Prairie Burn

Prairie reconstruction after prescribed burn.

Back on my bicycle Monday with a 10-mile ride. Feeling my legs and lungs working as I climbed hills in low gear was affirming.

Today I’m going to take time to breathe.

Living in Society

Autumn in Iowa

Autumn Blaze maple tree.

The colors of the maple tree in front of our house don’t photograph well. We have to stand and take in the feeling they arouse. The variety is called Autumn Blaze.

Branches high up in the tree have been blown down and broken by wind storms. The foliage is not as dense as it once was. Like all maple trees the wood is soft and if the right kind of insect gains entry it will be curtains. I remember planting the tree with our daughter in the 1990s, shortly after moving to Big Grove Township.

We had no idea how the changing colors of autumn would make us feel. If we knew, we would have planted another.

The coronavirus pandemic rages in Iowa and in the United States. Republican politicians in charge are downplaying the seriousness of the virus so as not to have to address it before the election. Only a cynical, craven person could do so. The same kind of person who sent meat packers back to work without adequate protections after outbreaks were revealed.

The end of the year holidays are upon us with Halloween a week away. I wrote a post for our neighborhood Facebook page:

“My personal two cents: Just finished reading the complicated Iowa City rules for trick or treating during the coronavirus pandemic. To me, it’s simple. If parents want to take their children out in the neighborhood they should be free to do so. At the same time if members don’t want to participate, they should leave their front lights off and not answer the door. There should be no “tricks” or unpleasantness for anyone during the pandemic. As President Trump said in Florida last night, ‘you should do all the things’ to prevent spread of the disease. We know what those ‘things’ are: wear a mask, practice hygiene, use sanitizer, and clean up upon returning home. It’s important to create a positive environment for children during a fun holiday that marks the beginning of the end of year holiday season. I hope we are closer to normal by Halloween 2021.”

It really is autumn in Iowa.


October Rain

Pelicans on the lake.

There have been Iowa rainstorms in late October for as long as I can remember. Rain is usually followed by a period of warming during which we can get the yard ready for winter. There is comfort in the repeated patterns of nature.

Rain recharges the Silurian Aquifer where we draw our water. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources recently renewed our permit to draw water for another ten years. We don’t worry about draining this aquifer because of its proximity to the surface and ability to recharge. Our temperate climate makes it more sustainable. Even during the most severe droughts, like in 2012, water supply is adequate, and rarely questioned.

Let it rain.

At the beginning of the pandemic I asked a local used bookstore to pick $100 worth of books of poetry for me with the main criteria being I didn’t already own a copy. I’m still reading from that stack and just finished Honest Effort by Michael Carey. In 1991, when the book was published, Carey was an Iowan transplanted from the East Coast who farmed his spouse’s family farm, writing poetry about his life. His Facebook page shows the farming thing, and his marriage, didn’t work out.

It’s clean verse, and by that I mean he brings very few objects of contemporary culture into the poetry. That creates a timeless quality and allows his unique voice to be heard. For a couple of hours he held me in his world. Highly recommended if you can find a copy. My recent reading list is here if readers are curious.

After my morning writing session the day is a blank slate. It’s Friday, one of the few days distinguishable from others because it’s the trash and recycling day. We also plan a pizza dinner on Friday. It’s raining so it will be an indoors day enlivened by the imagination, I hope. Thanks for reading.


Preparing for Winter

Enterprise apples.

It’s time to prepare for winter.

A repair person is scheduled to inspect and clean our furnace next week. I got a navy blue wool blanket out of storage and put it between the sheet and comforter on the bed. On the doorway to my writing table I put an old pink, white and green bedspread, printed with ballerinas in pointe shoes, to hold warmth created by a space heater. Winter is about keeping warm in Big Grove Township.

It’s not winter yet. I hope for a few more days of bicycling on the trails, a few more jogs on my 2.5 mile course, before being relegated to indoors exercise. Winds calmed this morning so maybe another trip to Ely. We’ll see.

The Nov. 3 election and the coronavirus pandemic are always in the background. One of those dissipates in 15 days. The pandemic, however, will be with us for a while. Experts say throughout 2021.

I’m ready to write this winter. With the garden idle, government in transition, and a pandemic all around us, there is no better time to hunker down behind my ballerina-covered shield against the cold and figure out where I came from, what I’ve done, and importantly, what work remains.

I’ll be warm, if not as safe as I’d like.


Pedaling Against the Wind

Storage apples drying on the counter.

A steady, westerly wind blew the last few days making the daily bicycle trip more challenging. I wore a hat under my helmet, a pair of gloves, and a sweatshirt to hold against the chill.

It has been good riding on the trails near our home since I changed the front tire and tube on Monday. I’m finding a 40-year old bicycle needs constant repairs and enjoy diagnosing problems and resolving them.

I have been thinking about participating in an event-style ride next summer, although I need to train for it if I do. Maybe a century ride, or a day of RAGBRAI if they resume operations. For now my attention turns toward winter. The change of seasons is in the air.

The orchard has the last apples of the season available this week. I picked Gold Rush from trees and got Jonathan and Enterprise in the display cooler. Gold Rush and Jonathan are for storage and the Enterprise will be converted to apple crisp or apple sauce during the next couple of days. It is hard to believe the season is already at its end. I am happy to have the nearby orchard to fill gaps in our home apple growing culture.

With cooler weather I turn from finishing the work in the yard and garden to creative work indoors. I filled in a couple of blanks on my autobiography outline yesterday. I hesitated to re-start the project during gardening season because I didn’t feel ready. With the combination of the coronavirus pandemic, a forced retirement, and winter’s approach I feel more ready than in a long time.

Politics took a holiday yesterday. There were at least four televised events yet I viewed none of them. On my to-do list is to obtain a digital television and set it up. The analog ones don’t really work. I am loathe to turn them on. Because I voted already my interest in details of candidate positions is waning.

It will be different if Joe Biden wins the presidential election. Having someone who uses reason, logic and careful deliberation for process will be refreshing yet something to which we haven’t been accustomed the last four years. The coalition of supporters Biden brought together is broad and deep. There will be Republican resistance to a Biden administration, yet any more, that’s to be expected and most people realize it. The moderator of Biden’s televised town hall meeting asked him what he would do if he loses the Nov. 3 election. Biden’s response, “I won’t lose.”

There will be wind but no rain according to this morning’s forecast: a fine day for pedaling against the wind. Such resistance is important to human progress. It makes us stronger and builds stamina. Both are qualities needed for the road ahead.

Environment Writing

Lilacs Bloom in October

Lilac blooming on Oct. 6, 2020.

2020 has been stressful for trees and shrubs. Our lilac bushes are in bloom. It’s October.

I remember when autumn colors took my breath away. Stunning reds, yellows, greens and browns spread out across the other side of the lake.

It wasn’t breath-taking this year as I jogged along the state park trail.

The trees seemed sparse. More than last year. The yellow, brown and green colors were subdued or muted, as if the forest had one hella year like the rest of us. This side of the lake, tree damage from the derecho is everywhere. As winter approaches uncertainty abounds.

One hopes for catharsis on Nov. 3 yet I don’t know. Ticket sales from Broadway performances in New York have been suspended until May 2021. It seems like forever until then.

Kitchen Garden

Time to Plant Garlic

Burn pile, Sept. 19, 2020.

The sound of Spanish-speaking roofers found me tending a burn pile of limbs pruned from apple trees. It seems like the neighbors just built their house: it’s too soon for a replacement roof. The quality of craftsmanship isn’t what it used to be, I suppose. Maybe it was damaged during the Aug. 10 derecho. Roofers made a one-day job of the expansive surface overlooking the neighborhood and the lake beyond.

Embers remained by the time I went to bed. I raked them over large pieces of wood so they would have a chance for overnight consumption. It isn’t the last burn pile of the year although a necessary step toward disassembling the tomato patch. That’s where garlic seeds will go.

It is time to plant garlic.

This year’s crop was excellent. Healthy plants produced large cloves that are storing well. I’d like to repeat that. Part of me wants to be done with the garden yet until the first hard frost it will keep producing on the margins without much effort. This year’s kale may grow into November.

I picked the tomato patch for garlic because most of it has been covered with landscaping fabric and mulch all season. It will be easy to dig up and rototill. The lawn needs mowing and I’m saving that to use the clippings to mulch the garlic. If needed I will purchase straw bales to finish. Planting garlic is a two-day process here. Preparing the plot one day followed by planting and mulching the next. Once it’s done it doesn’t seem like much work for the reward next July.

Yesterday I delivered my completed ballot to the county auditor. With early voting comes a rush to election day. I scheduled a number of volunteer activities to help get out the vote, beginning with a rally in the metropolis with our congressional candidate tomorrow afternoon. The outcome of the election in Iowa is uncertain. Much work remains even if our federal candidates are holding their own in polling in this red turning purple state. It’s not over and we can’t relax now just because we cast our ballot.

I don’t know the future of our country yet I hope for the best. We’re doing the best we can to right the ship of state and set course for a better horizon. As society is increasingly and globally connected, new horizons resemble the previous one. Our work remains the same.

For now our climate in Iowa can still produce a decent crop of garlic and that’s where my attention is the next few days. In the background is the dull grind of the election. We’ll know the results soon.

Kitchen Garden

At the Orchard

Wilson’s Orchard and Farm, Sept. 30, 2020

I began work at the orchard in August 2013. It feels weird not returning this season. I was asked. Due to the coronavirus pandemic and Iowa’s lack of governmental leadership in containing it, combined with my personal risk factors, I declined the customer-facing position as mapper. Maybe next year.

A May frost during bloom took out some of the crop. Then the derecho knocked down trees and shook fruit loose. For the first time in my memory there was no u-pick operation last weekend to allow remaining apples to ripen. It won’t be the best crop. The apples I bought yesterday were grown by the chief apple officer’s brother in Michigan.

There is a crop. I hope to buy a bushel of Gold Rush at the end of the season. When I last inspected those rows they were abundant. What happens is customers start picking them before they are ripe. I’ll wait to see what’s left at the end of October when they ripen. Fingers crossed.

Our back yard apple trees are reaching the end of their lives so I planted two new ones last spring. The Earliblaze trees are slowly dying. The Red Delicious tree had a branch knocked down and the scar from where it was can’t be fixed. Since my trees alternate years of bloom we’ll see what they do next year but it’s clear they need to be replaced.

On Instagram I follow a few Europeans who post about food. Yesterday Maria Bessières posted about apples:

“Got a bit carried away this morning at the market and came home with 4 kg of apples. Now, there is a difference between an apple you get from the grocery store and the apple that grows in your garden. In Estonia apples are one of those things that you never run out of during autumn. Everyone has a grandma with an apple garden or a summer house with apple trees and once the season starts, there is no end in sight. So you make apple jams, compotes, juice, anything and everything you can imagine that uses apples. And when there are still too many of them lying around, you put bags or buckets of them outside of your garden for whoever happens to walk by to help themselves. Apples for days and days to come.”

In the United States that world of apples doesn’t exist with consistency. Supermarkets sell many apples yet we rarely buy them there. When our own trees don’t produce we visit one of the several area orchards and eat them fresh and in season. Instead of dealing with apple abundance during off years we buy them as commodities for out of hand eating or specific recipes. When we do have a crop I put them up as apple sauce, apple butter, dried apples, apple cider vinegar, apple juice, frozen apple slices, and more. During off years we work the pantry down until there is another crop. There is a predictable pattern of our personal apple kingdom. It’s reflective of a type of American individualism.

It’s already October and the orchard is into Ida Red and the Jonathan family of apples. Because of coronavirus restrictions the experience isn’t quite the same. I see them advertising for help in social media yet I’m not tempted to return until the risk of contracting COVID-19 from customers is in the rear view mirror.

The orchard is a pretty place, a fit place for walking and breathing fresh air. A change of scenery from the isolating confines of home during the pandemic. The cloudy sky doesn’t look different, then it does as we spend a couple of autumn hours at the orchard.


First Coronavirus Wall

Turn around. Ely, Iowa.

As autumn begins we hit the six-month wall of the coronavirus pandemic. We are all getting tired of the masks, restricted activities, and video meetings.

We want our lives to return to a sense of normal with more reasonable human interaction, the kind to which we are accustomed.

The Aug. 10 derecho gave Iowans something to do at home. Now that it’s mostly cleaned up we are left with ourselves and more mask-wearing, restricted activities, and video meetings.

If we have to go to the doctor or dentist we understand there are specific protocols to maintain social distancing inside the clinic. They are labor and time-intensive. The clinicians are not used to them either. At least we determined a way to get routine medical checkups.

Time was we could escape from our daily lives. People took cruises, traveled to faraway places as tourists, or just went to the beach. Now there is nowhere to go because the pandemic is global. Cruise lines, those floating cesspools of infectious diseases, haven’t determined how to restart operations in the pandemic. Air travel is not much better.

We learned new ways of securing provisions, living at home, meeting with friends, working, and attending school. Some found new ways to entertain and enjoy ourselves. We prepare more of our own meals and exercise more. We make more telephone calls and participate in a variety of activities made possible by the internet. All the same it doesn’t seem normal. For the time being there is the wall.

Last Saturday NBC News reported the U.S. COVID-19 death toll surpassed 200,000 individuals. In March, Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House Task Force on the coronavirus, said in a best case scenario, with Americans doing exactly what was needed to mitigate the effects of the virus, the death toll would be contained to between 100,000 and 200,00 deaths. At the time there had been only 3,000 COVID-19 related deaths. 21st Century Americans are not a disciplined lot nor good at doing what is needed. We are also not the best listeners. Whatever happened to us? The pandemic is expected to get worse.

“As we approach the fall and winter months, it is important that we get the baseline level of daily infections much lower than they are right now,” Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told James Hamblin of The Atlantic. For the past few weeks, the country has been averaging about 40,000 new infections a day. Fauci said, “we must, over the next few weeks, get that baseline of infections down to 10,000 per day, or even much less if we want to maintain control of this outbreak.”

Up against the wall, many are not paying attention to public health officials. We want to get on with our lives. The coronavirus does not care.

The first step in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic is to admit it exists. Denial of the reality of the virus only serves the virus. We have to live like we are contagious. We get tired of hearing it yet we must wear a mask and pay attention to our immediate environment, what we contribute to it, and what we take away from it. Maintaining social distancing has been hard. I want to be closer to people when with them, to maintain customary behavior. We can’t do that as much in the pandemic. We also have to pay attention to the amount of time we are with people because duration of exposure is a key factor in COVID-19 spread. It is near impossible to view every person I know and meet as a disease vector.

Experts say the six month wall in a crisis arrives and dissipates like clockwork. We can muster a positive attitude and persist, be kind to those closest to us, and take care of our obligations. Before we know it we’ll be on the other side. That’s a start, and for many it may be enough. We have a long way to go in the coronavirus pandemic, maybe another year or more. To sustain ourselves we must let the chips fall and be prepared to climb when we discover a chink in the wall. It is there, although at times difficult to see.

The human condition is optimistic. We believe this pandemic will end. We know enough to see there will be another pandemic after this one. At the same time we should realize that the wall we encountered six months in isn’t the end, even as the coronavirus is permanently with us. We are able to parse the difference and should.

The predictable wall gives us a new kind of normalcy. It’s a bit weird yet comforting at the same time. In a couple of weeks we hope to be on the other side.

Home Life

Hard Break from Autumn

Corn-rice casserole for the annual orchard potluck dinner.

A hard break from autumn accompanied last week’s snowfall.

Outdoors there is garden clean up, raking leaves, and another mowing to be done, however, we’ve turned mostly inside.

A main issue has been determining how to get exercise without an active garden and walks along the lake. Yesterday I cleaned and set up the NordicTrack ski machine. This morning I tried it. It will serve for a while and, in any case, seems more focused than walks along the lake and yard work.

As orchard season ended I took an eleven day hiatus from carb counting. The point was to see the impact formal training and weeks of habit had on daily food consumption. Some things were easy: eating only one slice of bread at a meal, portion control, and selecting snacks that had less than 15 carbs in them. What was harder was dealing with cravings. I was mostly, but not always able to do so. At the end my average weight remained unchanged at a 15 percent loss. Clothes still fit and if I exercise daily indoors, I may have to get pants a size smaller. I went back to carb counting this morning and return to the clinic for more tests in three weeks.

The time between harvest and year’s end has been for reflection and for making plans. After a struggle when I retired in 2009 our situation stabilized with adequate income to meet short term needs and engaging work in the community. I feel fortunate to be approaching my 68th birthday with an ability to think beyond it.

I expect to continue to write short posts, although a format change at On Our Own is overdue. Before changing the look of the blog I want to print out past years for the book shelf. Financial constraints held me back from making a paper archive every year so I’m behind.

There is other writing to do. I recently ran into a former editor at the Iowa City Press Citizen and we discussed freelancing. It would take a compelling reason for me to seek publication more than I get in letters to the editor of the Solon Economist or an occasional guest opinion in the Cedar Rapids Gazette. If anything, the next period will be one of working on an autobiographical work. Whether that has import beyond family and close friends seems doubtful. It’s what an educated person does or at least that’s the paradigm through which I view it. Our daughter might appreciate the effort of culling old papers and artifacts so there is less for her to deal with when we’re gone. I don’t plan to be gone anytime soon.

Perhaps a few more autumn days lie ahead. The forecast looks dry through the end of this week. I took a vacation day from the home, farm and auto supply store to clean up the garden. If all goes well we’ll be able to turn inside when winter arrives in earnest.