On certain days the weight of civilization is crushing.
Despite occasional good news, our steady decline into the abyss seems imminent.
Signs of it are everywhere.
Iowa is a manufactured place. The wilderness that once existed here is gone. It was the first thing to go after the Black Hawk War. A few stands of oak-hickory forest remain but not many. Instead we have endless miles of farm fields fenced neatly on the landscape. With the ancient forests so went our dreams.
It’s an ersatz life we created, lived in a wake of environmental destruction. We do the best we can. Row crop fields look dull, almost gray. It feels like we are in end times.
That’s not to say there is no hope of improving our lot. The political will to do so is in remission, gone like big groves of trees that used to live here. New trees could grow yet someone must plant them. It would take more time than is left in my life to restore what used to be. I wait. For what?
Snow lingers on the ground as I plan the gardening season. We have to eat and what we grow is better than what can be bought in retail outlets. The cycle of gardening and harvest inspires hope that our efforts will produce something. We keep at it.
All the while, the gray, predawn sky reminds us of a new day’s potential. Today comes down to what we will do to make the most of it, to get along with others, to be kind.
I planted our first Big Grove Township garden in Spring 1994. What I grew is lost in memory.
Yesterday the original plot looked a wreck with desiccated weeds and a hodge-podge of sunken containers, fencing, two composters, a wheel barrow, an old wash tub, six-inch pieces of drainage tile resting on a couple of pallets, and a locust tree. The locust tree was intended for transplant but it got away from me.
I don’t know if the locust tree will recover from last winter’s extremely cold temperatures. The tips of branches in the crown did not leaf out last spring. If it doesn’t recover I’ll take the tree out even though the shade it provides protects plants and conserves moisture during our increasingly hot, dry summers. The plot was not meant to be a permanent residence for trees.
A friend in Cedar County gave me black plastic tubs in which feed for their animals was delivered. I cut large holes in the bottom for drainage and buried them to grow potatoes, radishes, lettuce, basil and sundry root crops. Mostly it was for potatoes which when planted in the ground fed small rodents who thrive with us in the garden. The containers worked to keep them away from the roots.
Composters are necessary for a garden to turn organic matter into fertilizer. One is an open air composter made from pallets retrieved from the home, farm and auto supply store. Garden waste goes in there. The other is a sealed, black plastic container for organic household waste such as peelings, fruit cores, and other fruit and vegetable matter generated from the kitchen. That is, it used to be sealed. Over the years something got inside and has been pushing stuff out of the entry point chewed into the plastic. I should fix or replace it. Until I do it remains a place to dump the kitchen compost bucket and produces some usable compost. The next time I move it there will be compost.
If I had a garden shed I would not use the plot for storage. I continue to think about building a shed, but that’s as far as it has gotten. It won’t be this year, or probably next.
Despite all the useful clutter, the plot continues to be productive. Last year I grew broccoli, eggplant, radishes, basil and beets there. The year before I grew cucumbers. The containers are always busy with multiple crops each year. As I plan this year’s garden I see better utilization of this plot.
Ideas about 2020 in plot #1: Belgian lettuce on or about March 2; potatoes in containers on Good Friday; radishes in a container; a crop of something, cucumbers, eggplant, or maybe hot peppers to change from cruciferous vegetables planted here last year. These are ideas, and the beginning of planning. We’ll see how it unfolds, although Belgian lettuce seems certain a week ahead of the date.
I remember digging this plot in 1994, measuring the distance from the property line, a memory of nothing growing in the yard except grasses and a mulberry tree in the Northeast corner. I barely knew how to garden then. In the interim, my views of how to garden have changed for the better.
Based on the 15-day weather forecast, winter is finished. As temperatures climb and the remaining snow melts we had just better accept it we won’t have had much of a winter. It is time to lean into the growing season as soon as Mother Natures enables us. Soon it will be Spring.
I planted leeks in soil blocks at home today. They were,
King Richard, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, 75 days. One row of ten.
Megaton, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, 90 days. Three rows of ten.
American Flag, Ferry-Morse, 150 days. One row of ten.
This is a further experiment in starting plants at home. In the past I hadn’t paid attention to different leek growing times but American Flag is double that of King Richard. I double seeded King Richard and American Flag because they are from previous seasons. If both seeds sprout in each cell I’ll thin them.
Sunday a group of us gathered at Wild Woods Farm to pull plastic over the new greenhouse.
Pulling plastic takes a couple of experienced team leaders and a crew that can follow directions. The idea is to make the plastic covering as taught as possible then secure it with wiggle wire for years of use. The work proceeded as planned on a warm, clear and calm day.
It’s pruning time for grape vines, fruit trees, and any kind of tree. This weekend people were pruning in t-shirts because it was so warm. The concern is sap begins to flow before the cuts heal, creating an entry point for disease. Fingers crossed I got mine pruned in time. Folks are preparing to tap maple tree sap for syrup so we are at the in between time for finishing pruning.
My onions and shallots have sprouted and I moved them to the landing to get more light. They seem feeble at this stage. I’m not sure what else I can do but make sure they have moisture and light. This is the second year I tried starting them myself. The first didn’t produce usable onion sets. This year’s experiment is for the crew at Sundog Farm to start some of my shallot seeds as well to compare results. Eventually I’ll get this right, hopefully this year.
While garden and yard work beckons it is still winter. Piles of snow remain on the ground. Snow is forecast this week. There is hope for spring, but it is a false hope. It’s best to use the time to catch up on indoors work so when true spring arrives we are ready.
Career guidance for many workers is to become an asset to their employer or organization rather than a commodity. Each plays its role in life and on the job, and has for me.
A commodity worker is someone who plays a specific, interchangeable role in a business or organization. For example, a dishwasher is an essential part of restaurant operations yet the people who play that role are completely fungible. The restaurant is the less if the dishwasher doesn’t do their job. If they don’t do their job they can easily be replaced. We rarely know the names of dishwashers.
Becoming an asset to an organization means bringing a special skill and value. I worked as director of legal affairs for a logistics company. My knowledge of existing contracts and contract law enabled me to evaluate new agreements as we grew our business. I knew when to consult with our attorneys and when it wasn’t necessary. I interacted with sales staff, operations, and the president of the company. The expense savings over having a lawyer on staff were considerable, and my contribution during negotiations with customers was tangible and effective. It helped close new business and retain business where the contract was reaching the end of its term. It wasn’t a plug and play role and was important when growing new business.
After my first retirement in 2009, I sought commodity roles to generate income. It’s a tough row to hoe. Pay is low, there are physical risks in the form of a changing work environment, and almost no job security. I will be forever grateful for this part of my life because it provided first-hand insight to the lives of low wage workers.
Extended periods of standing on concrete floors led to foot problems after which I gave up running for exercise. Commodity jobs externalize the costs on worker lives, seeking the lowest possible cost to make assembly line kits, serve food, or provide retail sales customer service. The underlying assumption by workers and management is these jobs won’t persist and people will come and go in them. With short tenure, companies avoid long-term costs of maintaining a workforce, including workers compensation claims, retirement contributions, and health insurance. When employee costs are externalized, other, more controlled aspects of an expense ledger receive focus. It works great for companies who outsource labor particularly, and for any business with low gross margins.
In my transportation and logistics career I became an asset although I didn’t understand it at the time. While we lived in Indiana I became dissatisfied with work managing a trucking terminal with 600 drivers, a maintenance facility, and a driver recruiting team. I sought to leverage my assets somewhere else. The result was taking a job with a Fortune 10 oil company that had an irregular route truckload fleet which was bleeding expenses. The salary was good, although a daily commute from Northwest Indiana to the Chicago Loop was challenging.
I hoped to get into the oil side of the business after I proved myself as an asset for the fledgling business unit. It didn’t take long to realize that wasn’t a viable career expectation. I was hired for my specific knowledge of truckload transportation operations as an asset, and while I was uniquely qualified, a path to something else materialized only after I resigned from the job to return to my trucking terminal in Indiana. The business unit folded shortly after I left it.
In a time of professional human resources consultants large companies develop methods to control costs with elaborate pay schedules and organization charts. People perceived as assets command a higher salary than commodity workers, even if the HR consultants have defined a market rate for such positions. One’s value to a large company comes to light if a person can transcend the position for which they were hired. I found that challenging in my career with more failures than successes. On the positive side, I was in a position to leave the business at an early age to pursue other interests.
The difference between asset and commodity workers is a useful paradigm. The business environment in the United States has few guarantees for longevity in employment. If one wants longevity, they should find work owning a small business or in commodity work as a specialist with professional skills. With a growing population, society will need more medical professionals, plumbers, auto technicians, social workers, insurance and car sales people, government office workers and the like.
If the conventional wisdom is to become an asset in an organization, I disagree. The best option is to become your own best asset and live that life at work and at home. It’s something I work at everyday.
During our lives together I wrote Mother often in cards and letters. Following is the text of notes sent to her. Upon reflection, I sent them to a future version of myself as well.
April 10, 1982
There are times when I feel like Picasso looks in this photograph. It is a slow process, but I am making my way as a writer. I often am not sure what I am doing, but I know I have chosen the right path. One of my projects is writing a regional cookbook for one person. I would like it if you could pick some of your standard menu meals and write them down for me. I can remember some, but not all. Too, I want that dessert dish recipe you prepared last time I was in town. More later, I’m in Springfield 23-25 April. Paul
May 14, 1982
Started the trip off with a bang by smashing into a 1982 Olds Cutlass in Dubuque. No injuries thank goodness, but I will have to spend the $200 deductible to get my truck fixed to drive at night. Other than that, I’m ready for this vacance. Paul
May 29, 1982
Thanks for the shirts. You always pick out good stuff for me. Please let me know if I need to come to Davenport because of Uncle Dick. I can never tell. I do plan to make a Sunday trip this month, which weekend that will be is unknown now. Maybe the 6th or 20th. Thanks again. Paul
Thanks for the pleasant holiday experience. As we walk boldly into 1985, let us keep discovery our goal, and our family in our hearts. While the burden of life slows us, let our hearts keep the warmth and light of our togetherness. Love always, Paul & Jacque
December 27, 1986
West Post Road
Thanks so much for making this Christmas special. Elizabeth, Jacque and I had a memorable time, and we especially enjoyed sharing Elizabeth’s first experiences with you. Know that we love you, and care about you. We look forward to seeing you again soon in 1987, as we are reminded of that first Christmas so long ago, and its continuity into our own brief moment of life. Love, always. Paul, Jacque & Elizabeth
March 13, 1988
Rest assured that we will make the right choice here. The four years with CRST has been a valuable education. I sense, though, that it is time to move on. What will be the next step? I’m not sure yet. We’ll find out together. Paul, Jacque & Elizabeth
March 29, 1991
Thanks for the great meals and hospitality. Sorry I forgot to bring my wood clamp, but I will on the next trip. Also for about 2 hours work, I can smooth out the walls in the bathroom, to prepare the surface for the coming wall paper.
We will try to get there sometime in April so we can help with the yard as well as the other chores.I would like to photograph some of the old photos that trip so take this as a warning that we are coming. Talk later, Paul, Jacque & Libby
July 10, 1991
Busy and tiring day around Lincoln County. I stopped by here to learn about native Americans. As your grandparents got married in Wilno, the Indians lost control of the quarry pictured. More when we see you. Paul
July 18, 1996
Big Grove Township
Finally hot, humid summer weather is here. I hope you are enjoying this Iowa summer as we are. The sweet corn will be ready soon. The green beans already in the freezer. Libby is rushing to finish her 4-H project which will be judged Saturday. Not much. Just summer in Iowa. Paul
“The Johnson County Historic Poor Farm provides a public space for connecting to the land and local history through inclusive community-led opportunities,” said Vanessa Fixmer-Oraiz, farm project manager. She spoke at last night’s Johnson County Food Policy Council public forum where the poor farm was a featured topic.
This was my first forum as a member of the council. I brought a five gallon beverage jug, lemonade, coffee condiments, and a 20-pound bag of ice. One attraction of the event was a catered meal from a local food-centered restaurant. Attendance we good at about 80 people. We ran out of lemonade.
Solid ideas were discussed, centering around how to help beginning farmers get access to land, capital and markets. A number of “eaters,” a.k.a. consumers, were present, leading to discussions about pricing, quality, and health issues related to food. There was no lack of discussion and much of it was captured on audio-video or written down.
The county poor farm is not a priority for me. Some of the same people who attended a similar local food forum eight years ago were present last night. It seemed little progress has been made in establishing a vibrant local food system. The challenges are many, the approaches individualistic. There are activities, such as farmers markets and public events held at farms. This forum was an example of a public, food-related event. Discussion is positive, yet what is lacking is something to tie them all together in a coherent system. I don’t believe the poor farm will be that string of twine.
In 2017, the Johnson County Supervisors decided to revitalize the poor farm as a “New Century Farm.” The 3-2 decision was depicted as contentious by the local newspaper. Then supervisors Rod Sullivan, Mike Carberry and Kurt Friese voted to adopt this plan. Lisa Green-Douglass and Janelle Rettig did not. Friese died in office and Carberry lost his re-election bid, yet county support for the site persists. The forum was an opportunity to discuss how the poor farm might fit into a fledgling, disjointed local food system.
What made the 2017 supervisor meeting “contentious” was the discussion of affordable housing at the poor farm. Affordable housing is a key county issue, although I’m not sure of the benefit of sticking a development off Melrose Avenue, which is distant from the city-center and amenities like grocery stores. The poor farm is currently on the Iowa City bus route, but that route is being considered for elimination. There are logistical challenges to be addressed if the poor farm will be used for housing for people besides those who work or farm there.
One of the forum panelists, Alfred Matiyabo, gained access to land via the poor farm and this seems an excellent use of the resource. Land access is a key need of beginning farmers. More of that, as well as development of the planned trails and facilities, could create another valued farm incubator, conservation, and recreation site within the county.
My sense is two and a half years after adoption of the plan for the poor farm the community conversation is just beginning. As long as the supervisors have the will to fund activities, the project should be encouraged and supported. However, we can’t let it distract us from the bigger issue of engendering a local food system that matters in terms of satisfied consumers, economically viable farmers, and ecologically improved farming practices. The Historic Poor Farm fits in to the system, but is just one aspect among many.
The best part of last night was networking with friends and people I hadn’t met. If this is what being a member of the food policy council leads to, I’m ready for more.
On a sunny winter day I found time to organize boxes of letters and cards to Mother by putting them in clear plastic sheet protectors and sorting them by date.
I wrote home the most while serving in the U.S. Army, with about 75 letters and cards over a four-year period. Along with my journal, a bankers box of files, and some photo albums, the period is well documented. It should lend help to efforts to consider and write about that period of my life.
In retrospect, when I was home for a day or weekend, away from Robert E. Lee Barracks in Mainz-Gonsenheim, I spent time alone writing at a table that was part of the furnishings of my bachelor officer’s quarters. This writing habit persists.
Non-military letters provide more interest. One from summer YMCA camp, a couple from my undergraduate years at the University of Iowa, a few from my 1974 trip to Europe, a couple more during graduate school, and a big batch from our married life beginning in 1982. The letters filled three binders.
It is possible to understand a life. My efforts at writing have a clear beginning in the need and want to write home during the time before build out of electronic communication systems. I recall my first journal, which was stolen at a youth hostel in Calais, France just after taking a hovercraft across the English Channel.
I made a decision to continue journaling while living in a one-room apartment on Mississippi Avenue in Davenport, before military service. That apartment was the first place I entertained Mother. The dinner dish I chose was tuna-noodle casserole, which she ate and said was good as only a mother could. That was in 1975.
As long as I am able I expect to continue to make coffee and settle at a writing table each morning for a couple of hours. These days I write emails, brief notes on cards, on social media, in a less frequently used journal, and on this blog. I don’t know how I came to this place. Yet it is part of who I will be in the 21st Century.
Dedicated in 1920 as Iowa’s first state park, Backbone State Park, is one of the most geographically unique locations in Iowa, according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. The steep and narrow ridge of bedrock from the Maquoketa River forms the highest point in northeast Iowa — The Devil’s Backbone — giving the park its legendary name.
The park originally had three words in its name: Devil’s Back Bone, according to Jerry Reisinger who gave a presentation about the state parks on Feb. 7 at the United Methodist Church. That was a bit spooky so the “devil” part was dropped.
The centennial celebration is replete with organized fishing tourneys, bicycle touring, jogging, hiking, boating, bird watching and other events. While it’s a bit old school, taking a picnic luncheon to enjoy with family at a state park is a popular activity.
There is a traveling art exhibition called 20 artists 20 parks organized by DNR, the Iowa Arts Council and Iowa State University.
To mark the 100th anniversary of Backbone State Park’s dedication, a three-day festival is planned May 28-30 with all events open to the public.
Expansion of the state park system seems unlikely as farmers seek to increase acreage for crop production. The state parks made it to the centennial and that seems worth celebrating.