Sustainability in the Coronavirus Pandemic Recovery

Garlic and onions from a test dig on June 17, 2020.

As the coronavirus pandemic runs its course, governments are expected to spend trillions of dollars in stimulus to get the economy going again.

It’s now or never for the environment. Sustainability should be integrated into recovery plans because the health crisis, the economy and the environment are inextricably connected. There is only one chance to manage this recovery to improve environmental sustainability. There are only so many times trillions can be spent to jump start the economy. Sustainability must be considered and become part of any stimulus plan.

People have ideas on how to do that. The International Energy Agency developed a 174-page essay titled “Sustainable Recovery.” They revised “should” to “could” when recommending the plan, as a step toward political correctness in presentation. Sadly, no single logic applies to global matters. One is being political whether they say something about climate change or not when discussing the recovery.

Global carbon dioxide emissions reduced by 17 percent in April as people sheltered at home, industry reduced production, and automobile use slowed. Since then, emission levels are surging back. A conscious decision to integrate smart energy use into the recovery is needed. The issue has been politicized so thoroughly it seems doubtful any such action will be taken in the United States.

Fiona Harvey, environmental correspondent for the Guardian reported, “The world has only six months in which to change the course of the climate crisis and prevent a post-lockdown rebound in greenhouse gas emissions that would overwhelm efforts to stave off climate catastrophe, one of the world’s foremost energy experts has warned.”

No one know how long we have. It’s common sense we will spend stimulus money in the quantities planned only once. Ideas are out there. What’s lacking is political will.

The fact that almost no one is talking about addressing the climate crisis as we “open up” the economy is part of the problem. Oil and gas interests have so infiltrated our government politicians don’t want to hear about solar or wind generated energy, even if they are the least expensive and least damaging regarding carbon dioxide emissions.

Think about it though. When has doing what makes sense gotten so politically out of fashion? Among other things, that needs to change.


Final Spring Days

Wild grape vine, June 16, 2020

Tuesday afternoon I went to the drive-through COVID-19 test site in Cedar Rapids and was screened. I arrived early and there was no line. I’m expecting a negative result on Friday.

The small city near us is evaluating a way to hold the annual festival celebrating beef. The committee in charge knows because of the pandemic it won’t be as in previous years — with hoards of people pressing around the hay bale toss. They feel a need to do something. So many non-profit organizations depend upon the money raised each year. Announcement of a modified festival is expected soon. While not a fan of beef, I do my part to support the good work being done in the community.

Vice President Mike Pence was in Iowa yesterday promoting a “Great American Comeback.” His assertion the worst of the pandemic is over and we can start returning to normal is absurd. At a rally held at a manufacturer of recreational vehicles attendees held Trump-Pence signs while wearing no personal protective equipment. Despite such made for press events the pandemic is far from over and we have no way to trace the infection as more people contract COVID-19. Pence is the poster child of potential disaster rooted in inaction.

We stay home most of the time. No restaurants, no visiting friends, no trips except to get the basics of survival or to exercise on the trail. I’m starting to need a haircut. It can wait. Everything can wait.

As spring turns to summer it has been a good one. One of the best I can recall. In isolation we heal and gain strength. It is as if we’ve sworn an oath of solitude and will persist until the pestilence is purged from the globe. It’s a matter of who’s in control. For the time being we are.

Garden Local Food

Sharing the Wealth

Neighborhood Kale and Collard Stand, June 15, 2020.

Yesterday’s kale harvest was big. To share the wealth I displayed some at the end of the driveway and posted the free give-away on Facebook.

Some of it was claimed, the rest returned to the garden via the composter.

Ten years ago I saved or preserved everything I grew in the garden. Any more I keep only enough to get us through to next year. I’ve visited root cellars filled with very old Mason jars of a garden’s preserves. That’s not who we should be. We take what we need and if we can’t give it away, leave the rest for compost.

Leafy green vegetables are not a favorite around here. I have regular customers who use it in smoothies or bake kale chips. Others prepare it traditionally as greens. The main use in our household is in tacos, soups and stir fries. When out of lettuce we make kale salad. Once in a while I add a leaf to a smoothie. I’m not a smoothie person. I tried kale pesto once and it was okay. Pesto with more flavor, like mustard greens, is better. For a gardener the main challenge is to grow just enough to meet needs. I cut back the space for kale to 18 plants this year. It is still too much.

Combine kale with kohlrabi, collards, mustard, spinach and chard and there is an abundance of greens this year. Next year I’ll use the planting space differently to more closely match what I grow with kitchen usage.

For now there is kale for all who want it.


Cool Spring Days

Lake Macbride State Park trail. June 13, 2020.

The last few days have been ideal. Rain let up, temperatures dropped to the 60s and 70s, and much about our time on earth is worth living.

These days are golden.

The garden is producing and it has already been an abundant year. Last night I made biscuits with fresh sage and cheddar cheese from my cookbook, split them into a bowl, and spooned homemade vegetable soup on top. It made a fine dinner. There were leftovers.

I’m ramping up for my summer stint of covering Blog for Iowa while our editor takes a break. My first post is scheduled for July 6. In the meanwhile, these days don’t last yet we enjoy them while we can. Or as James Russell Lowell wrote:

And what is so rare as a day in June?
Then, if ever, come perfect days;
Then Heaven tries the earth if it be in tune,
And over it softly her warm ear lays:
Whether we look, or whether we listen,
We hear life murmur, or see it glisten;
Every clod feels a stir of might,
An instinct within it that reaches and towers,
And, groping blindly above it for light.

  ~Excerpt from the Vision of Sir Launfal

Social Commentary

Adapting to the Coronavirus

Sunrise June 13, 2020.

There have been 7.3 million confirmed cases of the coronavirus worldwide according to this morning’s Washington Post. The virus has killed more than 410,000 of which 112,978 deaths occurred in the U.S. since Feb. 29.

Mitigation of the coronavirus is not going well here. Poorer countries have done much better handling the crisis. Absent leadership, incompetence, and a deliberate decision to treat COVID-19 like influenza for weeks in February and March, combined with a just ‘let it go’ attitude have taken their toll according to one public health official.

On Thursday the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged 1,861 points when witless traders found out there wouldn’t be a quick recovery from the pandemic. How did they get the notion the recovery would be quick? Praise the Lord I got out of the market when I did.

In any case, the administration has thrown in the towel on their so-called fight against the pandemic and is moving on to the campaign trail. They are having rally attendees sign a liability waiver in the event there is COVID-19 spread at them. Their work has been about re-election since the day after the inaugural address and little else. In the Republican political playbook what’s another 100,000 COVID-19 deaths? F*ck it! Four more years.

Where does that leave bloggers, writers, gardeners and humans like me? We have to adapt to the coronavirus pandemic. Part of the adaptation was forced upon us.

Retiring from retail work on April 28 was an easy calculation. At age 68, with some health conditions and a reasonable pension structure which included Social Security and Medicare, I decided to do without the additional income and potential exposure to the virus. I won’t be going back to the orchard to work in the retail barn this fall either.

For the first time ever my medical practitioner prescribed a medication which I now have to take daily to reduce cholesterol. I asked him what circumstances may result in ending the medication. He said maybe toward the end of life. While it’s not unusual for Americans to be on medication, and I’ve been lucky to avoid it this long, my health and welfare needs more consideration.

Finally, a lot of people remain unemployed and some jobs closed by the pandemic have not re-opened. Many won’t reopen at all or will emerge vastly changed. In any case, other people need the work more than I do. If I generate income it won’t be working as a wage worker for someone else.

What are the possibilities?

Our household spending plummeted since leaving work. The retained value of our balance sheet increased by 3.25 percent since the pandemic began in Iowa. Our personal debt decreased by 50 percent in the same period. We have a possibility of paying off our debt by the end of the year, opening up spending on large projects in 2021. There is a long list of backlogged projects.

I’m already reading more books, 23 since the pandemic began. I don’t know if it’s possible to “catch up on reading,” but many books wait in my queue and I might actually get to a lot of them. This is a positive alternative to spending more time on social media.

The schedule of work outside home is minimal and that enables a focus on home life. Part of that is taking care of health, and part is going through and getting rid of unneeded possessions in preparation for refurbishing our living space. More attention can be paid to the kitchen garden so our diet can improve, providing better nutrition. All this is welcome and showing marked improvement since the pandemic began in Iowa.

How I might re-enter society, being among people I know, doing things together, is missing from adaptation. With continued spread of COVID-19 I won’t join others at events unless I know their social distancing practices. That seems like a lot to ask friends and neighbors just to spend time with them. Zoom meetings aren’t really a replacement for someone who has been very social for as long like I have been. Likewise, with more people at home on the internet our connection isn’t adequate for an uninterrupted Zoom event. How all this gets resolved remains an open question.

Until there is a vaccine with widespread distribution, or some acknowledgement by public health officials the pandemic is over, I don’t see how adaptation can resemble the past. There will be gatherings but for now I ask myself why risk it? That’s going to continue for some time.

Being at retirement age has made adaptation easier. Maybe the best adaptation, the most socially responsible one, is to just fade away into my family, my bloggery, my writing, and my kitchen garden. There are worse fates than that. Eventually an opportunity to re-enter society will present itself but not yet.


Theresa Greenfield Wants A Real Conversation With Iowans

Theresa Greenfield

What conversation does Joni Ernst want to have with Iowans about the fall election for United States Senate?

If a recent advertisement by the National Republican Senatorial Committee is an indication, she doesn’t want any conversation with Iowans. She’s letting third party interest groups do her dirty work hoping to ride the coat tails of Donald Trump to a second term.

The ad depicts Theresa Greenfield’s work as the president of a home building company in an unfavorable light. When I interviewed Greenfield about this work on Feb. 22 here’s what she said:

“I went into home building and eventually became the president of a small home building company in Iowa. That was fun through the recession, until it wasn’t any more fun. We sold the assets at the end of 2011.”

I included it in the profile as part of Greenfield’s work history. Senator Ernst and the NRSC are grasping at straws to make something of this work experience.

The company was Twin Cities-based Ruttlund Homes which went into receivership in 2011. Greenfield was president of the Iowa division when a global recession reduced property values and banks stopped lending. Thousands of home builders went out of business. Did Greenfield get caught up in the massive recession? Yes. Has she been honest about it? Also yes.

Part of being a successful businessperson is having experiences such as this one. How one learns and reacts to business challenges is the mettle of which character is made. While losing her business and source of income was disappointing, Greenfield’s resiliency enabled her to be successful in a commercial real estate company where she eventually became president.

The conversation Theresa Greenfield wants to have with Iowans is about resiliency, optimism, and the jobs we need to get done after the disastrous years Ernst served in the U.S. Senate. She wants to represent every Iowan.

If Ernst chooses to go negative, that’s her liability. Voters will hopefully see through the noise and vote for Greenfield.

~ Written for Blog for Iowa

Politics Social Commentary Writing

Being Racist

First big kale harvest, Spring 2020

We have to look at ourselves in the mirror and consider whether we are racist. It’s not easy to do in the best of circumstances.

Dictionaries consistently define a racist as someone who has a notion that one’s own ethnic stock or genetic makeup is superior.

Which is it, ethnicity or genetics that defines race?

This week Merriam-Webster updated their dictionary to include a definition of institutional racism. Okay. The authority of dictionaries has diminished in society. There are few rules in the living language except we be understood. Haters gonna hate, as Taylor Swift wrote, regardless what’s in the dictionary.

I was confronted with the idea there were different races as a child. It was and remains an idea. I knew I was different, but superior? I don’t think so. Diversity in the neighborhood in which I grew up meant defining whether one’s family was of German or Irish descent. Racism as we know it today, as in the Black Lives Matters Movement, wasn’t an obvious issue. We were shielded from racism and those blacks we encountered were in a context of their relationship with our father: plantation workers in Florida, co-workers at the meat packing plant, fellow union members.

What are the genetic characteristics that define race? What cultural behaviors are specific to race? Should we care about race? These are the questions I’m asking while witnessing the resurgence of protests over race after the viral video of George Floyd’s murder.

Our family visited the Gettysburg battlefield when I was a grader. Which side of the Civil War was I on? My maternal ancestors immigrated after the war and my paternal ones from Virginia fought on both sides. After a moving childhood visit to the battlefields I decided to adopt the Confederacy as my own history and bought a Confederate flag in the museum gift shop.

We cannot disown this history even if we want or if contemporary values discredit the institution of chattel slavery. Thanks to the combined work of my fourth grade teacher and my mother I came to realize the racism inherent in that embrace of the Confederacy, and that it was wrong. Before long, with their encouragement, I sought and found my own history.

I first encountered systemic racism while serving in the military. I paid little heed to the naming of military bases after notable racists Andrew Jackson and Henry Lewis Benning, where I trained in the U.S. Army. I was stationed at Robert E. Lee Barracks in Mainz, Germany. It was named after the World War II veteran with the same name as the commander of the Northern Army of Virginia. Racism in the military was about more than names.

Daily work was integrated, which is to say as an Army officer I paid little attention to race when giving orders or following them. All but one officer in the battalion was white and the lone black lieutenant and his family lived in a twelfth century castle off base. I visited them a couple times while we served together. In conversations, I came to understand he was held to a different standard because he was black.

When we lived in Indiana I managed an operation that recruited thousands of truck drivers. I became familiar with parts of Chicago and the suburbs because of this work. I hired the first black recruiter the company had and remember the surprised faces when we returned to the corporate office for a meeting together. Race made no difference in this hire. I just wanted someone who could do the job.

We rejected an applicant from our orientation and he threatened to call Bobby Rush because he felt we were discriminating against him because he was black. The claim bordered the ridiculous because more than half the group in orientation was black or Hispanic. I don’t recall why we rejected him but I said I’d like to have that conversation and provided my number. Several weeks later we received a letter from Rush’s office and I replied. That was the end of it.

That protesters in the county seat chose to shut down Interstate 80 this week in response to the murder of George Floyd was predictable, expected, and ineffective. It’s something, yet I’m not sure exactly what. In 1971 I was part of a group of protesters that shut down Interstate 80 near the Dubuque Street exit in response to the Vietnam War. We built a bonfire in the Eastbound lane feeling we had to do something to disrupt business as usual. What more usual thing is there than traveling on an interstate highway? Law enforcement attempts to keep the interstate open, although yesterday there was a report one of the Coralville exits was closed by them because of protests. Protesters have to do something to gain attention enough to create a fulcrum point for change. I support their actions and also believe there has to be a better way.

What does the Black Lives Matter Movement mean to me? In our rural subdivision the only time race comes to the surface is when it is scratched. If there is talk about a black family moving in neighbors assert property values will decline.What does one do with that? I point out to them the assertion is patently false and reject it. Most people here don’t scratch the surface of race to avoid such conversations.

If George Floyd’s murder was a turning point in how racism is viewed in the United States then some good will come of it once he is mourned dead and survivors heal. We must look ourselves in the mirror on racism. If we can’t then we probably are racist and don’t want to admit it. If so, Floyd becomes just another black man who died at the hands of police as white hegemony continues a while longer.

My religious education taught we are all equal in God’s eyes and I believe it. Yet slave owners sought to justify the institution using the same Bible I read today. In the end, we have to ask ourselves if we are racist, not because we seek an answer, but because in asking we open the possibility of a remedy. We seem so far from that now.

Cooking Garden Local Food

Collards on Cornbread

Collards on Cornbread

Collard greens are easy to grow and the plants produce for a long season. Once one decides to include them in a garden there had better be a plan to use them.

The first picking, before little hungry insects arrive, is the best. Sorting leaves near the composter is a way to cull the best of the best. Yesterday I harvested two pounds of leaves and decided to make collards on cornbread for dinner.

The vegetarian recipe was a collaboration with people I know combined with a few internet searches. Traditionally the dish is made with pork so the issue of how to replace lard and the meat was a primary issue. This dish came out tasty tender.

Collard Greens

One pound stemmed collard leaves
One cup diced onions
One head finely minced garlic (5-6 cloves)
Tablespoon each butter and extra virgin olive oil.
Salt and pepper to taste
One teaspoon hot pepper flakes or fresh chilies if available (optional)
Three cups vegetable broth
One pint canned tomatoes or fresh if available

Measure one pound of stemmed collard greens and cut into half inch ribbons. Set aside.

In a Dutch oven heat one tablespoon each of extra virgin olive oil and salted butter. Once foaming subsides, add one cup diced onions and a finely minced head of garlic (5-6 cloves). Season with salt and pepper to taste and sautee until softened. Add a teaspoon of red pepper flakes (optional).

Once the onions become translucent, add the collards and three cups of prepared vegetable broth. Also drain the liquid from a pint of diced tomatoes into the pot. Bring the mixture to a boil and cover. Stir the greens every so often. Once the volume of the greens is reduced, reduce the heat to a simmer.

Cook until the leaves are tender, about two hours. Add diced tomatoes and continue cooking until they have warmed.

Spoon onto cornbread, including a generous amount of the cooking liquid.

We found the recipe to be quite satisfying and a welcome way to use produce from the garden.

Social Commentary Writing

Three Months In A Pandemic

Planks on the footbridge.

The absence of definitive guidance on what society should be doing during the coronavirus pandemic led us to a path of individual choices.

When Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds proclaimed the disaster emergency on March 9 few of us knew what to expect. Sadly, three months later that continues to be true.

Our social behavior is developing around risk avoidance, some of it informed, some less so.

Jacque made us facial masks on the sewing machine. I carry three of them in a plastic bag on the car seat to use when in public. Most frequently I wear them while shopping for groceries, and at the drug store, convenience store and at medical appointments. When I return home I wash my hands, change clothing, and if I’ll be inside the rest of the day, take a shower. I wash the masks after each wearing.

At the farm I don’t wear a mask because the crew has been self-isolated together since the pandemic began. The risk of me being exposed there is minimal. Since I’ve been tested, limit my activity, and maintain social distancing, I seem unlikely to bring it in. They developed a social distancing method of share delivery and are doing everything they can to avoid getting sick. An outbreak would be disastrous for them, their customers, and the business.

I don’t wear a mask to the state park trail and very few people I’ve encountered there do. Because it is outside and there is room enough to maintain social distancing the risk of contracting COVID-19 there seems minimal. I avoided going to the park for the first two months of the pandemic yet the need for exercise outweighed the risk of exposure to the coronavirus.

With more people home during the day the number of contacts with neighbors has increased. I don’t wear a mask while I’m with them because these encounters are pop-up activities of short duration. I have yet to see anyone in the neighborhood wearing a mask. The letter carrier and parcel delivery drivers are a source of potential contamination although a necessary service as our number of trips off the property has decreased. We sanitize packages and let them sit on the landing before opening.

Our main approach to risk management is reducing activity away from home and social distancing when we are out and about. It serves us well in that neither of us has been sick since the pandemic began. I don’t believe our experience and behavior is much different from any Iowan who takes the coronavirus seriously.

Clearly the pandemic will be of longer duration, so how should risk of COVID-19 spread be managed? There is little guidance from our government and public health guidance seems so universal it’s hard to figure how it impacts us in our actual lives. As a former career transportation and logistics professional I’m familiar with risk management. The pandemic is just one more layer added to risks already managed.

When I worked at the home, farm and auto supply store I got sick a couple of times a year. I caught something at work that caused runny nose, coughing, congestion or some combination of those ailments. The need for income outweighed potential health risks. When we entered the pandemic I reassessed and reversed my approach. I haven’t been sick since I walked out the door for the last time on April 2.

My point is we take risks in everything we do. During the coronavirus pandemic we must get better at doing so because the lives of our family and everyone with whom we come in contact depend upon it. The question never was “should we open up the economy?” The better question is what are the conditions upon which we can re-engage in society? How do we know it is safe enough to send our children to school, return to paid work outside the home, and participate in mass recreational events like concerts, sporting games, fairs and local festivals? If anything, we assumed those activities were safe before the pandemic, even though we knew, subconsciously at least, that safety has a broad spectrum of risk and no human activity is completely safe.

What are reasonable risks? Lacking appropriate guidance from experts each of us is making up our own rules, our own trade-offs between risk avoidance and participating in life. There is no going back to life before the pandemic. How do we restore enjoyable aspects of our lives with less risk of contracting COVID-19?

I don’t have definitive answers except that we are on our own. We are doing our best and for the time being, until we figure this out, that may be the best we can do.


Book Review: Save Me the Plums

Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir by Ruth Reichl

I’d not heard of Ruth Reichl before a news reporter recommended this book. I had heard of Gourmet Magazine and have no memories of ever reading it.

I liked the book for these reasons:

It provides a window into the New York world of Condé Nast. As a Midwesterner New York seems exotic even though my brother in law lives there. It’s important to gain a broader understanding of the publishing world and to know something about it. Save Me the Plums provides that.

We all need some light summer reading to escape the sh*t storm our current politics, public health crisis, and climate crisis create in 2020. The food writing in Save Me the Plums is unlike anything I’ve read. While not sure of the attraction of something that tastes like sea foam, Reichl takes us into a world few of my cohort experience for themselves.

The book is well written and that makes a difference.

Recommend, especially if one is part of the broader American food movement. One wouldn’t want to be Ruth Reichl yet her story is interesting, different and valuable.