It was cold today in Iowa—although not so cold that I could not ride my bicycle to work this morning. We’re post-Thanksgiving, waiting for the pandemic surge that feels like its coming—but this is not a COVID-19 post.
I’ve started filling my birdfeeders, and have taken a few dinosaur images. And I’ve been enjoying the late afternoon light of late fall. We had some decent warm days during Thanksgiving break, and I’ve been enjoying the quiet beauty of the small sights of fall in Iowa.
In particular, I shot some images of the MMU campus and of at Cedar Lake on Saturday, the final nice warm day. I left home about 2:30 p.m., so it was 3 when I got to campus, and the sun was already low.
The dried grasses by the Grotto of Sorrows and the magnolia buds by Warde Hall practically glowed when backlit by the sun. We’re starting the dark month of the year, which is not my favorite, but at least the golden hour of light is so early it’s easy to enjoy.
And I’m ready for Christmas lights and snow. It’s December tomorrow. Time for a little winter in this part of the world.
The low December light is a reminder that Christmas is on it’s way! Here are my favorite musical twins to help us with the holiday mood:
The holidays are all about family. My sisters and I most often get together, along with nieces, nephews and their children, around Christmas.
Probably not this year.
In the past, we’ve hosted as many of our kids and their kids as we can for Thanksgiving Day. Plans aren’t firm yet, but it doesn’t seem to be the time for such a gathering this year.
A vaccine is on its way, but we have not been, nor will we be, vaccinated for months yet. Even when it is available, how it’s distributed, and how willing people will be to receive it, remains to be seen.
We went into rather ineffective lockdown in spring. Iowa’s governor never mandated masks. We opened up too quickly, insisted on schools being open, and ran an election campaign that featured the vice president and president visiting this state for dangerous COVID-19-friendly unmasked rallies. Odd how it was a week after the horrible campaign that Iowa’s governor finally said maybe crowded gatherings are not a good idea. As if they were a good idea a few weeks ago.
And today, the news that more than 100 Secret Service officers are either sick or in quarantine. Thanks, Trump. Thanks, MAGA meanies. Our newly elected GOP congressional representative is missing the freshman meetings due to a positive COVID-19 infection. Gee, GOP, is there any connection to how you behaved a few weeks ago and sickness today?
Remember October? Trump was telling us that COVID would not dominate our news the day after election day?
I guess that’s about as reliable as any promise this thrice-married loser has ever made.
Halloween felt very weird to me this year. We usually put some jack-o-lanterns on the porch and hand out candy. We didn’t in 2020; our lights were off—but you could look out in the evening dim and see the usual trick or treaters traveling about in clumps. They often wore masks, but not the kind that cover nose and mouth with cloth—and their adult attendants and the people handing out treats from houses were mostly unmasked.
We’re two weeks later, now. And COVID-19 is flooding our hospitals and surging everywhere in the U.S of A.
There is no not hot spot. The nation is burning, and soon there may not be enough hospital beds or unexhausted doctors and nurses to care for the sick and dying. The harsh winter that experts had warned us about is upon us.
And President Trump today said he won’t have another lockdown while he is president. Great, help cause the spread, lose the election, and then refuse to act because the “cure can’t be worse than the disease.” Our mounting COVID-19 death toll tells the opposite tale—the lack of response seems much worse than the lockdown. A lockdown is a serious thing, an economy freezing chill. It’s not to be done lightly. But it seems to me that the temporary chill is better than the ongoing dumpster fire we’re facing now. Remember “flatten the curve?” It’s flat now, but straight up.
So, fam, maybe a zoom Christmas? It’s not what I want, what any of us want, but nobody should aspire to be the one who dies just weeks away from when shots start being felt around the world.
Hang tough, friends and family. Winter is coming. COVID Christmas. Thanks, 2020.
There’s plenty to worry about. The CDC just refined guidelines to indicate that “close” contact that can spread the coronavirus come from evidence that the virus can spread easier than thought before. Cold weather is upon us, we’re spending more time indoors. Trends are not good.
In Cedar Rapids, snow recently fell on tarp-covered roofs that have not been repaired since a devastating derecho storm in August. Our politics are polluted by negative noise, with candidates now using attack ads that used to be, in harsh tone, only used by PACs. And, of course, the yowling PACs are still around.
In a difficult time like this, there is a peace in gardening. We did two things big September: Got a large home equity loan to deal with expensive upcoming repairs from the derecho storm, and ordered a bunch of fall bulbs to plant.
In October, the bulbs arrived. We have daffodils and tulips aplenty. In addition, we’re going to inter grape hyacinth, crocus, snow drops and irises.
Too many to plant all at once, but my wife and I started digging holes Oct. 17. And on Oct. 18 and 19, it snowed.
We have planted only a fraction of the bulbs, so digging and putting in bulbs will be going on for a while.
There seems to be a cycle to our fall bulb planting. One year, we’ll do only a few, generally some tulips, daffodils and crocuses. The next year, we’ll do what we’re doing in 2020—order hundreds of bulbs online and plant and plant.
Somehow, 2020 seemed like a year to do that. I need the pleasure of extensive planning. We’re betting that, virus or not, we’ll be around in a few months to enjoy the beauty.
And even in the time of COVID-19 and in the post-apocalypse storm damaged landscape of east central Iowa, there is beauty to enjoy.
The first snow has fallen. Bulbs are going in the grounds. Flowers will bloom in spring. Repairs will be made. Our current bad times, sadly, may get worse before they get better—but I’m also sure there will be better on the other side of this hill.
I’m willing to bet on a better future, even if I am less clear about when. As a I result, I continue to put bulbs in the ground to make pretties for us to see in that future.
The year started a bit weird. Australia was on fire, and the election was already looking like a vicious slug fest full of ugliness and disinformation.
And then—March. We heard of the virus in February and had some dire warnings from scientists—which many scoffed at, but turned out to understate the risk and disruption to come.
A common argument against what science has said we should do to control the pandemic, by the way, has always bugged it. It’s “the cure can’t be worse than the disease.” Lost businesses, broken lives, drug abuse, suicide—all as a result of an economic shutdown—would be a cost too high to pay. And there is a point there—a shutdown is not a cheap step. But that’s weighted against more than 180,000 deaths, countless more long-term health problems—and ignores that such widespread fatality itself causes broken lives, drug abuse, depression and suicide. The virus is new and we learned about it as we went and are still learning—but we already knew what to do to shut down a contagious respiratory virus, we just didn’t have the leadership to do it. Our president and his party are anti science and blood is on their hands as a result. And so here we are, enjoying the worst of both worlds, the pain of an on-and-off shutdown and the pain from the pandemic deaths. You “it’s just he flu” folks were idiots then; you’re unforgivable now.
So, yeah, I turned 62 on Aug. 30. Celebrating in the time of COVID-19 feels weird. It was a pleasant, if odd, birthday. I couldn’t exactly go wherever I wanted and do whatever I want. I understand that technically I could—but I’m not a member of the delusional “it’s just the flu” group, so I chose a more muted celebration.
Five grandchildren were over for breakfast and lunch, which were grand meals prepared by my wife. We went for a walk, which was sobering because my birthday fell three weeks after a freak derecho storm laid waste to my corner of the world. My birthday present, which I got early, was a chainsaw.
And in the afternoon, I rode my bike for a couple of hours. The trail I rode surprised me by being clear for miles, and that provided a nice break.
So, my odd birthday where I reached an even number of years had lots of pleasant aspects to it. But it was in 2020. I’m hoping for a better year in 2021—but I don’t want to jinx it by expressing the wish too out loud.
The amount of work to be done is huge, daunting, scary to think of. I go and tackle what I can for a few hours each day, but tire quickly. Luckily, with the house being relatively intact, the backyard cleanup—with is the huge undone multitude of tasks—is not urgent.
A week—actually, just six days at this time. It seems an eternity since a derecho storm howled through and devastated much of Cedar Rapids. And we’re just part of a region where this massive storm blew off roofs, downed trees and flattened crops.
I feel emotionally numb. Something on the range of 1,000 structures in my city can’t be inhabited. Friends and family have been without power—some without water—since last Monday afternoon. I’m lucky, although when I have to dismember an old friend, I don’t feel the luck.
We had to toss all of the food from our freezer and fridge, but we can cook and cool again. Friday morning, the power came back on. I know it’s not my fault, but I feel a bit like I’m cheating when it gets hot in the afternoon and I shut windows and turn on AC.
What an almost week it has been. The earlier sounds of nails as roofs were replaced following a hailstorm were what I thought would be soundtrack of summer, 2020. I almost miss those nail guns as the roar of generators and chainsaws have become the newer sound of summer. And at least nail guns don’t give off fumes.
Before power came back on, sleep was a challenge. Not because it was too hot at night—we were lucky post storm to have a few relatively cool nights—but the fumes and sound of a nearby generator were the problem.
The morning after the storm I spent using a handsaw to cut and move limbs to free part of our driveway. After hours of work, I was able to get to the point where we could drive the car.
If only the car had gasoline in it. The next day, I emptied what was left in a gas can, and, with my wife and grandson along, left town on a trek east.
By the time we got to Anamosa, the low gas light was on, but the line at Casey’s by the highway was very long. So, we drove into town and instead waited at the downtown Casey’s. There were four cars in front of us in line, and the wait was not long.
Then I stopped at a Fareway store across the street. Ice was not to be had, but I picked up more Pop Tarts (the post apocalypse breakfast in my house), some mini muffins, bananas and some pre-made Starbucks coffee.
Coffee! I am glad we had water last week—water is more basic than electricity, as it turns out—but how I missed morning coffee!
That was Wednesday. Thursday into Friday we spent at a daughter’s apartment, and Friday morning the power was back on. Hooray, but again, survivor’s guilt.
And most days I spent some time nibbling away at the huge yard mess. Late in the week, my daughter and son-in-law brought over a chainsaw and helped expand the driveway access. I appreciated the aid, especially since they are still awaiting the return of electricity to their Marion home.
They also started to work on a redbud tree in back that is split and needs to be removed, but a nut came off of their chainsaw as they worked on the tree. It was done for the day.
It was not the last chainsaw that tree would consume. That redbud will not go gentle.
Today, I took out my small electric chainsaw, and hacked away at the redbud. I was dismembering an old friend. Redbuds have a special place in my heart—bright spring pink flowers that I love, and I think of my mother when I see them. She loved redbuds. This was the first redbud tree we planted in our yard after buying the house in 2001, so it is close to 20 years old. It won’t reach 21.
Well, the good news is that it’s not the only redbud in the yard. And despite my emotional attachment to this tree, I honestly felt like I didn’t feel much as I cut away at it. There’s just too much to feel about. I couldn’t spare too much mourning for this one plant when there is so much loss and uncertainty and tragedy in this crazy year.
Well, as I attempted to cut a branch, it happened. The chain snapped off of the electric chainsaw. Sad, cracked branches of this big redbud were leaned against a maple tree and dropping over the swing set. I did succeed in removing all of those branches, using the chainsaw before it broke, and a limb saw after it broke.
But a 6-foot tall bare, split trunk remains. It seems too thick to tackle with the handsaw, and too much for the electric chain saw even if I can fix it.
We’ll see. It will come out, one way for another. Tomorrow, I plan to start taking apart the fallen fence. I have no idea how long it will take, other than “longer than you expect,” as everything seems to take these days.
I would say that I weep for my wretched, wrecked city. But the city is hurt, not dead. Unlike the redbud, which will have to be removed, the city will heal and come back. Half of its tree canopy is gone, but its people are still here. And I am just too numb and too dehydrated to weep at all.
And so, we dismember our old friends and move on. The old life is gone and we must adapt to the new. The future? Yes, I have some hope it will be better, but I don’t want to jinx it by saying that too much out loud.
(Written Aug. 10, 2020, after the afternoon storm.) I would start this blog post with some pithy Shakespeare quote, but I don’t know Shakespeare well enough to quote the bard sans Google, and right now I’m pretty isolated.
Not only is the power out, but the cell phone network is apparently overloaded. I can’t Google, can’t phone anybody, can’t watch any TV—which all is OK, as long as, knock on wood, there is no medical emergency. I am just hoping the power comes back on in time to save all of the food in the fridge.
A storm of unusual ferocity blew through Iowa today. A bit after noon, the sky grew dark, our phones (they were working back then) jangled with alerts and the tornado sirens sounded. My wife and I moved our base of operations from the dining room and office where we were working (she in the office, me in the dining room) to the basement.
It was oddly still and dark. And then it was still dark, but not still. Rain started and quickly came down in horizontal sheets. We heard a big crash and then another. Safety demanded that we stay away from windows, but we couldn’t help it, we peered out of our small basement windows at a dim and grey view of wind, leaves, branches. It was amazing how little could be seen—the world disappeared into a howling shroud.
Sound—fury and thunder. The street light across the street first was on in the midday dim, then invisible and later snapped and fallen. The branches of the large ash by the street waiving as if they were saying goodbye, and they were as the tree became uprooted, falling on our vehicles and blocking our driveway.
And it went on and on. I don’t know how long the storm lasted—probably not all that long in the scheme of things, but surely more than 30 minutes. It was impressive how it kept blowing and blowing. We got texts from one daughter, asking if we were OK, and we were, and then the cell phones began to get spotty.
After the big blow, rain sprinkles lingered and there were some thunder booms. We saw brave or foolish neighbors moving about and inspecting the damage. The man who lives to our east has a hole in his roof, courtesy of an ancient, tall maple tree from our backyard that had attempted to play Santa Claus but could not fit down his chimney, so it squashed it and entered the house in a more crude manner.
We were lucky. We are physically unharmed. The many sirens that sounded in our neighborhood, fire trucks racing about, were not for us.
We did get some damage. Our vehicles are a bit dented, but probably serviceable, although it will be days before we can go anywhere—a giant fallen ash tree lies across the driveway.
We saw pieces of siding strewn in the yard. I have not seen any large hole in our house, but it had to come from somewhere—possibly Vinton. There was a wading pool in the backyard that is simply gone—if you hear reports of a blue flying saucer, it may not be aliens but rather a child’s plaything. Big chunks of the back fence have fallen. Our huge old maple will be a lost cause, and possibly at least one of our giant oaks. Our tulip tree, which bloomed for the first time this year, may have also bloomed for the last time—a big part came down and we’ll have to assess if what remains can be left in the ground.
But we are fine. In the next few days, we will discover new systems—who do you call for huge downed trees that you’re too old to move? At least the ash in front belongs to the city of Cedar Rapids, so I don’t have to worry about that one.
Cleanup? It will start soon. The sky is cloudy, but the rain is gone. I’m being lazy, post storm, depending on the battery of a laptop to be able to write this.
And I feel gratitude. 2020 is such a year. A global pandemic. A dysfunctional, divided Congress. A manifestly incompetent president. Black Lives Matter, yet there is looting in Chicago.
In the scheme of things, this is one more hassle that I didn’t need, but little more than that, for me. Still, it hit this city pretty hard. I don’t know the road ahead for cleanup, but on the scale of 2020, this is a sideshow.
We’re OK. I hope you are, too. After the storm, we fumbled around for batteries and got a radio working. Many local stations seem to be off the air—gone with the wind. We’re listening to NPR, and it reported the storm as an Ames and Des Moines event. Marshalltown got hit, with seems horribly unfair as they are still picking up from last year’s tornado. Later, they updated the news with reports from Cedar Rapids, and it seems the storm was indeed a big one. A curfew has been declared.
It just doesn’t seem fair to be hit with one more thing this year. But fairness isn’t what nature is all about. It just is. And so are we, we just are and we are also intact, and for that, God and universe, thank you.
Trowel ready for digging. Used it a lot this spring.
The planting in my gardens this spring has been like most springs—a bit spontaneous, not well planned. When I see a plant I like, I tend to buy it and bury it and hope for the best, which I’m sure is not the most effective gardening strategy.
Sometimes, although I try to pay attention to each plant’s needs, results are poor. The year before last I planted some new peonies—I like the peonies that I have, but they’re all pink and I want some variety. The plants came up last spring, but did not bloom—and I figured, oh well, next year. This spring? Oh well, they’re back, they’re bare and I can only hope for some peony variety in 2021.
Don’t get me started on the dreaded iris. I’ve interred many an iris bulb in what must be the ancient iris burial grounds of my gardens. The iris bulbs decompose and become fertilizer for sterile peonies, I suppose. I had a small cluster of Siberian irises that I liked and hoped would spread. They were pretty, but instead of growing and spreading, they acted like any passing fad or craze. They were hot one year, faded the next, and now, AWOL. The only irises I have are ones shared by my sister—Cate, what is your iris secret? What hex did you put upon these plants that makes that one cluster of them grow vigorously? Can you exorcise the iris demons from my gardens?
I also have many “flowering” trees that never flower. I had a dogwood tree down by the fence that grew weakly for year and after year for more than a decade, barely holding on, but not dying. One year a few years ago, it bloomed and I thought “good.” But last year the tree was mostly dead and bare of flowers. It was totally dead this year. Now it’s just a stump. I still have a dogwood tree because I planted another—but the new tree is young and has not bloomed.
I have two catalpa trees, which have showy, white June flowers—in the rest of the universe. Mine seem fine, but must be monk trees who take their vow of celibacy seriously.
My apple trees, unlike crab apples, which bloom profusely, remain stubbornly shy.
And then there is the tulip tree. It is approaching it’s second decade of life and is huge. It’s not the largest tree in the backyard yet, but is shooting up and is among the tallest. This spring was the first in which it actually had any flowers.
Flower high up in tulip tree. It blooms!
Two, to be exact. Well, that’s two more than none. Knock on wood, may the curse of the dogwood not be upon you. Don’t fade and die from the energy expenditure of producing a few flowers.
The linden tree by the sandbox is getting big. It’s a pleasant shade tree, that one of these years should have sweet smelling spring flowers. But not yet.
Still, I carry on. Sometimes gardening just teaches patience. Peonies will bloom in their own time. I’m grateful for even two tulip tree flowers, and the trees will try to reproduce when they are ready, not when I’m ready.
And last week I found a four-leaf clover in my yard. It’s been the theme of this summer—me finding those. I’ve also found several at parks. Maybe I’m looking down too much.
What I saw in the yard last week. I must have overlooked it before.
I have some annual vines showing—moon flowers and morning glories. I’ve long tried planting these, with little results. But I found a four-leaf clover, if it brings luck maybe 2020 will bring some of those blooms.
And milkweed is spreading and growing vigorously.
A swallowtail butterfly likes the new rhododendron we planted this year. Three hollyhock plants are looking healthy in front—I had hollyhocks in the past, but in recent years they had become members of the iris club and boycotted my gardens.
In life in general, this is a very yard year. We thought the pandemic was bad enough, but our politics and government are so broken that all kinds of other issues are piling on. Still, the plants in the gardens carry on, living life at their own pace, deciding for themselves when to bloom. The spontaneous gardener looks on and gets some pleasure out of the results.
In the birch tree in front, young robins demand to be fed. An angry cardinal squawks at me from near its “secret” nest deep in the trumpet vine, and tries to lead me away.
I comply, and follow. May your nest in that blooming vine yield a good hatching. It’s too well hidden for me to see if you’re raising young there, but maybe that’s a good sign.
Gardening teaches patience and appreciation for what I have, which I would rather emphasize than regrets for plans or plants that don’t bear fruit.
The first flowers to bloom early this March–the snowdrops I found when I raked the gardens.
Early March morning sun at MMU campus.
Earlier this month came the snowdrops. The first blooms were actually hidden in my gardens under last year’s leaves. On March 9, I cleaned the gardens in back off, there the first flowers were.
Tulips and daffodils have been emerging slowly, pushing their leaves above the thawing ground. No flowers, yet, but the plants are getting taller.
It was a while after the snowdrops bloomed before the first crocus in my yard flowered. I saw some first at Mount Mercy University, and for days the buds in my gardens almost seemed to be mocking me—there, ready to bloom, but not opening.
First flowers on Mount Mercy campus.
Now, on sunny, cool March days, there are pockets of colorful flowers. Hyacinth are starting to bud. I have not seen bluebells yet, but they can’t be far away.
And it won’t be all that long until the daffodils and tulips kick in.
I am running low on bird seed. I stopped buying it early in March—which is usually when I taper off feeding. The open ground, the return of insects, the first signs of plant growth—birds will find other sources of food. Still, it has been a comfort seeing them—one of my sisters once called them “winter flowers,” and as this slow spring wakes and yawns and stretches towards the green world that is coming, I’ve enjoyed watching the little dinosaurs.
COVID-19 has robbed us of a lot. I’m lucky—my job is relatively secure, so far (knock on wood) I and my family are healthy. I can work at home, even if I’m not all that good at it.
But as we hunker down in this winter of the virus, which seems likely to be with us for some time, seeing nature go through her rhythms and begin to come to life. I like the coming of the flowers every year, but somehow, they seem more important in this weird spring.
March 8–snowdrops in back garden. My first flowers.
On Sunday, while raking leaves off of the back garden, I noticed the snowdrops in blooms. Other bulbs are starting to come up, tulips and daffodils rising up from the cool earth. In front, by the mailbox, some crocus are also poking up.
The crocus will bloom first, but you see the daffodils emerge first, or at least that’s what I’m used to.
Daffodils emerging March 6 on Mount Mercy University campus. It’s still brown and dormant overall here in Iowa, and the last few piles of snow are still about, but spring is starting.
Spring! It’s early spring, still brown, just a few swelling buds in the trees and the slightest hints of green in the mostly dormant lawns.
But, flowers! The very earliest are here, and great to see.
Seeds purchased at a local store. My spring planting this year will be from what I find in town.
Iowa in February can be a cold, bitter place. We’ve been lucky in 2020. There has been plenty of winter cold, not but bitter arctic cold. We’ve not been exposed to weeks of harsh winds nor many temperatures with a hyphen before the number.
The month was a bit gray and dreary at times, but the final week was dry. There was also snow this month and nasty cold rains, but not oodles.
So, as Februarys go, this is not the worst one to have an extra day in it. Happy leap day, and a special happy birthday to all those who turned 4 today and are getting their driver’s licenses.
For Christmas 2019, my wife wrapped a seed catalog and told me I could spend $100 on ordering spring flowers. I never got them ordered—I’ve been busy. And we’re traveling over spring break this year, and worried a bit about the possibility of an ill-timed delivery.
Then, just a week ago, stopping at a local farm-and-home chain store that we call the “popcorn store” because it’s where we go after church for popcorn, we saw that seeds were on sale. On a whim, we bought a packet of climbing annuals. I am unsure about when exactly I am planting them, but I like all these flowers and will put them somewhere.
My wife reminded me this week that I had not ordered any plants yet, and she thought I had missed the deadline. I told her no, that I knew one catalog had a March 1 order deadline (and the same company just sent me another catalog with a later date), so time had not run out on my gift.
“Why don’t you just buy plants locally,” she then asked.
Hmmm. Well, I like pink lily of the valley and have not seen any locally—but honestly, beyond my yearning for that one particular flower, I kind of liked her thinking. I am not starting any new garden this spring, so I don’t need a bunch of mail order plans. And if we buy plants at local stores, we would be in total control of when the flowers were “delivered” and could plant them right after acquisition. We would also be putting actual plants in the ground and not hoping for results from mailed roots.
True, we’re also planting seeds. But for the spring plants, I think you see my point.
So, no online flower ordering for me this spring. We’ll instead wait to see what Mother Nature brings and when we have time to shop and plant.
I like that plan, or lack of it. I don’t always mind when aspects of my life are not mapped out. So I’m not sure what my garden plans are this year; they are more organic then they sometimes are. I’ll let them form on the fly.
Like a flower.
Happy leap day to you all, and it looks like March this year will begin on a fairly nice note in Iowa, too—the lion is being polite, at least for the first week.
We’re almost through with February. Moving into early spring. And I’m ready for the change.
In the garden area by the house yesterday. It’s on the south side, the warmest garden we have, and daffodils and tulips are starting their growth even while there is still snow elsewhere. It’s not really here yet, but spring is coming!
Life musings ... My name is Joe Sheller and I'm an Associate Professor at Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. This blog is personal opinion and does not reflect the opinion of the university, its administration, staff or board. I love to garden and often find my mind wandering when I'm pondering weeds or flowers. This blog is a pretty random mix of those thoughts, some on gardening, many on life in general.