’re trying to benefit the future—both your personal future and the future that goes on beyond you. Not all trees last that long, but many might—the group I was part of planted a sturdy 6-foot oak that, I hope, will be around for many years.

The Eco Club is interested because trees create a cascade of positive environmental impacts. I was interested in planting partly because it’s just soothing for the soul.

The day was beautiful and the volunteers plentiful. It was a fun way to mark the spring.

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DNR expert teaches us how to plant trees.

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It’s Hard to be Grumpy in London


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Daffodils blooming and Albert Memorial in background in Hyde Park, London, March 23, 2018.

Well, not if you’re a kid and you got up way too early, I suppose. And I guess my travel companions would argue that there were times Friday when I was a bit frayed at the edges, so maybe the title should be “it’s hard to stay grumpy in London.”

I like visiting large cities. The museums and shops of Minneapolis, St. Louis, Kansas City, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, New Orleans, Vancouver—I’ve been there and would willingly go back. New York City is prominent on my list of places I want to go, and if you’re planning a trip to D.C. any time, I would love to be with you.

In particular, I hope to get back to San Francisco.

But though I love all the cities on my continent, London seems like a special place. It’s so steeped in the world—more of an international crossroads than any American city. It bears the marks of its sometimes volatile, violent history. It seems a bit cleaner than many North American metros. Despite its vast size—London is a huge, sprawling city—it is also human in scale, with narrow walkways, bike paths and streets.

It’s a city of glittering, ugly new skyscrapers. But in other areas, the buildings are only 4 or 5 stories high—creating a crowded cityscape that is nonetheless more light and airy than many central urban areas.

We were lucky this year to spend spring break in England. Friday was our full day in London. We arrived Thursday and depart Saturday, and I am thrillingly awaiting my first visit to the British Museum today. Thursday was the Science Museum, an accidental stroll through Imperial College, Hyde Park and a pretentious museum in the Greenwich neighborhood that was actually a extensive advertisement for how self-consciously cool the real estate in the Greenwich Peninsula is.

The underground is loud and crowded and smells of oil and age, and I love it. As my wife and two granddaughters were on our own for the morning, my son-in-law had specified the route—take the Jubilee Line to Green Park, and switch there to the Victoria Line for the tube to South Kensington Station.

I was a little paranoid about riding the wrong way, but as Audrey pointed out, if that happens you just hop off the train and take one headed the other way.

The Science Museum, when we got there, was crowded and noisy. I spent my time chasing after grandchildren rather than strolling through the technology exhibits, which would have been my choice. Still, playing with grandchildren is a pleasant way to while away a morning, and it was a prelude to a glorious afternoon.

March in Iowa is a transition month, a mix of winter and spring that will bring 10 inches of snow today. While England saw a rare snowfall earlier in March, and the weather has been cool, it’s still very much spring here, with flowers in bloom and green grass, even if the trees have not yet woken from winter slumber. Friday afternoon was strolling in Hyde Park.

If I came here with just adults, I would be tempted to rent bicycles to see more of the park, but what I did experience on a pretty spring afternoon convinces me that one of the glories of Britain, besides the Beatles and Monty Python, is parks. Their playgrounds tend to be wood and metal and sturdy and old-fashioned, with swings and teeter totters and dangerous things that would not ever be built today in North America, where playgrounds are plastic and padded and safe and dull by comparison.

The day was also filled with food. We had lunch at a quick food shop that defies description. With its rice base and spices, I considered it Asian, but my son-in-law says it was a French fusion place. Whatever. It was filling and good and definitely not McDonalds.

And when we grew tired in the afternoon and had the early rush hour Underground journey back to our temporary apartment by the Thames, there was a stop for sticky toffee pudding. If you haven’t, perhaps the expense and time of a flight to London is worth your while to experience that dessert. I liked it, although, in full disclosure, I know from personal experience that my daughter and son-in-law can whip up an even tastier version of this treat.

The Brits don’t have a great reputation for culinary genius, but in my experience, eating in England features delightful dining. True, they invented beans on toast as a meal, but they also created fish and chips and sticky toffee pudding.

Well, God save the Queen and all of her subjects. I visited a pub in Norwich earlier this week and hoisted several pints. Cheers to England and to London, which right now is about my favorite city in all the world.

Of course, my opinion may be tainted. We’ve been hosted by my delightful oldest daughter and her family. There are two active, bouncy girls to play with and a baby boy to cuddle. That and Hyde Park—what more can one ask of a great city?

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March: The interesting transition to spring


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Frosty hillside at MMU campus, riding up Mercy Drive Friday, March 2.

Iowa in March: To start the month, we’ve had a string of sunny, warm days. Well, “warm” is situational—scraping car windows was necessary this morning as temperatures were in the mid 20s.

But as I biked by the Rockwell-Collins pond on C Avenue Friday morning, the ice surface has become again liquid, and two ducks were swimming. I hope they are there this weekend when I take my youngest grandson for a bike ride. He loves seeing the ducks.

March is a roller coast month. We’ve started high on the hill, but could easily swoop down. Despite warm sunshine here, it’s winter in other parts of this hemisphere—my oldest daughter in England is dealing with snow in a UK city with no snow removal equipment, because such weather is so rare there. A Nor’easter is pounding parts of the U.S.

We haven’t had the high school basketball tourneys yet, complete with their traditional tournament blizzards.

Yet, it’s still nice to see more sunshine and feel more warmth. The dominant outdoor color is a drab brown, but birds are getting busy and noisy. Change is clearly in the air. By month’s end, we should be enjoying the green outdoors.

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A Short, Cold Walk in the Woods


Shadows of trees

I’m out of the yard, headed down to Dry Creek. I like the shadows on the snowy bit of grass.

After the annual New Year’s Day brunch at my sister’s house, I came home with my wife, daughter and grandson. It was nap time.

I woke up around 3, and worked for a while in the office, but when I looked out the window, a cold squirrel who was huddled in the tulip tree caught my eye. Right—I was going to fill the bird feeders this afternoon. It’s pushing 4, but at minus 4 degrees it’s as warm as it will get today—so I put on boots, coat, hat and mittens. And I also took my Nikon.

On the way around the house, I spotted a flock of small brown birds hanging out in a honeysuckle bush, as if waiting for me. “Where have you been?” I was inside where it is warm, dinosaur friends. Food is on the way.

I fumbled with the birdseed and feeders, and had to take off the mittens to deal with the anti-squirrel wire (it does not prevent them from eating, but from removing the feeders and taking them apart).

When I was done with my dino and rodent self-imposed duty, I was in no mood to go inside too quickly. It’s been bitterly cold in Iowa leading up to this New Year’s Day, and I was ready to spend time outside, even if just a few minutes. Dry Creek, in recent years, has rarely been dry, but I knew it had little water in it when the cold weather hit. Where there had been a bit of water, there would now be ice, anyway.

So I opened the back gate and ambled down to the streambed. I liked the quiet crunch of snow and sense of solitude, despite the occasional traffic noise from nearby C Avenue. Snapping images as I went, I headed under the C Avenue bridge, walking west in the bed of the creek.

Fallen tree arch.

West of C Avenue Bridge, walking west in Dry Creek bed. Passing under fallen tree arch.

Deer tracks let me know I wasn’t the first or only mammal to pass this way. It was bitterly cold, but very pretty as the late afternoon light turned golden and the cloudless sky was a soft wintery blue.

I saw a few skittish birds along the way, and passed under the arches of a few fallen trees. Maybe a quarter mile or less from home, I came to a tree crossing the creek that would have taken more effort to pass—doable, but a bit of limbo for an unlimber old man.

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Mammal tracks in snow. Deer, and an old man.

I had only one layer on my legs and not particularly warm socks in my boots, and I was feeling the cold, so I decided the tree was a convenient turn around point. Besides, I definitely planned to be home before the light started to fade—no rambling in the woods in winter twilight for me.

As I returned to my own yard, I caught sight of a woodpecker, a frequent feeder visitor, and snapped a few more images.

Then I went inside. My wife was awake, but the grandson was still asleep, so I did a bit more class work on the computer until he awoke.

School starts tomorrow. Winter term is only one course to teach, but that one class meets for a lot of hours a day—it’s a fairly intense teaching experience, and I have a large section this term.

So, it was good to take a 20-minute hike in nature, even on a bitterly cold afternoon. A Facebook friend posted the other day that we needed to remind ourselves of the good things about living in Iowa, given this extended cold snap. These pictures, I suppose, are part of my answer. Cold as it is, Iowa is still a quietly pretty place, and a quiet pretty place, late on a sunny winter afternoon. I loved the quality of light at this time of the afternoon–the golden sunshine and blue shadows and sky. See more of my images from this walk on Flickr.

And a short stroll in the winter woods was a good way to kick off 2018.

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