December 26, 2004

Family, home resurrects quiet appreciation of life

Holidays remind us of the value of home - for even if we do not experience the coziness of family gathered in the living room, perhaps about the Christmas tree or with the Menorah lit in the window, we take great joy at finally returning to our own cabin, where the noise of relatives disappears and peace can be found.

Such silence struck me a few weekends ago when visiting my brother. As the family genealogist, I drove my 5-year-old nephew around the county to show him our ancestors' old haunts, at least on the patriarchal branches of the tree. His parents appreciated the quiet.

So did I - once we reached the cabin that our great-great-grandfather had built. He'd settled in one of the last places west where you could build in a woods before the whole continent opened onto a sea of grass.

No trace of the cabin exists these days but its foundations, and only the remnants of a fence guided us along the overgrown trails to its wooded burial place. I recalled it in better shape - my great-uncle, a man with a Walt Whitman beard, lived there into his 90s, and I remember briefly visiting him as a child, when the house stood on its last splinters.

Chunks were missing in the stones that formed the cabin's base, and swatches of wily shrubs concealed most of them. Tucked into a hollow, only the occasional rustle of evergreen boughs and our own breathing could be heard.

As my nephew crawled about the stones, thinking it a grand adventure (he must have fancied it some great fort), I kept my mind on more practical, adult matters: A cabin there must have been quite wet - but I soon saw the builder was ingenious enough to ward against that; the foundation sat on a rectangular area raised slightly higher than the rest of the forest floor. Their lawn probably was leaves and roots rising out of the dirt, or at least the woods had reclaimed it.


Out on the windswept plains, the only timber most pioneers could find outlined the occasional creek. Some-times when a homesteader claimed his stake, for lumber he'd simply dismantle his wagon that very first night he arrived.

"In every case the pioneer's first thought was to prepare a home," wrote Mildred Sharp in a 1921 recollection of her days as a young girl with homesteading parents, now collected in the Iowa History Project. "It would be a dwelling place for his family, a fortress against the Indians, a nucleus for civilization. Under these conditions building the cabin came to be an event of great importance and produced a thrill of pleasure that could hardly be understood by those who had never suffered the same privations."

Of course, such structures hardly compare to our houses of today with several bedrooms, formal dining rooms and finished basements. Indeed, when Robert Lucas, Iowa Territory's first governor arrived in Iowa City during 1839, he set up his headquarters in the lodging room of our town's most commodious cabin: An attic reachable only by ladder through a small opening in the floorboards.


When my nephew grew tired of defending the hollow against the barbaric hordes, we headed back up the trail.

I imagined my great-great-grandfather as a young man, his family on Christmas morning eating corn bread and bacon (a delicious baked bean recipe survives from my great-grandmother who grew up there, but I do not know if it's her own invention or a tradition she continued). They shared presents - likely simple gifts such as a rag doll for the little girl, a sled for her brother, made or stuffed with the pine wood and needles nearby.

A great noise of joy must have filled that cabin.

(originally published Dec. 26, 2004)

December 21, 2004

When the deceitfulness of riches proves unfruitful

My mother had warned me not to expect too much for Christmas that year. Overhearing my parents' conversations, I understood that milk prices were low and that the cash crops had barely paid for thoughts. The low, hesitant tone of my mother's voice also told me she was a little ashamed to tell her child such a thing.

I suppose it's also why we didn't put up the Christmas tree the first week of Decem-ber as our family always had. Whenever my younger brother or I asked about the tree, my mother would quickly look busy and say we just didn't have time that day but maybe we'd put it up on the weekend.

Then, seven days before Christmas as my brother and I watched a television holiday special in the living room, we suddenly realized that both of us were staring at the picture window where the tree always stood.

I decided enough was enough. "Hey, let's go get the Christmas tree," I said to my brother.

His face lit up.


Being 11 years old, I was just young enough to do something so audacious. My brother, being five, didn't yet have enough self-restraint to talk me out of it.

So we crept up the stairs and quietly opened the attic door. Our parents had purchased an artificial tree, which was all the rage. I suppose there was something neat about a tree that always stayed green, left no needles on the carpet and so easily folded into a compact box. It also lacked any scent and didn't appear like any evergreen I was familiar with; I guess some market sudy determined that the Manitoba fir is a maximum number of shoppers' ideal of a Christmas tree.

To a kid, though, even an artificial Christmas tree is preferable to none at all.

So while our mom worked in the kitchen, we slid the tree box down the stairs. I showed my brother how he should match up the colors on the branches' hooked end with the color slot on the tree pole. After that, we fluffed the twigs and needles to give the boughs body.

Scrambling back to the attic, we started looking for the ornaments. Being farmers, my parents had a simplistic idea of what should go on a tree; a string of lights and glass bulbs were good enough. I found the lights tangled in a large ball atop an old armoire, and then my brother said, "Oh, no."

He gazed forlornly at the floor. The box holding the glass bulbs lay upside down.

Kneeling, I turned the box over but knew just as he did that the bulbs probably were shattered. Sometime during the past year, they must had fallen off the pile of boxes. Sure enough, only three of the 18 had survived the crash.


"What're we going to do?" my brother said. "We can't have a tree Christmas tree with only lights."

I glanced away, trying to think of something comforting to say. My eyes settled on the small attic window, the only form breaking the white glare the tip of a distant pine that stood near the cornfield.

And then it came to me.

We tossed on our snowsuits, rubber boots, stocking caps and mittens and went outside. My brother and I collected fallen pinecones in a paper bag. Inside, after mom had discovered our assembled tree, she gave us some brown thread from her sewing basket. The two of us carefully strung the thread around each cone's pith and attached them to the boughs.

We had a Christmas tree of lights, three glass bulbs and several, wonderfully scented pinecones.


That winter, quite a number of dairy farmers, including two of our neighbors, went out of business. My father remained determined to hang on, though, and the next spring milk prices rose. Then a drought hit the West, and my father got a good price for his alfalfa, soybeans and corn.

Still, my parents didn't talk with any glee when a Nebraska cattle rancher paid us twice the going rate for 200 hay bales that November. They knew how close they'd come to folding just a year before.

Our Christmases got better, too; for a few years, our parents lavished gifts upon my brother and I as if to make up for the one bad year.

But that single difficult Christmas taught me a powerful lesson: The cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches does prove unfruitful.

And that was among the greatest gifts I've ever received.

(originally published Dec. 21, 2003)

December 14, 2004

Cracking eggs - and prices - this holiday season

Among the many skills for which I particularly admire my mother and my wife is their ability to gracefully crack eggs.

Nimbly holding the white oval in their fingers, they'll tap it once against a bowl's rim and before the sticky yolk spews out, raise the two part shell so all that's inside plops instantly upon the flour. Then with a slight twist of the thumb, half of the shell slips into the other, as if pieces of a matryoshka doll set.

In home economics, I also learned how to crack eggs, except my brownies and omelets usually included some tiny shell fragment. After my army days, I determined that one could literally crush the egg open, and if quick enough with the wrist, the yolk and its white would hit the target - without any shells and without any of the egg's inside sliming one's hand.

It was brutal, but these days so is the price of eggs.


Since May, the cost of eggs has risen sharply. By November, supermarket prices for Grade A eggs reached a national average of $1.20 a dozen - a third more than a year ago - the Agriculture Department says. Some Boston supermarket chains are charging $1.79 a dozen.

That's sort of good news for Iowa. As America's leading producer of eggs, our state delivers roughly 1 of every 6 of the nation's table eggs.

Driving the prices is a tight supply of eggs and stronger demand. Con-sumers eat more eggs on av-erage than a decade ago.

Consumption tapered beginning in the 1980s when scientists questioned whether eggs contributed to heart problems. Wholesale prices fell dramatically, and some farmers went out of business; the number of egg producers in Johnson County alone fell from 104 in 1992 to 65 in 1997, the most recent year for which the Iowa Agricultural Statistics Service has available numbers.

But when a 1999 Harvard study concluded that a daily egg did not contribute significantly to heart disease, consumers started frying more than just bacon while restaurants offered new breakfast sandwiches featuring eggs. The protein-heavy Atkins and South Beach diets also have gained in popularity, further boosting egg sales. Meanwhile, avian influenza struck European chickens, providing the United States with an opportunity to in-crease its foreign market share.

Iowa's farmers now are churning out 30 million more eggs a month than a year ago.


The downside for consumers is that higher egg prices will hurt bakeries, restaurants, college cafeterias, public schools and companies that make egg-based products such as mayonnaise and salad dressings. Eggs also are an important ingredient in many easy-to-make food products and baked goods, meaning that consumers can expect to see higher prices at grocery stores.

Because Iowa is a center of egg production, we may be buffered from the most severe increases. Still, chain restaurant prices for dishes often are standard across the nation, so if egg prices remain high, expect to soon pay a little more, even here.

It probably won't be enough of a price hike to keep us home. Though there is something to be said for making one's own omelet or cookies from scratch - assuming you don't have any eggshells in them.


For the serious minded, the numbers raise a question: Will higher egg prices boost the state's declining rural economies, considering most production facilities are located in economically weak regions, such as Estherville, Lenox and Sioux Center? It certainly will help, but the state's diverse agricultural economy, which shields against a total crash should a lone crop or livestock suffer, also prevents a single crop or livestock from raising prospects too considerably.

Meanwhile, new federal regulations require egg farms to reduce the number of hens per cage; meeting those demands as farmers expand production may offset some of the profit gains.

They might be wise not to.

For the moment, tight demand is proving beneficial; some New England egg producers, for example, say they're being paid the highest prices in half a century.

Overproduction, after all, has been the bane of farmers trying to get a good price for corn, milk and sugar - so much so that the federal government is compelled to subsidize farmers and even pay them to take cornfields and other land out of production.


Sometimes, when driving and getting hungry for an old-fashioned cake like my mother once made or the Norwegian krumkake my wife stirs up each Christmas, I imagine them at work on their masterpieces: setting out all the ingredients, pouring an unmeasured amount of sugar and melted butter into a bowl, then cracking an egg open over it.

At that point, my mind usually gets stuck in a feedback loop as I ponder the secret of their method: Is it better dexterity? Greater confidence in their abilities? A sixth sense?

Perhaps, like today's consumers, it's simply a more relaxed attitude toward the egg.

(originally published Dec. 14, 2003)

December 05, 2004

When our familiar patterns face change

Back in fifth grade when studying "world" history, an astonishing revelation came to me: People didn't always use crop rotation.

It sounds mundane, I know. But the notion that you have to switch which plants grow in your field from year to year just came naturally to this farm kid. One year corn towered over the field behind our house, by late summer blocking the long vista to the woods along the creek; the next year, it was squat soybeans then the following spring alfalfa or oats, which upon reaching maturity undulated like a sea against the shore of our lawn.

Medieval Europeans figured out this simple system of renewing the soil because some crops pull large amounts of nutrients from the dirt. It transformed their lives. Before then, serfs grew whatever they liked on the land and let livestock graze it when fallow.

• • •

Crop rotation marks cycles that can last three or four years. It's a subtle symbol of tradition's strength in rural areas. All of us recognize monthly moon phases and the annual play of seasons, but crop rotation goes beyond that. The corn behind my house rose the summer before third grade, the one before seventh and the one before 11th. Mathematicians may delight that those are prime numbers (meaning they're only divisible by two numbers). Every year, the "largest" prime is found; so far, the largest is 6,320,430 digits long and was determined just last year.

People didn't always know about prime numbers, either. Euclid "discovered" them in 350 B.C. But they also altered people's lives, though more ours than the ancients. We use them in computing and cryptography.

• • •

Much of life, interestingly, is a puzzle to be solved. As toddlers we must grasp language. As school children we tussle with social hierarchies. By our teen years, it's romance and the other gender. In adulthood, it's the politics of the work place. In the farm field, it's outguessing the weather.

For each of these, we turn to models. What does the older sibling, classmate or colleague do? We plow through experts' books and hear consultants speak. We gaze up at the sky and know that certain clouds and the feel of the wind from a certain direction signal rain.

Some despair this fact of existence - and our puzzles can at times be frustrating to the point that one turns red. Though the rest of the world moves along, fear of change rules some people's day.

Such fright isn't necessarily of the future but of the repudiation of what we've become comfortable with. Once the puzzle seems to make sense, changing means new solutions must be learned. I know. Corn should have grown behind my house when I was a junior in college because that's the pattern I'd learned.

But that year my father changed up the crop rotation and the field lay fallow. The soil needed more nourishment. That wasn't too difficult to grasp. After all, there always is one larger prime number to discover.

(originally published Dec. 5, 2004)

December 03, 2004

Thank cold weather for our livelihood

This past week, winter's first real snows fell upon Iowa City. To the fanciful at heart, crunching footsteps across the white is a bit like returning to the Ice Age, that time when humanity relied on mammoth and flint spears to survive. A snap of cold wind crystallizes your breath, and you really do wish for a thick fur to pull over your head.

Some scientists say we've never really left the Ice Age, that we're just at the cycle's warm end. For the past 1.8 million years, the snows and glaciers have charged then retreated across the Northern Hemisphere 17 times.

Indeed, just 100 centuries ago - barely a fraction of the time that the earth has been around - huge glaciers dipped into north central Iowa until finally melting and creating the landscape we know today.


Sometime around 13,000 years ago, the Des Moines glacier lobe stalled in the region as the climate temporarily warmed. Meltwater floods washed open valleys to the south, creating glacial lakes.

As the water evaporated and drained off, our state's greatest inland river basins - the Iowa, Boone, Des Moines, Big Sioux, Rac-coon, Skunk, Little Sioux and Winnebago - formed.

The enormous ice sheets departed Iowa some 5,000 years later, leaving flat tundra covered by a muddle of clay, sand, gravel and boulders. Out of the west, wind blew glacial dust, also known as loess, across much of southern Iowa, forming the soil upon which we plant our corn and soybean fields today. Along the Missouri River, some loess piled into bluffs.

But 10,000 years wasn't enough time for the meltwater to flow out. In north central Iowa, some of it settled upon the plain in swamps. The state's earliest settlers drained those wetlands, making the land good for farming and villages. Pio-neers created the channels that Mother Nature was still working on.


But good farmland and the rivers our cities now hug is not all the last Ice Age left us.

The state's northeast corner remained uncovered by glaciers, allowing the Iowa Pleistocene snail to eke out a living for more than 400,000 years in that part of the world. It's very existence to-day relies upon rocks that the last Ice Age's cold crack-ed open; thousands of years ago, meltwater drained into the fissures and froze be-neath the ground, creating a habitat that's still frigid even in our summer's heat.

For the Iowa Pleistocene snail, no bigger in diameter than a shirt button, it's perfect quarters. Unfortunately, it's a shrinking environment. The snail can only be found on 37 algific talus slopes in Iowa and Illinois.

Its existence is as dependent as ours is on what the Ice Age left behind.


As glaciers did not cover all of Iowa during the last Ice Age, humanity was able to subsist below those mountains of compacted snow. More than 200 Clovis and Folsom points - stone tools of flint from before 10,800 B.C. - have been found in Iowa.

Living near streams or rivers, these first Iowans ate deer and small mammals, fished and picked berries - not unlike many of the first pioneers as they waited for their first crops to rise from the fertile soil. But Stone Age Iowans also hunted large game such as mammoth, mastodon, caribou and an extinct form of bison.

Some conjecture that these early humans caused each of these giant beasts to become extinct, just as modern Europeans exterminated passenger pigeons and dodo birds. Perhaps. Most likely the dramatic shift in climate did in these creatures. Could an Arctic polar bear, after all, survive in modern Iowa?

In any case, Stone Age Iowans did not know of guns, axes and plows. Such tools allowed humanity to prosper only in the Ice Age's aftermath.


Mother Nature may yet have her way with us, though.

Most gaps between glac-iation have lasted only 8,000-12,000 years. We're overdue for another Ice Age.

Following a cooling of average temperatures from 1940 to 1975, many scientists and environmentalists predicted during the '70s that the 18th Ice Age was upon us. These days, though, apocalypse takes the shape of global warming.

Ironically, if we are warming the earth, that nightmare may help us avert the next onslaught of glaciers. Perhaps the question before us is which will be the lesser of two evils: adapting to a cold planet or to a hot one?

As you enjoy your coffee while the flakes swirl on the window's other side, it is something to contemplate.

(originally published Dec. 7, 2003)