Tag Archives: Iowa

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 Party of Joe


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Yard signs seems on morning of Oct. 30 during my bike ride to work. Contrasting ideas at work here.

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The day before Halloween was both exhilarating and scary—a bit like Halloween, in a way. On Halloween, kids walk around in costumes to beg for treats. My wife and I dressed in business casual attire and went downtown hoping to get for some rhetorical hope.

I think we got it.

The news was that Joe Biden was coming to town. The former vice president was here for a campaign rally to boost Fred Hubbell, running for Iowa Governor, and Abby Finkenauer, running for Congress.

We had signed up online, as we were urged to do, but that didn’t seem to matter. When we got downtown, it took some time to find a parking spot, so as a mild, cool drizzle halfheartedly tried to start, we trudged a few blocks to wait in a line that stretched for over a block from the entrance to the Veteran’s Memorial Auditorium on Mays Island.

The night was damp and cool, but not cold and wet. We sometimes put up umbrellas, but then folded them (a trick our President seems not have learned) because it just was not worth it.

We ended up in line with a couple of other college professors, our colleague at Mount Mercy Dr. Joy Ochs, and her science-teaching spouse at Kirkwood Community College, Dr. Fred Ochs.

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The long line that leads to Joe.

The wait wasn’t all that long, and we had some pleasant chats as we worked our way to the door. At one point, a Planned Parenthood volunteer handed me a sign. I didn’t really want to hold a sign, and regretted my knee-jerk reaction to take it.

We got close. I could see Fred Hubbell chatting just a few people in front of us, and got my camera out—and like a Halloween apparition, suddenly he was gone. Still, there was a state House candidate, Eric Gjerde, next to us, so I snapped his image.

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House candidate I will be voting for.

And then we were in the lobby. A uniformed guard was by the door. “You can’t take that in,” he said of my sign, and confiscated it, much to my relief. And then we were in the auditorium. I was surprised at how lax security was—if there was a metal detector, I didn’t detect it.

And we were crowded together. Honestly, we were not squeezed all that much, and the space was large, so it was not uncomfortable, but I was glad I had decided by good camera would be too bulky to hold. At times, moving to take an image with a phone or little camera was challenging enough.

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The crowd inside, and Dr. Joy Ochs.

After a half hour or so, warmup acts began. A state party official spoke. A man in a wheelchair who has appeared in videos supporting Fred Hubbell spoke. A pause. Then, a high school girl doing a fine job with “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Next, Sen. Rita Hart, Democrat running for Lieutenant Governor, spoke. I was quite impressed—I had not heard her before. I kind of wish she was running for the top job, but maybe if Fred is elected, that’s the next step.

Next came Fred. He’s a good guy, gave a nice speech, which the crowd enthusiastically received, but to be honest, he’s not the best speaker in politics today. No matter, we liked Fred, and it showed.

And Fred introduced Abby. Rep. Finkenauer maybe sticks to her familiar message a bit too much, at least to my ears, but she is great to hear. She was excited, it showed, and the crowd loved her.

And she got to introduce Joe.

Joe, Joe, Joe. What a great guy. What a nice man. He spoke like warm honey, his distinct voice booming out and becoming animated. He got emotional at times, choking up when he spoke of how Iowans supported him as his son was battling cancer. He compared his early life to Abby’s.

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Joe!

And he took President Trump to task for irresponsible, incendiary rhetoric. It was nice that he himself was never insulting to any Republican, other than noting the President’s excessive language. Even then, his criticism was of what the man says, not of the man.

Unlike Trump, Biden can take a stand without belittling or insulting anybody.

“This is an election for the soul of American,” Biden said. Granted, that’s a pretty typical political line, but I feel that it’s true this time.

We can’t afford to be the ignorant, coarse country represented by the Donald.

I am feeling some trepidation going into the final week of the fall campaign. To me, the core of Trump’s support has been rock solid, despite or because of the ridiculous, hateful things he says. Trump has successfully painted media as “fake news,” and not because it is, but because it’s an easy excuse for the lazy of mind to hunker down in narrow ideological silos.

Well, Biden didn’t cure me, but he helped a lot. I feel a bit better now. I was in a crowd of like-minded souls, and it felt good.

I don’t know if a blue wave is coming, although I hope so. Trumpism is a national disgrace, the modern American nightmare. I hope my country wakes up and tosses off the yoke of xenophobia and nationalism.

I’m not sure it will. But it sure felt good to hear Joe, a nice counter balance to the latest bombastic tweets from the Twit-in-Chief.

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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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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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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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