Thursday, September 29, 2011

An eagle encounter

We drove the back roads of northeast Iowa yesterday, skirting north of Waterloo, Cedar Falls and Waverly. We speculated on whether the many large birds soaring far above us were turkey vultures or Bald Eagles.

Vultures are more common, but eagles have made a major comeback in Iowa. Along the rivers particularly, you may spot one of these great birds. Usually at a distance. In the air. Roosting at the top of a tree. Diving into the river for fish.  Barring an eagle cam like the one in Decorah that became a national phenomenon last winter, we never expect to see an eagle up close.

So imagine our surprise yesterday when we crossed a small bridge and were startled to see a Bald Eagle fly across the road directly in front of us.


It flew from near the ground - perhaps where it had been enjoying lunch - straight across the road, not twenty yards in front of us, - and off into the trees.  I'm certain I've never seen an eagle so close in the wild. I may never again, but it's not a sight I'll forget.


Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Walking for more than a cure

I joined the PurpleStride Iowa pancreatic cancer walk on Saturday, in memory of a friend who died of the disease, and to offer moral support to his wife and children.

There were hundreds of us walking the three-mile Raccoon River Park trail in West Des Moines. We shared space in the park and on the trail with PAWS for a Cause and another group of walkers supporting another disease cure.

Walks have become a popular way to raise money while raising awareness. These walks must be effective; there are more of them every year.

As I walked along with a friend who also spent her working career in marketing, we talked about the many benefits of these walks:
  • Raising money for research
  • Raising awareness of a disease
  • Showing visible support to survivors
  • Remembering a loved one
  • Getting people involved in a healthy activity
  • Enjoying a beautiful fall day
  • Getting involved in community 
Our time on the walk also gave us an opportunity to consider the impact of death and the beauty of life. When we set foot on that trail, we walked for a cure in more ways than we knew.

Monday, September 26, 2011

All community

Coffee shop. Ice cream parlor. Lunch counter. But that's the least of it.

My favorite coffee shop these days is Smokey Row just off I-235 at MLKing in Des Moines

The thing I love about Smokey Row - beyond the coffee and food and wifi and friendly, accommodating young staff (as if that wouldn't be enough!) - is that this coffee shop is a true community gathering place. Students from Drake University set up their computers for individual work or study groups. Families gather around big oak tables and play dominoes. Mothers and daughters come for lunch. Children come in after school for an ice cream or plate of Smokey Row chips. Business people come and go. The central location, just off main thoroughfares makes Smokey Row a convenient, easily accessible meeting place.

People come and hang out for hours, and that's just fine with the staff. The place is always busy, but you can always find a table.

My bible study group gathers at Smokey Row every two weeks. When I tell my husband I'm going to bible study, he's enthusiastic, 'So this is a chicken pot pie night!'  A signature dish at Smokey Row, chicken pot pie is always on the menu.

I've been to the Smokey Row in Oskaloosa and found the environment to be just the same. I can only assume the company philosophy is, 'come for the coffee, stay for the community.'

A coffee shop but a whole lot more.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Showy fall flowers

Crossword puzzle clue: Showy fall flower

Answer: Aster

Did you think asters?  Since a crossword puzzle is part of my everyday routine, 'aster' and 'showy fall flower,' are always linked in my mind. Asters are very pretty, I admit, with their yellow centers and purple petals.  But when I walk outside at this time of year, I wonder why other flowers do not vie for showy fall flower honors?

Why do the puzzle writers not think Tall Golden Rod? The fronts of golden rod are neon yellow turning to red gold and rust at this time of year.

Why don't they consider Maximilian Sunflower? Growing taller and more gangly all season, the Maximilian sunflowers now reach eight or nine feet and sport bright yellow flowers all along the stalks. Stunning.

Equally showy are the purple sweeps of hosta blooms south of my house.  A rather plain dark green hosta throughout the year, this one variety has two things to commend it. It multiplies like crazy, filling in space wherever it's planted. And when it blooms, it puts up countless stems of purple blooms.

I get it. Asters are showy fall flowers, but perhaps more important, their name includes the letters so helpful to forming other words. I just think puzzle writers and solvers would benefit from enjoying the many flowers that brighten fall gardens.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Ratatouille - the recipe

There are far more complicated recipes for Ratatouille, but here's the more simple version I used, taken from the Better Homes & Gardens New Cook Book.


2 cups cubed, peeled eggplant
1 small zucchini, halved lengthwise and cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices (1 cup)
1 - 7 1/2-ounce can tomatoes, cut up
1/2 cup finely chopped onion
2 T olive oil
2 T dry white wine or water
1/2 tsp dried basil
1/4 tsp garlic salt
1/8 tsp pepper
1/2 cup shredded Swiss cheese

In a large skilled combine eggplant, zucchini, undrained tomatoes, onion, olive oil, wine, basil, garlic salt, and pepper. Bring to boiling; reduce heat. Cover; simmer about 2- minutes or til tender. Cook, uncovered, 5 to 10 minutes more or til thickened, stirring occasionally. Sprinkle with cheese. Serves 4.

Since I believe fresh is better whenever you have it, I made several adaptations to this recipe - using fresh tomatoes, basil and garlic from our garden. I didn't have Swiss cheese, so used Mozzarella. Just as good as far as we could tell.


End of the season garden eating

The last eggplant. The last zucchini. The last onions. That's what I brought in from the garden this past week.

My mother always made soup with the last vegetables of her garden. She had so many beans, carrots and onions - even late in the season - that she canned quarts of vegetable soup to enjoy through the winter.  

With my last vegetables, I made Ratatouille. This traditional French stewed vegetable dish is definitely not something my mother would have made. Her cooking - always excellent - tended toward the more simple meat and potatoes of my father's taste. 

When I'm using the very last things from the garden - in a week when the weather went from fabulous to way too fall-ish, way too fast, I can't help but feel a sense of poignancy. Everywhere I look are signals of summer's end.

My husband is pulling up vines, taking down the garden deer fences, getting ready to plow the garden under. Only the tomatoes hang on and keep him from getting the tractor out. I passed a block of maple trees showing tinges of red. The fall prairie flowers are blooming.

The summer is coming to a close. It's all way too soon for me, this year.  I will miss walking to the garden and picking our next meal from whatever is ripe. Now my walk will be to the freezer or fruit cellar. Produce from our garden, yes, but not the same.

Ratatouille was a nice way to wrap up the garden. Until next garden year!


Sunday, September 18, 2011

Addicted to stats

My name is Carol. I'm addicted to web stats.

There. I've said it. Every day, I look at the statistics for my blog. How many visitors? Which countries do they live in? Which browsers do they use to access my site? Which posts are people reading?

My addiction began when I was in Italy. It was during that month - when I challenged myself to post every day - that more than about 10 people began to visit my site. I admit it was fun to post a story of my day's adventure and get comments. To see how many people read and when they signed on. 

Since returning to Iowa, I eased off and post 2-3 times a week. I'm delighted that some who joined me in Italy have apparently stuck around.

Just to set your minds at ease, I don't know who you are specifically, but it's fun (to me) to know that while the vast majority of readers are from the U.S., substantial numbers also read from Russia, China, and Germany. I know that my bike trail posts on the High Trestle Trail attracted many. No doubt thanks to a reTweet from a former colleague. My persistent posting about the prairie has also developed a following.

Since I don't sell things on my blog, all this info falls into the 'interesting but not particularly useful' category. If there's any payoff to me, it just to think that the ideas and information in some blogs are thought provoking or entertaining or helpful in some way to readers.

You're probably thinking, 'She doesn't have enough to do!' You may be right. I'll probably loose interest in tracking the stats. But for the time being, I'm having fun. And now that I've admitted my obsession, perhaps I can work to break it.

Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Seeing Iowa with fresh eyes

Have you noticed how when you're away from a place for a while and then come back, it all looks different? I was always struck by how our kitchen on the farm always looked so small after I'd been away at college for a few months.

I had a chance to see Iowa that way when a friend visited this week. She's a former Iowan who moved to Phoenix nearly a decade ago and now returns to Iowa in September to escape the Arizona heat. She knows Iowa and Des Moines, but after being away for a time, returning lets her - and me - see everything again for the first time.

We had a 'Bridge Day,' when we took in the developing Des Moines river walk, starting with the white pedestrian bridge to the north, walking south past the Brenton Skating Plaza to cross the red pedestrian bridge, then back north.  We enjoyed sunset and moonrise on the High Trestle Trail Bridge. My friend did not let me forget the beauty of our green trees, a feature she sorely misses in the desert southwest.

The prairie in my yard was a very short stroll that prepared us for a longer, late afternoon walk around the Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge. The muted purple and gold plumes of the grasses were highlighted by a wealth of yellow flowers. And we spotted many buffalo, some barely visible in the tall prairie grasses.

My garden was giving us all the incredible, juicy tomatoes we could want for dinner and supper. Though we never tired of those, we did venture into local restaurants like Proof where the food is as flavorful as any meal we'd ever eaten anywhere. After dinner, we strolled the Pappajohn Sculpture Park, joined by dozens of others out enjoying an incredible Iowa evening.

I have to say I was proud to spend a week touring Des Moines and central Iowa with my friend - showing her all the new sights - some that I was seeing myself for the first time. Sometimes it takes a visitor to make me really appreciate all we have here. World class art, food, attractions. That's Des Moines. That's Iowa.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Taste & smell the prairie

"Taste this," I say, pulling leaves off a small prairie plant and handing them to friends who tour my prairie.

"Taste it?" they ask, skeptical.

I nod.

With some hesitation, they do.

"It's licorice!" they exclaim.

Watching the recognition dawn on their faces is such fun. The licorice taste of a Anise Hyssop leaf surprises everyone.

The prairie surprised me this fall when it revealed a new plant. Boneset is in full bloom - a drift of fresh white flowers standing amidst the dried brown seedheads of coneflowers and black-eyed Susans. What makes this surprising is the scent.  Just like Lily of the Valley.

Prairie flowers don't have much scent - at least in my experience. So it's a treat to not only find one that does, but one that has such a pleasant, old-time fragrance.

On top of excellent taste and a romantic scent, the prairie is covered with gold - or at least it appears so with the grasses waving their green-gold and red-gold plumes in the afternoon breeze.

It may look as though the prairie is closing down for the season, but far from it.  Licorice. Lily of the Valley. Gold. When you least expect it, the prairie comes through - full of surprises.

Friday, September 9, 2011

By the light of the moon

I made a return trip to the High Trestle Trail Bridge last night - to see the sunset and experience the bridge at night. All I can say is Wow!

By day, you stand on the bridge - 70 ft. above the river - and view the expanses of the Des Moines River valley. The green of trees and grasses. Herons wading in the river. Iowa's rural beauty stretching into the distance.

As the sun sinks behind the hills, the colors mute, the landscape disappears, and the lights of the bridge illuminate.

Last night, the moon was high in the sky as the sun set. The combination of moonlight, reflection on the river, and bridge was most excellent.

By day, the view from the High Trestle Trail Bridge is rural. By night, the blue lights and angles of the bridge are distinctly urban.

The High Trestle Trail Bridge presents a blend that is truly Iowa.

Note: The HTTB is a popular spot for bicyclists and walkers on weekends and full moon nights. We'll enjoy a full moon in the next few days. Coincidentally, the Des Moines Register ran an article on the bridge in today's paper. For more information, check it out.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

No broken bones

I was on the trail and then I wasn't.

A friend and I were biking the Great Western Trail south of Des Moines yesterday. The day was beautiful - sunshine, 70's, generally level. We were chatting away one moment. The next, I'm off the trail, down a riprap embankment, splayed against a tree.

In retrospect, there's a lot of things I wish for. I wish I'd worn long pants and long sleeves. I wish I'd been paying better attention to what I was doing. I wish I had a video replay of the moment so I could know what in the heck happened!

For sure, I'm thankful for lots of things. I'm thankful I had on my helmet. I'm thankful for my friend and the two guys who stopped to see if I was okay and to help recover my bike. I'm thankful the bike was still in riding condition.

And, man-oh-man, I'm thankful for no broken bones. It could have been a whole lot worse.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Horses to Steam Engines - Doing it the old way

I had the opportunity at the Midwest Old Thresher's Reunion this past weekend to picture how farming was done 100 years ago. When horses were the most common horsepower. When the shift to machines was just beginning. When the power was steam instead of gas.

The evolution of farming from horses to machinery was fascinating to see. Horses pulled wagons loaded with shocks of wheat and barley up to the threshers.  Massive traction steam engines powered threshing machines that looked a bit like the product of Rube Goldberg's imagination.

When Mr. Van Vark of Pella - who restores traction engines - actually let me drive his 1916 Case 40 hp (for about 30 feet), he showed me how much 'play' there was in the steering wheel. I could spin the wheel two or three revolutions before the wheels began to turn. I learned that's because the steering wheel reels in chains that attach to the axle and turn the wheels - just like a man driving a team of horses would have pulled on the reins to turn the team. 

I have never seen so graphic a demonstration of the step up in technology. Inventors took the idea of steering horses and transferred that steering mechanism almost directly to the 'iron horse' of the traction steam engine.

When Mr. Van Vark put the steam engine in reverse, I was quick to turn over the steering wheel to him.  I'll take power steering any day.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

A trip down tractor lane

Just being around certain things will trigger strong memories.  I know that's how it is with farm kids and tractors. Boys or girls remember the first tractor they drove.

The Midwest Old Thresher's Reunion gave both my husband and me plenty of opportunities to remember our first tractor experiences.  My 'first' was a Farmall H.  I got to drive it for the hay wagon while my dad stacked bales. My fervent prayer was that I wouldn't 'kill it' when I let out the clutch.

My husband's 'first' was a John Deere 730. He remembers it was his first time working the clutch - much easier than the Farmall clutch, I understand. He also has fond memories for the Deere 430 he had on his acreage. Wishes he still had it.

Whenever I talk with groups about my memoir of growing up on the farm, and ask if people remember the first tractor they drove, smiles break out, heads nod, and stories start flying.

Each day of the Reunion, they hold a parade of power. People drive horses, traction steam engines, and gas-powered tractors past the grandstand. I was tickled to see kids driving tractors, with their dads standing right behind them. I just know those kids are going to remember their first tractor.