Friday, July 29, 2011

Fire up your keyboard

If you write fiction - or want to give it a shot - consider entering the 2nd Annual Montezuma All-Iowa Writers' Conference Fiction Writing Contest.

In addition to the adulation of your peers, and the right to promote yourself as an award-winning writer, you may win cash! First prize takes home $100.

Manuscripts must be 2,500 words or less, postmarked by Sept. 1, 2011. Winners will be announced at the 2011 Writers Conference on Sept. 17. You don't need to be present to win.

For more details on both the contest and the conference, check out

In the interest of full disclosure, I'll be speaking at the Conference on Sept. 17.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The time for Monarchs

Monarch butterflies began to arrive in our gardens this past week. They are most active late in the afternoon, when they flit from flower to flower, alighting particularly often on purple coneflowers.

The colors of one monarch I spotted were faded. Pieces of its wings were missing. Its flight pattern was slow and halting. Knowing that the life cycle of butterflies is only 2-5 weeks, I anticipate that this lovely creature had only a short while to live.

Meanwhile, others sported bright colors and vigorous flight. A pair cavorted in the air, coming together in a playful pattern likely to ensure the next generation.

In another month, the monarchs will begin their long and famous migration to Mexico.  These amazing creatures fly 1,500 - 2,000 miles over six weeks. Recently I learned that the final generation of monarchs born in the late summer has a life span of 8-9 months - just so they can make this very long journey.

Iowa is part of the butterfly flyway to Mexico. The shape and formation of the Loess Hills are especially favorable for butterfly flight because the hills produce strong wind currents that help the butterflies along their way.

I am hopeful that the prairie flowers in our yard, along with the water dishes we maintain, will encourage more butterflies to stop in for a visit in their long migration south. is a great source for monarch info.

Bon voyage, my pretty friends!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Work of Wolves

Our book club just discussed The Work of Wolves by Kent Meyers. Described as 'an expansive novel of great emotional depth,' this book delivers a powerful read.

Set in South Dakota, the author establishes the conflict between a powerful and evil rancher and a teenaged boy with an uncommon understanding and focus for horses. Their drama draws in two  native American teenagers struggling with cross cultural challenges on and off the reservation and a German exchange student uncovering his own legacy from WWII to weave a powerful story exploring themes of fathers/sons, spirituality, love/cruelty and more.

Recommended by Nancy Simpson of the Book Vault in Oskaloosa, The Work of Wolves is one of the best books I've read this year.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The prairie loves heat

As the temperatures and humidity soared this past week, I took refuge in the luxury of air conditioning. From air conditioned house to air conditioned car to air conditioned offices. I got there as fast as I could. 

I looked at my prairie from afar - safely in my air conditioned office - but never once ventured out to take a close look. From afar, I could see the prairie was awash in yellow and purple. When the heat finally broke - meaning it got below 95 - I took my camera and went for a stroll.

Apparently the prairie thrives in hot weather. Brilliant colors. New flowers. Reaching new heights. Cup plants towered over the prairie. Purple and Grey-headed coneflowers competed for the title of most beautiful.  Sawtooth sunflowers were striking in their pure yellowness. I identified my first Blue Vervain (though this picture is a Hoary Vervain).

This past winter, I marveled at how the prairie stood against winter winds and driving snow storms. I'm just as impressed that it thrives when the temperatures soar and the rains stop.  Fortunately the prairie has more fortitude than I.

You go, prairie!

Friday, July 22, 2011

Riding historic rails

In 1915, you could catch a train within 12 miles, anywhere in Iowa.

In the heyday of Iowa train travel, you could ride an hourly commuter train between Boone and Des Moines. In Des Moines, you caught a trolley car to your destination.

In those days, passenger trains traveled at speeds up to 100 mph. In those days, men might commute to town each day to work, but 'nice young women' might not.

I learned this history when I took a ride this week on the Boone and Scenic Valley Railroad 1920's Excursion Train in Boone, Iowa. I bought my ticket in the original depot and boarded a train car that had 1920's era bench seats with backs that flipped back and forth so you could always face forward. We inched our way across an extremely high bridge that had me gripping the window frame for dear life as I peered down into the valley, even though there was no way I could have fallen out.

As I write historical fiction set in the early 1900s, it helps me to see what people saw, experience what they did. The day was exceedingly hot - one of those high temperature-high humidity days that gripped the Midwest this summer. As a breeze through the open-air car ruffled my hair and offered a breath of relief from the heat, I thought of travelers at the turn of the 20th Century. I'm sure they were not wearing shorts and tank tops!

Cars spelled the end of convenient passenger train travel for Iowans and many others in the United States.  I would love to see passenger train travel become a reality in Iowa again. Perhaps with climate-controlled cars.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Stepping back in time

I always enjoy a walk down memory lane. One reason is you never know where the walk is going to take you.

Yesterday, I joined a friend and her mother in Boone, Iowa, where her mother grew up and where my friend had many memories of her grandparents. We circled each house and they recalled the rooms behind each window, the trees in the yard, games played in a lot that was vacant 60 years ago and remains vacant today.

Going back home releases memories from deep recesses. As we drove past churches, the park, the library, 'Mom' talked about games she played, boys she dated, the man she married. Boone is also the birthplace of former first lady Mamie Eisenhower. And what do you know? Mom had a story about her family connection to Mrs. Eisenhower.

When I asked about electricity and in-door plumbing, she said yes, she'd had all that growing up in town in the 30s, but she recalled visiting her grandparents who lived outside of town in a railroad car. With an outhouse. That really smelled.

My friend had never heard before about her great grandparents who lived in a railroad car. I'm sure that's a story they'll talk about again.

Those old stories are just waiting to be told. If we trigger the memories. A trip home can really let the memories flow.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Can you identify this flower?

The prairie always gives me something new to look at. But often I'm not sure what it is I'm seeing.  Here's my latest puzzle.

I realize the challenge picking out the flower and foliage from all the green. I've looked in my trusty Tallgrass Prairie Wildflower book and the closest I can come is Showy Tick Trefoil.

There are some inconsistencies between what I see in the picture in the book and what I see in real life. My prairie plant is taller than the 2-4' the book describes.  Also, while the leaves on my prairie plants are 'alternate, short-stalked, beanlike' as the book describes, they are also much longer than in the picture - 2-3 times as long.

Since I'm new to this whole prairie thing (I count three years as 'new'), I'm hoping one of you in the blogosphere will be able to help.

Or, if you're more into photography and can give me advice on how to make one green plant differentiate itself from all the surrounding green plants, I'd be grateful for those tips, too!


Monday, July 11, 2011

Coneflowers = Happy Memories

One of the delights in the prairie this year is how many more of certain types of flowers there are than there were last year. Gray-headed and purple coneflowers are two particularly beautiful examples. 

Last year, there were a handful of each type. This year, they are everywhere. Gray-headed coneflowers can grow quite tall - 5-6 ft. - and the flowers wave on slender, fragile-looking stalks. Whenever anyone sees them the first time, they are surprised, as I was, at the name. Instead of the dull image implied by the name, the petals are yellow and look like a summer skirt, flowing down from the center. It's a bit of a stretch to say that center is gray, but it's certainly not as dark as the center of a black-eyed Susan. The petals of purple coneflowers also hang down from their burnished red/gold centers, but not so gracefully as the yellow petals.

These gray-headed coneflowers remind me of the hollyhocks that grew on our farm. As little girls, my sisters and I spent many happy hours fashioning the hollyhock blossoms as skirts for clothespin dolls. I don't have hollyhocks in my garden, but my son does.  I hope his daughters have fun playing dress up hollyhocks like I did. 

And when they come to visit our prairie, we'll gather coneflowers to build more happy memories.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Prairie diversity - I'm giddy!

Rattlesnake Master  - Neal Smith NWR
This spring, a plant looking very much like some variety of thistle showed up in my prairie. The spines along it's slender leaves tempted me, but I exercised remarkable-for-me restraint in not pulling it up.

The plant has started to form flower buds and I am giddy with delight to realize this thistle-like plant is actually a Rattlesnake Master. The seed mix I planted said it was in there, but who knows whether the conditions would be right for it to actually grow? And if it did grow, would it be in year 1 or year 2 or year 3 or sometime later?

Ever since I saw the alien-looking 'flowers' of the Rattlesnake Master on one of my first trips to the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, I've been hoping for one in my prairie.

When I described the prickly white, golf-ball sized flowers to my husband, he didn't understand what the fuss was about. It's certainly not the prettiest flower in the prairie. But it is unusual, unexpected and remarkable in its differences. And in my prairie, it's New!

I wouldn't want an entire prairie made up of this plant, but I wouldn't want an entire prairie of any one plant. The diversity of prairie plant life is one of the things that makes every walk in the prairie a treasure. Thank goodness I didn't pull up what looked like a thistle and in doing that deprive myself of another example of prairie uniqueness.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Rolling through the summer

Biking in Italy was excellent training for Iowa. I didn't huff and puff on my trusty red one-speed for nothing. That old baby prepared me well.  When I take to my neighborhood streets, these days on an 18-speed, I feel as though I'm going downhill all the way.

Not really!  Pleasant Hill doesn't have 'hill' in its name for nothing. But I have yet to get off and push, and that makes me feel strong.

Many thanks to area car and truck drivers. Not once have I felt threatened by anyone coming upon me too fast or brushing too close. I'm returning the favor by signaling turns, obeying all stop signs and lights, and staying aware. I trust we'll continue to co-exist peacefully and safely.

Happy biking to everyone as we roll through summer!