Trees Take a Hit

Apple blossoms on Sept. 17, 2020.

2020 is the year trees and shrubs planted in the mid-1990s took a hit.

While mowing for the first time after the Aug. 10 derecho I noticed an Earliblaze apple tree was in bloom. The branches with blooms had otherwise died.

The Red Delicious apple tree lost a major branch during the storm. It seems unlikely to survive, although I might be able to get a crop next year. The scar where the branch was is big. Sealing it from insect predators seems a temporary solution. I had the same experience with a Golden Delicious tree a few years ago. It’s already gone.

One of the lilac bushes suddenly lost all of its leaves. While mowing I noticed new leaves had begun to form. I presume it is next year’s leaves. It’s time to cut that bush out.

Our neighborhood continues to recover from the derecho. Chain saws run almost every day. Burn piles amass, piles of firewood lay everywhere. Although I cleaned up the fallen branches and trees this week, there is more work to be done and sadly it involves a chain saw rather than pruning shears.

Planting a tree is a long-term commitment. When we have a year like 2020 one questions the merit of decades of work when the derecho, combined with disease, mitigates that work so quickly and unexpectedly. I don’t measure my remaining time on this blue-green, turning brown sphere in decades any more. There is enough time to eat apples from new trees I planted this year.

The haze through which the sun shines originated in record-setting fires on the West Coast. The arctic also has a record number of fires. The arctic and antarctic glaciers are melting and don’t get enough snowfall to offset the loss. It is an increasingly hot planet. We are all impacted as the pollution spreads through the atmosphere.

Phase two of my tree work is taking care of many dead branches that cropped up since spring. There is time to work on it. The firewood pile is getting taller though, and isn’t finished growing yet.

Firewood pile Sept. 17, 2020

Year of Climate Disaster

Chestnuts on the ground.

If my posts about the climate crisis have been scarce this year it is because of a decision to focus time on political outcomes.

Under Republican governance needed action to protect the environment and take bold action to reduce the constant stream of inputs that warm the atmosphere and oceans seems unlikely. If anything, Republicans are taking us the wrong direction. I spend time each day working to elect Democrats in hope of a government that will take the climate crisis seriously and address the existential problem.

Weather in Iowa continues to be crazy. There was drought, a derecho, and now a few days of almost continuous rain expected to produce flash flooding. This is what the climate crisis looks like. It is not located in a misty future, it is now.

California fires have already burned 2.2 million acres, more than any year on record according to CBS News. It is only September. Half a million people are evacuating parts of Oregon due to fires there. Hurricane Laura brought devastation to the Louisiana and Texas oil patch. Record high temperatures are being set from Florida to California. If you think this is a new normal, you would be wrong. This is the beginning of a very turbulent period of extreme weather. From here it is expected to get worse.

Our current government makes no pretense about addressing the climate crisis. They are simply not going to do it, consequences be damned. That’s why it is important to change our governance and through the ballot box has been a dependable first effort. If we do elect Joe Biden president with a Democratic House and Senate, our work is only beginning. He and his potential administration must be held accountable to make needed change that positively impacts the environment.

Absentee ballots are to be mailed from county auditors in Iowa beginning Oct. 5. The period from then until Nov. 3 will be one of tracking down ballots. In addition we’ll spend time getting people to register to vote and cast their ballot. That will take most of our time and energy.

The climate crisis is urgently important. Just as a lifeguard sometimes must subdue a drowning victim to save them, so we must focus on the election. There will be time to set priorities after we win at the ballot box. If we don’t win, the priorities become much different and the climate crisis more dire.

We are stronger together and it will take all of us to turn the government around in 2020 and beyond. It is past time to act on the climate crisis.


Coronavirus Redemption

Bur Oak Tree acorns.

The coronavirus pandemic put us in our place.

When the real risk of illness or death can be found everywhere, behaviors change. Upon reflection, so can our process for living.

Yesterday, the Washington Post published an article titled 9 everyday experiences the pandemic has endangered — and how they impact our lives. I read it and only one of nine, using cash for payments, impacted my life. That’s one of the problems with this pandemic: one person’s perspective just doesn’t apply to everyone. That’s increasingly American and to the extent our tolerance for diverse opinions is scant, it is a problem for coming out of the virus. If we can’t agree with scientists, including epidemiologists and public health officials, we will not solve the problem of a virus that sickens millions and kills hundreds of thousands.

How do we get out of the pandemic? Given today, I don’t know how we can.

The cost of redemption is subverting our egos, something a large group of people are willing to do, at least long enough to abate the virus. Absent political leadership, such ideas seem futile. As lifelong Republicans are willing to vote for Joe Biden to end the crazy of the current administration, suppression of who we are, while it may get us through the pandemic, is not a longer term solution to social problems.

The pandemic forces us to change how we live. We now have homemade cloth masks to wear in public. If one of us were out more we’d invest in a plastic shield to protect our eyes. We cook all of our meals at home. We rarely leave the property. When our cable to internet access was accidentally cut, our wireless usage more than doubled — we stay connected to the digital world. Increasingly, internet content seems homogeneous.

There are a few changes to daily life I hope continue into the post pandemic period.

Containing Contagion. We’ve not been sick since the governor declared the emergency on March 9, six months ago. In retrospect, not going to a workplace with 80 employees reduced the number of infections I brought home. While I enjoyed the extra income from that retail job, I better enjoyed good health and the absence of colds, influenza and pneumonia. I hope mask wearing, washing hands, sanitizing when soap and water is not available, and maintaining social distancing continues in society long past the end point of the coronavirus pandemic. I’m likely an outlier.

Using Stuff. Our house became over-filled with the unused detritus of living in a consumer culture. The coronavirus pandemic has us using some of that stuff in a way we hadn’t anticipated. I found my webcam and installed it on my desktop to participate in video conferencing. I took my bicycle off the hooks in the garage and have been riding it almost daily. When it breaks down I try to fix it myself and consult with friends and technicians on what to do. I’m cooking more, trying to use up ingredients stored in the pantry and freezer. I developed a process to circulate and wear clothing that is too worn to donate to charity but had remaining use. Our home has become a workshop in a way I have long wanted but was too busy to create.

Kitchen Garden. I abandoned my quest for local food and its meaning. To replace it, I focus on the new term, “kitchen garden,” which represents the intersection between created meals and the farms, gardens, orchards and manufacturers that produce our food. The term “local food” was a construct that no longer serves our purpose. We are consuming more locally produced food than ever by recognizing and living in this nexus.

Wellness. The coronavirus pandemic brought attention to our health and wellness. I get in 25-30 minutes of exercise daily, eat less, and address my health risks. In addition, I write letters (on paper) to a few people, stay in touch via email and social media, and do more neighboring. While the circle of friends radius is shorter, it is more meaningful and that has been better for wellness. It is important to mention the pensions our household receives. The viable economic base they provide makes everything else possible.

Intellectual Development. While my work status is “retired,” I stay busy. The coronavirus pandemic stopped everything in its tracks as I stayed home and followed what government leaders suggested when it made sense. The enlightenment of this self-isolation is that something will be next. I don’t know what it will be, but it will be local, new, and grounded in intellectual pursuit as we tackle issues where I live. There have been a number of locals interested in participating over the years. It is time we break from participation in distant activities to create our own local ones. I’m not sure what that looks like but am motivated because of the pandemic to figure it out.

Transportation. Most days if I leave the property it is to exercise. The number of auto trips is severely reduced as I shop at the wholesale club once every two weeks and go to a grocer less than once a week. I need to rotate the autos so they both get started and driven regularly. Gasoline use dropped 20 percent. When we ran a generator during the derecho recovery we consumed 15 gallons or more. I make occasional trips to the county seat, visited a local nature preserve once, and drove to the TestIowa COVID-19 test site three times. That’s pretty much it. I’ve become comfortable with staying home for several days at a time.

It is hard to say when the coronavirus pandemic will be officially over. It will be with us for a while, I’m sad to say. Amid the sickness, death and financial challenges I find a new way of life and a wavering ray of hope. Let’s hope it persists.


Locust Tree

Locust tree trunk.

Punk day? We go on living.

Wednesday started well enough with cool temperatures and a 13-mile bicycle ride. Then I tried to clear the remainder of the locust tree laying across the garden.

The Poulan chain saw started but when I hit the accelerator it died. That was the trouble last time I had it out. I put it on the front steps, got out my Wagner electric chainsaw, and proceeded to make about a dozen cuts. The Wagner has been a great tool, although toward the end of this session it developed a problem I couldn’t resolve. I called the small engine repair shop across the lakes.

They said the electric chain saw repair would likely cost more than the tool was worth. They did work on Poulan chain saws and had space in the work queue to get mine in. With the derecho cleanup, businesses like theirs have been busy. I packed my 1997 Subaru and headed across the lakes. Overnight they adjusted the carburetor, sharpened the chain, and I was good to go. I proceeded to clear the garden of the locust tree.

I’ve been taking my time with the rest of the derecho clean up. I got the fallen branches and my destroyed greenhouse out of the neighbors’ yard the day the derecho hit but have been in no hurry to process the debris. The metal sink I kept in the garden was crushed when the locust tree fell on it. Good sections of fencing and posts were ruined. One of the three oak trees I planted in the garden is leaning due to the derecho wind and weight of the locust tree falling against it.

Some of the vegetables survived although all of the tomato and tomatillo cages were crushed and twisted. Much of my row of peppers was smashed. I’ll get outside to work on it again today and harvest what I can from the wreckage.

We need rain yet none is forecast. As summer ends the pace is picking up. As if it weren’t already at a stunning clip.


August Heat

Garden tomato time.

This week includes days where the heat index is forecast to be over 100 degrees. Combine that with an extended lack of rain and we’re entering a drought.

After experiencing the drought of 2012 it’s easier to gauge things. This drought hasn’t reached an epic level yet.

I water the garden sparingly seeking to increase the yield of tomatoes, hot peppers and kale. The plot damaged by the derecho still has the trunk of a locust tree laying across it. During a cooler spell I’ll remove the dead wood but for now the project is on hold.

The coronavirus pandemic is far from over. University students returned to the county seat over the weekend. By Monday afternoon a noted local epidemiologist declared, “We have a COVID-19 outbreak in Iowa City.” I’m glad I paid my property taxes last week so I have no reason to return to the county seat until the outbreak has resolved. If the outbreak continues until spring I’ll pay my taxes electronically. Yesterday’s official count of U.S. deaths from the pandemic was 176,809 humans.

As if these things are not enough, yesterday chief actuary of the Social Security Administration Stephen Goss wrote a letter to Senate Democrats in which he said if payroll taxes were eliminated Jan. 1, 2021 as the administration has proposed, “We estimate that Old Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund reserves would become permanently depleted by the middle of calendar year 2023,with no ability to pay benefits thereafter.” We knew Social Security had enough revenue and reserves in the current model to be viable until 2034. The disruption in the economy is impacting everyone including us. If Social Security ends I’d better start looking for a new financial model to sustain our lives.

Last night I viewed 30 minutes of the Republican National Convention. I made a point to find and view South Carolina Senator Tim Scott’s 11-minute speech this morning. Republicans have a narrative, one that’s rooted in a different reality than what I know. Republicans and Democrats don’t agree when it comes to defining our national life. That makes it nearly impossible to address any of the issues that confront us today.

The county studied the Silurian Aquifer a few years back and determined there was plenty of water to meet our long-term needs. As long as there is water we’ll be able to grow a garden and we’ll have enough to eat.

We paid off our home mortgage a while back so the only housing expenses are utilities, upkeep and taxes. We’ll have a place to live and equity against which to borrow.

As far as transportation, clothing, communications equipment, and other necessities go, we’ll be fine. This assumes there will be social stability, although that comes into question as the rich get richer leaving less for the rest of us. Social upheaval is not only possible, it’s more likely the further apart Republican and Democratic views of society become.

That has me more concerned than this August heat.


The Locust Tree Will Wait

Fallen Locust Tree

After seven straight days of using the chainsaw my forearms are sore. I am taking a couple of days off to rest them before tackling the Locust Tree that fell across the garden.

The sound of chainsaws in the neighborhood is ever present since the derecho hit on Aug. 10. Piles of brush are stacked everywhere as smoke from burn piles snakes into the atmosphere.

If we don’t get some rain soon the state and county will declare a burn ban as we enter drought conditions.

These days of August are normally about tomato processing and garden prep for next year. The derecho wiped out my seedlings for a fall planting. It also changed work schedules moving chainsaw work to the top of the to-do list. Add in the coronavirus pandemic restrictions and it’s a very different summer.

The county auditor received our requests for an absentee ballot according to the Secretary of State website. The ballots are mailed in October so now we wait.


Fall Work

Bee pollinating a sunflower.

Social fallout continues with a disruption of fall work.

Sunday I told the chief apple officer I would not be back to work at the orchard this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. Our county has been doing a poor job of preventing spread of the virus. The orchard is near the University of Iowa where students return this week. I’m hearing concern from local epidemiologists about the behavior of returning students: they ignore basic guidelines for preventing spread of the virus.

University students find the orchard a cool place to hang out and it is. This year I don’t want the virus to spread to me so I won’t be working. Maybe next year.

This week is the virtual Democratic National Convention. It has been structured for public consumption from 8 until 10 p.m. local time, although I’m not that interested in hearing most of it. Political conventions are not what they used to be and as such pretty dull. I plan to listen to speeches by Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.

I made progress with cleanup from the derecho yesterday. I am getting to know my chainsaw well. The locust tree rests across a garden plot making it impossible to harvest some of the vegetables. There are a lot of other branches to process first. I’ll lose part of the crop.

I don’t relish writing about the coronavirus pandemic and the derecho recovery but they are here and part of every day. Yesterday afternoon Chef José Andrés World Central Kitchen arrived in Cedar Rapids and by evening had served more than 6,000 meals: a sign that today Iowa is a disaster.


Masks of the Coronavirus

Doing dishes by flashlight during a power outage.

The pandemic was not blown away by the derecho.

The derecho got me out of our bubble. There were more interactions with people as I made provisioning trips and discussed recovery with neighbors. Now that power is restored it’s time to launder masks of the coronavirus pandemic.

It hackles me that we have a daily U.S. death count from the coronavirus pandemic. That it is higher than any other country, by far, is also upsetting. We got too confident (or too stupid) after successful mitigation of the Ebola virus and did away with the defense infrastructure designed to mitigate a future pandemic. Those actions combined with lack of adequate reaction once the coronavirus was identified led to the pandemic that continues to press closer to our household. Monday’s derecho complicated everything. We should likely be making more masks.

The two of us are fine after the derecho. We know how to survive a short interruption in electricity, internet service, natural gas or water. That knowledge comes from years of living in the rural county where things happen. We have a lot of clean up to do to saw up the fallen tree and process many piles of branches. That work is not urgent. I’ll find a local home for the firewood and consume everything else on our property, burning the brush and returning the minerals to the garden soil.

My calendar reminded me dill pickle fermentation was to be finished today. I took the crock to the kitchen sink and sampled one. They were just right. Next I put them in jars and into the crowded ice box. It’s on to what’s next.

Environment Sustainability

Midwest Derecho

Sunflower survived the derecho, as did we.

Without an anemometer it was difficult to know wind speed during Monday’s derecho. In Cedar Rapids wind speeds approached 100 miles per hour.

The last major storm of straight-line winds in 2013 caused more damage to our property than the derecho. Both were bad.

I watched the storm come in until it got so virulent we headed to our safe place on the lower level. The kitchen clock stopped at 12:34 p.m., Monday, Aug. 10. Electricity was restored at 10:14 a.m., Friday, Aug. 14, the longest outage since we moved here.

The weather system is called a derecho. Amy McKeever’s Aug. 12 article in National Geographic explains:

Derechos may not be as well known as hurricanes or tornadoes, but these rare storms can be just as powerful and destructive. Primarily seen in late spring and summer in the central and eastern United States, derechos produce walls of strong wind that streak across the landscape, leaving hundreds of miles of damage in their wake. On August 10, 2020, a derecho swept across the Midwest from South Dakota to Ohio, traveling 770 miles in 14 hours and knocking out power for more than a million people.

The term derecho—which means “straight ahead” in Spanish—was coined in 1888 by Gustavus Hinrichs, a physics professor at the University of Iowa who sought to distinguish these straight-moving winds from the swirling gusts of a tornado. Though the term disappeared from use shortly afterward, meteorologists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) resurrected it a hundred years later. It entered the public lexicon in 2012, when one of the most destructive derechos in history swept across roughly 700 miles from Ohio to the mid-Atlantic coast, killing 22 people and causing serious damage in metropolitan areas, including Chicago and Washington, D.C.

NOAA officially defines a derecho as “a widespread, long-lived windstorm that is associated with a band of rapidly moving showers or thunderstorms.” For a swath of storms to be classified as a derecho, it must travel at least 240 miles and move at speeds of at least 58 miles an hour, though the winds are often more powerful. The August 2020 Midwest derecho had winds up to 112 miles an hour.

I have more to say about this storm and the damage it did. Suffice it for now the storm hit hard the trees I’ve grown from saplings. The Pin Oak took the brunt of the wind damage, the windward side losing several of its main branches. The Red Delicious apple tree lost a major limb, the Locust tree blew completely over demolishing the most productive part of the summer garden. Half of the pear crop shook loose from the tree dropping unusable green fruit. Among the wreckage on the ground I found a single Earliblaze apple. I hadn’t noticed we had any apples this year. I ate the apple on the spot. It was delicious (apple joke).

We survived the storm with no damage to our house. I watched the portable greenhouse shake loose four 50-pound buckets of sand, lift into the air, and tumble off into a neighbor’s yard, destroyed. Without electricity I couldn’t can the tomato harvest so I donated 25 pounds to the local food rescue operation.

We are now veterans of two major wind events and developed a process to cope with the aftermath.

Because of the long electricity outage, we became owners of a Craftsman generator which we used to keep the freezer and refrigerator running, as well as to charge devices, run computers, operate a floor fan, and heat water. We plan to keep it.

We had the septic tank pumped for additional capacity in case of an extended electrical outage. The septic service showed up just as electricity was restored.

We hired a U.S. military veteran from Alabama to help cut damaged branches from the Pin Oak. The yard is filled with fallen branches waiting for me to cut them up for firewood or for burning. A big portion of the fallen Locust tree remains on the garden. I’m not sure when I’ll get to that.

I didn’t realize it at the time but the clouds in this photo are the front edge of the derecho blowing in. It will be a while before we recover. We will recover.

Derecho Approaches Aug. 10, 2020.


Cleaning Up After A Derecho

Electricity expected in 3-6 days. Chain saw getting a workout. Had to buy a generator. Will be back soon.

In the meanwhile, this sunflower survived the derecho, like us.