Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Spring as I've never done spring before

I now understand why so much poetry and so many songs refer to Spring as an awakening, of new things and of such great beauty. Before spring was a bittersweet season - I knew that summer was quick to come, and that my favored winter would be a long time coming back. Plus, it always bothered me that so many things were mating, and I was not. Not to say that I'm in the market for making offspring, but being here in Iowa, spring has a totally different feeling and meaning and I really like it.

When the snow melts, everything is dead and dormant. Things won't grow because the ground is frozen, the trees are skeletons of their former selves, and everything is arrested and cold. But the spring rains come, and the grass looks a little greener. And then the air gets warmer, and the grass a little greener, and then all of a sudden - in the span of just a few days - everything is green. Not only has all the dead grass been replaced, but bulbs are popping up, bushes are greening out, and flowers are blooming. People, excited for the warmth and change, are outside. People gather on porches and backyards to BBQ and sit around drinking beer. Children run around yards and ride bikes everywhere, soaking in the sun. Birds are twittering about, squirrels are teasing dogs, and I've seen quite a few bunnies. Spring has sprung.

In the middle of remnant prairie, surrounded by corn.
One of the exciting things about spring is wildflowers. On Saturday, I went early in the morning to see if some prairie crocus could be found in the oldest and best kept remnant prairie in Iowa, Hayden prairie. This prairie is named after what should be a personal hero of any woman-botanist I know, Ada Hayden. This woman was not only the first woman to receive a PhD in Biology from Iowa State University in 1918, but she spent her life attempting to preserve tall grass prairies of Iowa. What's more, because of her gender status she wasn't able to become a full professor, and her many accomplishments were never acknowledged. Despite the major disrespect, she continued to work for what she believed in, collecting over 30,000 plant specimens and writing several papers. Inspiring.

Beautiful, loamy prairie soil on the right. Corn soil on left.
The remnant prairie is surrounded by cornfields, as expected. This has been the weirdest thing to accept about nature in Iowa - it's in very close proximity to corn fields at every turn. It's strange to me to be standing in the middle of this amazing prairie and see corn fields at every edge. You can't do postage-stamp ecological restoration, this can't really be enough. But for the state of Iowa, it's all like this. Corn really is king.

I did get to explore an abandoned farm house on the way back to Decorah. I was surprised as to how much was left in it - we could figure out who had lived there before, and when the last occupants where there based on documents scattered through the house. The attic had fallen in and raccoons had made it home, but otherwise it was exciting.

However, abandoned farm houses are not what we're here to discuss.

Malanaphy springs. Awesome, right?
After checking out the still sleeping prairie (with plans to return each month to document changes), I went to Malanaphy Springs outside of town. The woods border the Upper Iowa River, and a beautiful spring lets off right at the waters edge. After wandering along a path hugged by wildflowers, you get to the springs. It's easy to climb across and down to the bottom, and it was really lovely to sit on the rocks at the rivers edge, enjoying both the river and the waterfall created by the springs. My botanist friend new the names of all the flowers and didn't mind frequent stops for pictures, closer looks, and general raptures at the beauty of it all. While relaxing by the river, every once and again a trout would spring up. It was really impressive.

While there was a week of summer like weather of 80 degree days, we're back to typical March weather - colder weather, rain, frosty mornings, and erratic, unpredictable changes. I'm coming to really like it - it's as if it takes a bit of shaking off for the earth to settle into summer, and the erratic changes reminds us dwellers to not expect too much, appreciate what is, and wait patiently for what is to come.

... and a few more pictures, because I want more pictures of pretty flowers up here.

Dutchman's britches. 

Look at all the wildflowers!

Monday, March 26, 2012

What I've been up to.

It is spring. I was told not to believe the early signs, but even the trees have given in. I spent half of Saturday looking for and marveling at wildflowers, and I have decided that spring is amazing.

But, ephemeral spring delights will be for another blog post. For now, I am long past due for a general update of what I've been up to.

First, Spring is a month early. Right now, there should be more snow and less rain. But there is rain and sunshine, and I'm not complaining. Because of this, I've been spending as much time as possible outside. Last weekend I taught a friend how to play Kubb, Saturday I went out hiking and exploring, and during the week I spend my breaks taking walks around SSE. Everything is so very green and lovely.
The maple syrup cooker.

A few weeks ago, I went to a maple syrup boiling. This is a typical March activity once the sap gets flowing in the trees. Tom, the manager for Seed Savers Exchange's commercial production, invited us all to his house where we sat around in his garage and watched sap boil. The smell was amazing, and the syrup is the best I've ever had. It takes several hours to boil the water out of the tree phloem, after weeks of collecting the sap. You can see in the pictures the contraption he set up for this, as well as the trees the sap came from in his maple bush. He's a hunter, and has kept the antlers of every buck he's shot. All sorts of new culture for me, but what's not to love about some cheap beer and good company with the smells of camp fire and the promise of maple syrup?

Last weekend there was another contra dance, and I can now confirm that I freaking love contra dances.

I am now a Neighborhood Team Leader for the Obama campaign here in Decorah, Iowa. To get here, I've made phone calls, attended a house party, and even hosted a Women for Obama house party. I'll be heading up the youth initiative, working with some students on the Luther campus as well as attempting my best to work in town. It's kind of exciting to feel like I can actually do something and make a difference when it comes to political things, and Obama is a force I believe in. The Affordable Health Care act is one major step in the right direction towards making things better. BUT, I digress - I won't be getting political on here much. You can follow my political antics on twitter by following me @christydriftles.

I'm going to be getting roommates soon! I know I've spoken highly to the merits of living alone, but when the numbers come in I can't afford my place alone. Two rather nice girls have been looking for temporary housing in town, and I have an extra bedroom and a lot of open space. Not only will the company be nice, but I'm looking forward to being able to save for a few months while still looking for a smaller and cheaper place to live (which is rather difficult when you have a dog).

Also, I now have an official Iowa drivers license and license plates. I even got a fancy plate, paying the extra money to support Iowa Natural Resources. Iowa needs all it can get to preserve natural habitats, less than 1% of this land is devoted to it. But that, too, is for another blog post! What we have here, really, is me becoming a real Iowan. Or at least pretending in a more convincing way.

Welcome to spring, and my backyard.
On Sunday, I went to a Methodist church (I've tried Lutheran, Congregational Church of Christ and Unitarian Universalist ... you could say that I've been exploring my spirituality), then afterwards headed out to Castalia, Iowa to go to Greens' Sugar Bush. Here, they make a lot of maple syrup, and every year they host a massive all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast for $6. REALLY good syrup and pancakes, with maple sausages and applesauce. It was well worth the hour wait in line, and seeing the kids running around, riding horses and everyone interacting all friendly like was awesome. People come from miles around. As if my day couldn't be fuller, I went to see Hunger Games (they actually showed a movie on it's opening weekend in Decorah, and one that I wanted to see!) and a BBQ after full of dogs and co-workers. Nice way to have a weekend, eh?

Life has been busy in a very good way. Everything is waking up and so many things are happening ... I really like it. And I like that, unlike before, all of this new and change is a lot more manageable. It really is an exciting adventure, where I'm experiencing all kinds of new things in a magical almost child-like way. I'm enjoying this approach to life.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

An early spring in March.

This has been a particularly weird winter. Very warm, with (most likely) a record number of days above freezing. It's been the perfect weather to break myself into a new place - to make me think I can handle the snow, cold, and ice. Nothing I'm really complaining about.

And now that March is here, spring is too. I keep hearing that it shouldn't be spring - that there should still be snow, that this weather is off. We had a day or so of spring like weather, and several days of mud. Things get muddy in March - the snow melts, and the water doesn't have anywhere to go when the ground is still frozen. But the muddiness has stopped as the ground has thawed and it is spring.

Spring does not feel or look the same as spring in California, which has really been throwing me off. First, as it's warming up it's a tad bit humid. Not very much, but yesterday it was 80 with 45% humidity. The air felt warm, which is a nice feeling after months of cold. But I'm used to cool air and warm sunshine, and everyone says the humidity is only going to get better - just wait until all that corn is green.

Here, birds actually migrate - so noticing the first robin is kind of a big deal. I saw mine two weeks ago, and now they're everywhere. Not all the migratory birds are back, but it's nice to hear chirping in the morning and notice all the new sounds around.

Bulbs have been popping up all over my yard, which is fun because I had no idea they were there. I'm curious what their flowers will look like. In a few weeks when more bulbs come up, I'm going to get to explore some flowering prairies - I'm ridiculously excited about that.

Some trees are pushing buds, but I've heard that it'll take a few more months for them to leaf out. Which, again, is another weird thing for me. It feels like spring, it sounds like spring, but it does not look like spring. Yes, the grass is green again and some buds and bulbs are pushing upwards, but the trees are bare and the tall grasses are still brown and dead. My mind cannot handle these mismatched inputs - brown grasses mean summer, and spring should have green trees.

One thing, however, that is universal to spring wherever I am is the Great Shedding of Bailey, and this has begun with full force. Bailey has a lot of fur, and it's everywhere - despite how much I brush that dog. I did get her a lyme disease vaccination in anticipation of the increased number of ticks this year due to the light winter. Ticks! She already had one a few weeks ago, and those things are gross.

Spring has sprung, and I'm anxious for it to be green. I've started to talk about spring plans with friends to see prairies, and summer plans to camp all around Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. It makes me incredibly excited for things to green up, for these days to come, for me to explore. Which means should it get gloomy again, which it will, my mind won't be able to handle it. Gloomy rains make me feel like winter is here, even though rains signal spring. Another mismatched input ... my brain needs a rewiring to understand this weather. Who knew adjusting to spring would be harder than adjusting to winter?

Speaking of weather - apparently it can be sunny one minute, raining the next, then sunny again. March is notoriously fickle, and not one day on the forecast has been correct. Play nice, March. Play nice.

Cabin on the SSE property. It's gonna be gorgeous when those trees are green.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A visit with Gillian!

Gillian and I at Pike's Peak
This past weekend, Gillian visited me from DC for her spring break - and we had a fantastic few days.

On the Mississippi
On Saturday, we were lucky enough to have sunny weather on our visit to the Effigy Mounds. This is a National Park in Iowa that has preserved ceremonial and sacred sites affiliated with 12 American Indian tribes. The mounds are pretty awesome, made in the shape of animals with an excellent view of the Mississippi. To enjoy the Mississippi further, we visited Pike's Peak which overlooks where the Wisconsin River joins the Mississippi. It doesn't have the hiking that the Effigy Mounds do, but the overlook is impressive and we did find an iced over waterfall that Tor and Steffen attempted to dislodge. On our way to Prairie du Chien in Wisconsin, we stopped to hike around one of the islands in the river - which ended up being a fantastic idea because the river was still frozen in parts and I really enjoy the idea of being on ice in large bodies of water. Plus, I found a fresh water clam! It's the little things, really.

In Prairie du Chien, we found a pub that had the best cheese curds I've ever tasted. The batter was effortlessly light and the cheese was excellently cheesy. It's hard to go wrong with cheese curds, but these were really good. And the beer - Wisconsin can do beer. After a delicious meal we decided to adventure by driving onto one of the river islands to see if people really lived on them, and then stopped to swing in a park. I love swings, and I love that my friends indulge me by, without question, stopping at some randomly creepy park to swing. Back in Iowa, we decided to check out a river boat casino that had a gigantic pink elephant outside. Inside the casino it was actually quite depressing - but the elephant was awesome. And we were all impressed by the amount of cars in the parking lot.

Gillian meeting Tor's goats
On Sunday, Gillian and I had a lazy and comfortable day. We visited Seed Savers Exchange and Gillian met Tor's goats. We baked bread, made delicious turnovers and risotto, took Bailey for a walk, and watched a lot of Parks and Recreation. It was fantastic. To enjoy Decorah a little more, on Monday we went to lunch in town, stopped in some of the cute shops downtown, and even saw the Ice Cave north of town. The ice cave is pretty awesome actually - the geology of the bluffs creates ice inside the cave during the summer. On Tuesday, Gillian relaxed while I spent my work day pruning grapes (yes - I get to work with grapes in Iowa too!), and then I had to take her to Rochester so she could head home ... which was rather sad.

It was really awesome to have Gillian visit, and to show off what little I know about Iowa. With friends close by and with plenty more to see, I'm sure Iowa will lure her back. Or rather, Iowasota - the part of Iowa that's basically considered a part of Minnesota. It is in my head, at least.