Tag Archives: Clinton

June is Busting Out in Peonies


May 28 peony 2

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!

Campus May 29 2

May 29–Peony blooming at Mount Mercy University.

Campus May 29

Another May 29 image of peony on MMU campus.

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Ashes to Ashes Due to a Little Green Devil


My two ash trees, the far one turning yellow. Goodbye too soon, old friends.

My two ash trees, the far one turning yellow. Goodbye too soon, old friends.

I don’t have notes, and I don’t recall specific dates or even years. Anyway, as far as I recall, here is the story: Summer, 1970. Clinton, Iowa. My family lived in a “new” house (new to us, we had moved three year before from a rental on Third Avenue South) on Seventh Avenue. The street was kind of pretty—a wide expanse of pavement, punctuated by beautiful old shade trees.

Many of those trees were elms. And that summer, the elms came down.

I was 12, if I have the right year, and the end of the elms was a sad time, but more for my parents, I think, than for me. I was still young enough that the sound of a chainsaw was fascinating, and the crash of the branches didn’t seem particularly terrible.

But, it was a tragedy. It took decades for those elms to slowly accumulate such height and majesty, only to have a fungus end it all.

It was also a fungus early in the 20th century that killed off the American chestnut tree.

Now, we’re facing yet another tree catastrophe. The long-dreaded emerald ash borer, a tiny green beetle that can fit on a penny, has been found in Mechanicsville, a town around 20 miles away, as the ash borer flies.

Ash leaves on my driveway. Messy, I know, but I'll take the mess if I can keep the trees.

Ash leaves on my driveway. Messy, I know, but I’ll take the mess if I can keep the trees.

It will mean the end of the ashes as we know them, and I don’t feel fine. Ashes are not my favorite tree, but I do like them. After the men came in 1970 and cut up our elms and carted the carbon carnage away, my father planted several trees in our yard. For some reason, the redbuds in the north front yard never thrived, which is a pity, since the redbud is such a pretty native tree.

On the other hand, the volunteer maples that my dad dug out of our hedge grew like weeds. And by the vegetable garden in back, he planted a tall and pretty tree that also thrived—an ash.

I don’t know now, years later, if that ash still stands. If it does, it will not for long.

A little green devil is on its way.

From Michigan Technological University (mtu.edu), a photo of the culprit, the ash borer.

From Michigan Technological University (mtu.edu), a photo of the culprit, the ash borer.

Today, I have two very pretty, mature ash trees in my yard—giant, full-sized plants that were decades in the making, but which will be at the end of their lives soon. I am at least fortunate that both ash trees reside between the sidewalk and the street, because in Cedar Rapids, that means the city forestry department will eventually bring out the men with the saws to cart the carcasses away.

I’ll miss those ash trees. As a middle aged man, I finally understand a bit why my mother and father mildly mourned the passing of the elms. I’m 55, far older than any animal I might encounter, since I don’t have regular dealings with sea turtles. I don’t mind being a long-lived mammal, but I am acutely aware of my mortal nature, and I can respect trees for their beauty and shade and also because they are one of the few living things around me that has the capacity to outlive me, to possibly even be a living legacy of mine to future generations.

Years ago, possibly when or  several years before our house was built, someone planted those ash trees by the street. But for the borer, they could have continued to increase in size and majesty and could have graced our street for many more decades.

Yellow ash leaf on the green grass.

Yellow ash leaf on the green grass.

They won’t. That’s a shame.

So I pause, on this cooling, wet Friday afternoon, to recall the trees that are still here if only for now. Sadly, tomorrow ashes you will be gone.

Once there were chestnuts. After that, there were elms. Now, but only now, there are ashes.

May one or more of the oaks or maples or the hawthorn or the tulip or the sweet gum that I have planted be there in the future after my time has expired. And I hope whatever replaces the ashes in front of my yard will also thrive for future generations.

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