Category Archives: Weather

A Man Walked the Walk Despite Cows


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Books for sale at evening presentation.

The Great Plains seems to be a beautiful place—a place of big skies, great distances and cows.

Beware the cows. A city kid from Buffalo, New York, Ken Ilgunas set out in fall several years ago to walk the route of the Keystone Pipeline, planned to go from Alberta to Texas. His purpose was to write a book about the land the controversial project would cross.

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At the evening speech, in the light.

But his worry, besides being shot for trespassing as he followed the route, was the potential for cattle catastrophe.

Although he did have some scary encounters, cows, it turned out, where not the bad.

And the people he met were mostly willing to help a scruffy looking stranger walking across their land. Ilguan, who spoke March 5 at Mount Mercy University, told both a journalism class and an evening public program that he had a particular approach to strangers.

 

Ilguna would walk up to a house, knock on the door, and then say, “I’m walking across America. Can I trouble you for some water?”

The answer was almost universally “yes.” One-on-one, as it turns out, Americans are not hostile or violent. They’ll invite you in, give you water, sometimes offer a meal or even a couch for the night.

I enjoyed both of Ilguna’s presentations, and hope to get and read his books—I did not have enough cash in my pocket to buy one tonight, but I’ll shop for “Trespassing Across America” soon.

Besides being an interesting and entertaining personal journey, Ilguna was also recording what he called, in scope, one of the biggest of all human-made environmental disasters, second perhaps only to global warming. Great swaths of land in Canada are being stripped to get at the oil tar, and great damage is then done to extract the oil from the sand and clay it is bound to.

The afternoon session, in which a social work professor kindly allowed my introduction to journalism class to sit in, included some interesting thoughts on launching a writing career. Among other things, Ilguna urged students to have their own web site—which validates a requirement I made in my writing classes for students to do that very thing.

The class also included an interesting discussion of the reality that Ilguna was a white man walking across the whitest part of North America, which was to his advantage. He and the students speculated it would be harder for any person or color, and several women noted that it would be difficult for a female to make that kind of solo journey.

It was an interesting day. More images. I’m glad Rachel Murtaugh and the MMU sustainability effort brought this interesting writer to campus.

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In Praise of Snow Removal Technology


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My snow blower Monday morning, when I had just cleared the drive from the last snow storm.

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It must be a sign of advancing age. For much of my adult life, I clung to the romance of the snow shovel—if white ice crystals were to be moved by a human, I would do it the manly way, with back and arm and muscle and bone and grit.

And now, the heck with it.

Several years ago, concerned, legitimately, with the health of my aging body, my wife suggested that we purchase a snow blower.

I do not seek proximity to gasoline fumes, and the noise of an engine totally lacks charm, for me. Yet snow removal can be back-breaking labor. I have arthritis in my knees and a history of lower back pain—where my bones meet other tissue, there seems too often seem to be issues that aren’t aided by heavy shoveling.

And there is the heart, that key organ of life, which I would like to keep going, thank you. Old men sometimes expire from the exertion of snow shoveling. Walking behind a smelly, noisy snow blower might not be all that pleasant, but I’m sure it beats having my heartbeat interrupted by a heart attack.

The blower that my wife and I purchased was the second one that we owned—I had many years ago inherited a small electric blower from my father, but it had a gap in its auger (the turning thing at the front that lifts snow), and never worked all that well. The gasoline using model that we purchased for ourselves seems to do the trick more effectively.

Except when it’s broken—a year after we purchased it, I broke the starting chord. I purchased a new chord at a local hardware store and attempted to replace it, and failed badly. The snow blower sat idle through a couple of mild winters, but, thanks again to my wife and to my two sons, over Christmas this year a new chord module was installed.

The best kind of mechanical work in my house happens while I blog and stay away from tools.

Snow is falling tonight. I had to babysit some grandkids, and was out in it. Please don’t hate me, but when I went to drive home in it, I did think it was pretty—silent white flakes drifting from the sky and coating the world in a fresh white cover. Yes, it’s the second half of February, yes, the active weather pattern we are in will be best looked back on than lived through. But snow is pretty.

Then again, I’m ready for spring. Nevertheless, come what may, this fragile old coot feels he can handle the Iowa winter.

I have a snow blower.

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Lazy Snow Day


The start of spring semester always feels abrupt—winter term blending into spring term with no time to catch your breath.

Of course, catching your breath was a challenge today anyway. The low tonight should set a record, somewhere near 30 below. Last night, the low temperature itself was not quite as brutal, but the wind chill was more serious, making it feel like 55 degrees below zero. European readers, I don’t what that is in Celsius, but these Fahrenheit temperatures mean it was seriously cold.

Classes at the university where I teach are rarely cancelled, but they were today.

So, my first goal for the unexpected lazy day was to sleep in. And around 6 a.m., there I was, wide awake. I would have rather been wide asleep (I’m wide in both states), but I guess my body was primed to greet the new day. Goal one blown.

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I fixed waffles and sausage for breakfast, a second goal of the day. My wife and I agreed that they turned out very well—she had purchased some whole milk because it’s good for cooking things like waffles—so goal number two was well met.

Goal three was to set up my class grade books and enter grades. Goal half done—I did manage to set them up, but did not enter grades, yet. Still, setting up the books will take longer than entering an assignment, so it’s at least half a win.

Otherwise, it was mostly a quiet day. My main goal was to hunker down all day and avoid the outdoors, but near noon, my wife suggested trying the bubble machine, just to see what it would do in the cold, so a silly few minutes were spent outside.

Thus, the stay indoors all day goal was partly broken—although most of the day was spent inside. The day felt a little odd, an out-of-phase lazy day, a misplaced Saturday that was honestly more lazy than most Saturdays are, but maybe that’s good.

I was glad I had filled the birdfeeders yesterday—no way would I do it today. The birds looked like little tennis balls today, all puffed up. I was glad to have supplied them some calories, which I’m sure they needed. Mostly I was glad that I was looking at them through the windows of a warm house.

The big chill is tonight and then the dip of the polar air is done, at least for now. While I appreciate the break, I’ll appreciate the end of the vortex even more.

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Baby, It’s Cold Outside—No Joke!


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Social media feeds are freezing up with dire warnings about the cold that is headed our way.

“This is not something to mess around with,” warns a Facebook post by the Cedar Rapids Police Department. “The cold temperatures combined with the wind could be potentially life-threatening.”

crystalsAnd no, I don’t think when I was a lad in the 1970s that we would have been terribly hardier and more able to stand it than we are now. I recall lots of school snow days, and our older homes were vulnerable to cracked pipes. My dad used to have to put a heating lamp on the battery of the VW micro bus overnight on these super cold nights in the sometimes-vain hope it would start in the morning. Cars back in my youth were terrible winter vehicles—the VWs would take forever to warm up, but at least had their engines over the drive train. American cars, with their ridiculous rear-wheel-drive, were hopeless compared to today’s relatively hardier, better-designed vehicles.

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Still, I want to praise winter. Hear me out before you throw something.

In December, the weather was so mild that we wondered if winter would ever come (spoiler alert, it would). I had planted several milkweed seeds, and in December I wondered if they would get the cold-weather signals that they needed to germinate. Native milkweed is planted in fall because it won’t sprout until it experiences winter.

Well, I’m guessing the seeds have got the memo by now. Sure enough it does look like winter has arrived—with a vengeance.

One student who I follow on Twitter had lamented a few weeks ago that she was wanting some snow. As an Iowa gardener, so was I. And to quote a meme posted by Fr. Dustin Vu, “If you choose not to find joy in the snow, you will have less joy in your life but still the same amount of snow.”

But, yeah, I’ve had enough snow now, thank you.

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The thermometer is going to drop and keep on dropping as the winds pick up. We already have a substantial snow pack, and got more snow last night.

It is also supposed to warm up this weekend—and rain. On the snow. Followed by another chill down. And more snow.

The winter of 2019 is making a name for itself, and I’m too polite to repeat it.

cardinalBut winter still has its charms. Snow is pretty. All of the images on this post are taken by me in January 2019 in my Iowa backyard. I think they are pretty. Snow crunches pleasantly underfoot, it makes it easy to pick out the cardinal couple that visits my bird feeders, the winter air is fresh and wholesome—when it’s 20 above zero and not 20 below.

So, no, I do not hate winter. But no, I’m also not completely out of my mind—I don’t love the deep, deep arctic blast we are in for.

Stay safe out there my friends. Pay heed to the CR PD and weather service and every weather station. Don’t mess around when Mother Nature is seeking your demise.

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And there is an upside to this season. I like winter when it is not so extreme. The fall bulbs I planted are now somewhat protected by a white blanket. When it finally warms up a bit (and we know that the cold we have this week will not hold, our hemisphere is slowly turning again to face the nearest star), snow people and sledding and snowball fights with grandchildren will again become practical rather than dangerous.

The seed catalogs have started to arrive. A flowerful aisle has appeared as if by magic in a local farm store—filled with colorful pictures and little pots where you can start baby plants.

We’re almost to February. The signs are there. Even I, a fan of winter, will concede that the best thing about it is that it will end. We may yet have a long slog of cold weather ahead, but it is inevitable:

Spring is coming.

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In Praise of Winter Walks


The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can.
“Roads Go Ever On” by J.R.R. Tolkien.

In contrast to earlier the season—when we were blasted with cold in late November, December in Iowa has gifted us with some mild days. And by bike and foot, I have taken some advantage of that.

Monday, I was tied up much of the day with finishing semester grades. At least I did bicycle to campus. But on Tuesday, after some errands, my wife and I took a late afternoon stroll. We only walked maybe a total of two miles or so, but it was a pleasant (by December standards) sunset journey.

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Sun setting along C Avenue in Cedar Rapids on Dec. 18, 2018. During a stroll with my wife as we celebrate being married 36 years. It was warm Dec. 18 36 years ago, too.

On Wednesday, I biked to campus to finish some additional odds and ends, and then met my wife and youngest son. We drove down to the NewBo area for lunch at Parlor City, and then went for a stroll along a part of the Cedar River Trail, including the new Sinclair Levee path.

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Dec. 19, 2018, view during stroll along Sinclair Levee trail.

It was breezy, and sunshine was starting to turn to clouds, but again, with a temperature around 40 or so, quite nice for December. We happily chatted as we strolled, enjoying the companionship, the outdoors and the effort of the walk.

John Green created a recent Vlogbrothers video which was a walk through some Indiana woods in cold, wet weather with some friends. I’m not sure I completely agree with his point that the bad weather helped make it a good walk—I’m more of a fair-weather journeyer—although otherwise I think he’s on to something. We are all on a life journey, and sharing that journey with friends as we make our way is partly what it’s about.

And it is important to just get out there, when you can, whether in Indiana rain or Iowa sunshine. A walk outside is a way of enjoying the world beyond our artificial shelters, when conditions allow. We re creatures of this Earth and should feel our connection with it, now and then. Which is one thing a winter walk is good for.

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The Third Phase of Fall


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C Avenue, rising sun reflected in pond surrounded by snowy lawn–Dec. 9, 2018, 8 a.m. or so.

Like many Iowa seasons, to me, autumn falls into three parts.

There is the sequel to high summer, the final phase of the hot time of year, the September phase one of fall. In the evening there is a cool tinge to the air, but still the sounds of crickets as the day is still powerful enough to keep the freeze at bay.

Spiders are suddenly huge and everywhere.

But the plants know winter is coming—growth in all woody things is over and every plant that aspires to come back after the long sleep is hunkering down. There are still late flowers—mums and others—but the sex season in the plant world is mostly over. Dwarf bushes are starting to turn shades, and sumac, some of which were already crimson in high summer, are in full fall color.

Then the equinox passes and the night is starting to gain on the day. Lows dip into the 30s, and the first, tentative frosts arrive as the season turns to fall, phase two. Many trees begin to show colors and shed leaves. The night sounds begin to quiet, and the daytime insects are big and sluggish—unless they are in the sweat bee family, in which case they are pushy and obnoxious.

A few trees stubbornly remain green in this phase even as most others take on their sleep season look.

Then, sometime at the end of October or in early November, the hammer comes down. I always think the first definite frost is not really “it,” because a surprising number of hoppers and beetles and spiders can still be seen crawling around post-frost—they managed to hide in the night and appear in afternoon sunshine.

But when you get beyond mere frost to a genuine freeze, and for several nights in a row the temperature dips well below the ice point—well, it’s different.

This week, we had a dusting of snow. Lows dipped not just to freezing, but to the upper teens. Some leaves still cling to trees, but those leaves look dead and spent. The bare tree season is upon us. We’re not quite into early winter brown, but the shape of the world around us is suddenly there for us to see, as the green canopy that shrouded the hillside all spring and summer is gone.

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Around 4:30, I arrive home, looking west at clouds now visible, where tree foliage would have obscured the view. Bare trees on Nov. 9, 2018.

I am not usually bothered by the first snow, even if it this year it seems a bit early. I miss the greens and flowers of summer, and it will be a relief in five months when some of the bulbs I buried before the hard freeze become early spring flowers, but the gardens need the winter break. It’s one reason our summers are so full of plant life—we get the cleansing of winter to clear out harmful, plant-eating insects.

So, phase three of fall is here. The snow this morning was not exactly a pretty white blanket yet, there wasn’t enough to hide the green stubble of lawns, but the bit of snow is a sign that the gardens are now in slumber phase, I won’t need to smell like lemon pie for months to avoid blood-suckers, and the cool morning air feels fresh, if a bit brisk.

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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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