At the Root of Things


March 9, 2017 - The Birds & the Trees: Revisiting Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring 


It’s almost officially spring! As the season turns, many of us nature-lovers anticipate our favorite birdsongs. Whether it be the calming tweet of the American goldfinch or the alarming chirrup of the robin, many Iowa birds are beginning to make their call to nature and we can’t help but listen.

It hasn’t always been as easy to tune into nature, though. In 1962 Rachel Carson’s eye-opening book Silent Spring brought the decline of nature to the public eye. In the chapter titled “And No Birds Sing,” Carson gives accounts of local Midwesterners who noticed a sharp decrease in the bird population following the mass spraying of elm trees in 1958. Indiscriminate and ill-timed spraying of trees, though a popular means of pest control, negatively affected the surrounding wildlife and the trees themselves. 

So what happened, exactly? The chemicals stayed in the leaves and the bark of the trees and, come fall, the poisoned leaves fell to the ground and decomposed into soil. The chain-reaction continued: earthworms lived in the poisoned soil and became poisoned themselves, birds ate the earthworms, and birds died because of the potency of the chemical in their bodies. Fortunately, since Carson’s book made the impact of spraying known, different practices are used today to control pests and bird populations are not harmed as they were then.

Silent Spring is a great reminder of the importance of evolving ecological practices. It’s easy to take for granted the major importance of trees to our experience and enjoyment of spring. Trees provide an excellent habitat for birds, helping them create secure homes, raise young, and find food. Find out more about birds and what you can do to protect them at And on March 20th when you hear your favorite bird celebrating the first day of the new season, be sure to thank the trees for their integral role in our enjoyment of spring.



February 9, 2017 - Good Things Happen WhenYou Think of Others First


After 50 years of living separate lives, high school sweethearts Barb Moine and Steve Gustafson reunited and got married. Their love story is one example of how community projects – such as Iowa’s Living Roadways Community Visioning – bring people together.

When Barb and Steve went to the high school prom together in the 1960s, Nashua, Iowa, was a vibrant community with four grocery stores, multiple gas stations, a clothing store and more. It was a central hub for nearby smaller communities. Like so many rural-America small towns, the social fabric changed in the following decades.

The interstate rerouted traffic around town. Rural communities became smaller as people moved to bigger cities, and many of the people who stayed in the rural towns commuted to more urban areas. Baby boomers like Barb and Steve watched these trends with their own eyes as they moved on in life. After high school, the couple went their separate ways. Steve’s career in corporate legal management took him all around the world, while Barb worked in education as a teacher and then a principal. Each raised families with a boy and a girl, and those children grew and now have their own children.

Their love story was put on hold for decades until a scary turn of events. Steve was a retiree in Florida when his dog was attacked by an alligator. He successfully fought back and then a barrage of reporters flocked to him. Some of their questions struck a deeper chord, and Steve started to reanalyze his life and “his purpose.”

“You almost kill yourself doing something like that,”Steve explains. “It was just the event that got my attention… Then there was a conversation focusing on ‘what are you going to do with your life and what contributions are you going to give to your community?’”

During a visit to his hometown of Nashua, he found that purpose. He noted to an old friend that Nashua had the “ugliest downtown in northeast Iowa,” and his friend pointed out several assets the community did have – such as a wellness center, welcome center, good quality schools and a beautiful lake surrounded by trees! His friend told him that the town needed leadership and enthusiasm.

“I can supply the enthusiasm!” Steve responded. He immediately started to identify and contact individuals who were “actually getting things done.” One of those people happened to be Barb’s son, a local architect. Barb invited Steve over to her house to see some of her son’s handiwork, and suddenly they picked up where they left off five decades ago.


Steve says things came together after a series of “miniature miracles,” and most importantly the community came together.

“When you reach out to the community, there are many, many more people than you would ever imagine who are willing to step up. They just want to be asked, and they need to be asked with some enthusiasm,” Steve said.

This trend with volunteers in small towns is not unique to Nashua. Iowa State University recently surveyed more than 27,000 Iowans from small towns to get a picture of community life. Thirty-four percent of those polled said they are not involved in community projects because they are not asked to volunteer!

Nashua applied for Iowa’s Living Roadways Community Visioning, and new leadership took the ideas and ran with them. With new faces came new ideas.

“If you’re involved in developing something, then you’re going to be more apt to support it, and I think that’s what we’re seeing.”Barb said.

People are often scared of change, but Steve and Barb believe it’s a good thing.


As the keynote speaker at the Iowa’s Living Roadways Celebration, Julianne Couch, wrote in her book, “Everyday, through acts of stubborn resilience, this region seems poised to reinvent itself, to grow new hope, to teach new lessons. Those lessons may be as simple as finding resilience through thinking locally but acting as a collective, being mindful that even long traditions are not infinite.” Trees Forever programs help small communities struggling to stay vital during an era of changing social trends. Throughout this Leaflet, you’ll see many communities that are staying resilient, and Trees Forever and partners help them through this planning process.

“I worked for the last 30 years with major corporations and I’ve seen a lot of good processes. The process that Trees Forever and partners have developed is as perfect as anything I’ve seen,” Steve advises.“Follow the process, trust the process, and it will work for the community.”



November 14, 2016 – Work Day Success

Faulkes Heritage Woods in Marion, Iowa has been the target of impactful volunteer work over the past decade. Volunteers have worked tirelessly in attempt to eradicate a major threat to Iowa’s woodlands: Japanese Barberry. This plant can be identified by its light green, teardrop-shaped leaves, vibrant red seeds, and viciously sharp thorns. Originally considered an ornamental landscaping plant, Barberry is now a threat to Iowa’s native woodlands because its seeds are easily spread. Additionally, Barberry’s root system is extensive and it outcompetes native species like spring ephemeral wildflowers. 

The most recent work day on November 12, 2016 pulled volunteers from the neighborhood, the Cedar Rapids TreeKeepers class, and from Coe College. Armed with loppers, heavy gloves, and herbicide loaded into bingo daubers, fourteen friends of the forest took a short hike and got to work along the first ridgeline in Faulkes Woods. The two hours was well-spent, as a truckload full of Barberry was carried out of the area. Volunteers left the site feeling accomplished and the woods is well on its way to becoming a Barberry-free zone. Little by little, a few hours at a time, Faulkes Heritage Woods is becoming a more accessible, more naturally beautiful part of Iowa’s landscape.



September 19, 2016 - The Wonders of September


October might be the month when we expect the autumn leaves to color our world with spectacular hues, sifting the sunlight into reds, oranges, and yellows as the days grow shorter and the nights grow cooler. But for some, September is the time when the season of wonder truly begins. During this month, as we harvest the bounty of our gardens and prepare for the winter ahead, as kids head back to school and football games fill our weekends, the butterflies and birds that spend the summer with us start to prepare for their great migration to their southern winter homes.


While several of the butterflies we see each summer – such as the cloudless sulphurs

(Phoebis sennae) and Question Marks (Polygonia interrogationis)—migrate south each fall, the Monarch butterflies may make the most well-known migration. The Monarch butterflies that we see flitting from aster to goldenrod at this time of year are the fourth generation since their ancestors headed north from Mexico last spring. And, although they have never been there before, the Monarchs of September make their way 2,000 miles to the southwest to spend the winter in trees in south-central Mexico before starting the migration north again next spring.


But Monarchs and other migrating butterflies are not the only long-distance flyers that we say goodbye to at the end of summer. The graceful, acrobatic swallows we see near our farms or under bridges when we paddle rivers and streams in the summer already headed south beginning in August. Tree swallows will spend the winter along the Gulf Coast of the Southern United States and Mexico, but the other five swallow species we spend our summers with in the Midwest cross the Gulf of Mexico and head all the way to Central and South America for the winter.


Perhaps one of the most intrepid southerly avian migrant is the ruby-throated hummingbird. At this time of the year, we notice them congregating at our feeders or, if we grow flowers such as the cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), we see them busily visiting flower after flower, feeding and growing stronger for their fall migration to Central America. Although weighing only about 1/8 of an ounce, these tiny flying jewels cross the Gulf of Mexico each fall to return to their winter habitat in southern Mexican and northern Panama. And, despite the myth that has developed about their migration, alas they donot hitch a ride across the Gulf on the backs of larger migrating birds.


These fall migrations have been taking place for millennia and migrating butterflies and birds have learned to look for species of flowers and other native plants that will help them survive and persevere during their staggering southward journeys. Those of us who enjoy sharing our world with them can do much to help them along their way. Just as many Midwesterners have started growing milkweed and nectar plants for the Monarch butterflies, so too can we help other migrating wildlife. For example, warblers also migrate south at this time of year, flying at night and settling in the branches of trees to feed and nap a bit during the day. We can help protect and assist migrating warblers by protecting large, mature trees for these tiny birds to rest in during their migration. But it’s also critical to plant and care for young trees now so there will be large, mature trees decades and centuries from now.


So, as you dig out your warm sweaters, gather your rakes and tune-up your snow blower, take time to offer a fine farewell to our friends of summer. Soon our feathered friends from the North who spend the winter with us, such as the dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis), will be outside our windows, mingling with the chickadees, nuthatches and other birds who live among us year-round. And, before you know it, the garden catalogs of January will arrive so you can start to dream and plan what you will plant next spring to help the jewels of the sky who fill our Septembers with such wonder.


August 26, 2016 - Valuing Mature Trees


A longtime volunteer shared with us recently that the “tree tags” we place on mature trees — to demonstrate a tree's lifetime benefits — have had a huge impact on her. She had no idea that one mature tree could provide so many benefits to our homes, neighborhoods, and communities and that those benefits have a cash value.


For example, one large black oak on the Brucemore grounds (in Cedar Rapids, Iowa) was valued at providing $81,580 in benefits in the form of increased energy efficiency, stormwater retention, increased property values and more. Estimated to be more than 100 years old, the oak is in outstanding condition and should continue to provide growing benefits for many years to come.


With pests such as emerald ash borer, as well as storms and ongoing clearing of trees and natural areas for development and cropping, we continue to lose mature trees at an alarming rate, which is worrisome because mature trees provide us so many important benefits.


Trees and native plants benefit water quality by taking up rainfall and reducing erosion and pollution from field and lawn runoff. Urban trees can reduce annual stormwater runoff by 2 to 7 percent, and a mature tree can store 50 to 100 gallons of water during large storms.


A study conducted by Trees Forever with the help of Coe College students concluded that for every $1 spent on street trees in Cedar Rapids, taxpayers receive $4 back in benefits. The more healthy, mature street, park and private trees a city has, the more benefits we all receive.


And trees are homes, too. Just one mature oak can support up to 500 species of butterflies, moths, bees, birds and mammals, all while also cleaning our air and water and providing shade. We must do our best to preserve existing mature trees and habitat whenever possible during new construction and development.


July 13, 2016 - Roadside Beauty


How Midwesterners view the way that roadsides are managed is rooted deep in the region’s culture. There are those who want the roadsides to be mowed, with a uniform look that reflects the Midwestern pride in tidy homesteads and “clean” fields that are free of weeds.


But there is another side of the Midwestern ethic that values things that have purpose and serve a function. The expression of this along our roadsides is the use of native grasses, flowers, trees and shrubs that are out there working for us. 


The deep roots of native plants and grasses can extend many, many feet deep into the soil. These extensive root systems hold soil in place rather than letting it wash into local creeks and rivers. The roots also help the soil absorb rainfall to reduce flooding on the road and downstream. And these plants can capture pollutants that wash off fields and roads, thereby cleaning the water that we eventually drink. 


The trees and shrubs you see along roads are doing their part as well. Sometimes trees and shrubs are planted to act as living snow fences, slowing snow so it drops into the ditch instead of across a road. Trees can also be planted in progressively shorter intervals to provide drivers with visual clues that they need to slow down as they approach an area with reduced speed limits, such as a school or town. 


All of these native plants also offer habitat for beneficial insects, such as pollinators, and to songbirds and gamebirds, both of which are important to many people in our region. 


And to top it off, native plants along roadsides help save tax dollars by reducing the need to mow mile after mile of roadside once the plants are established.


Luckily, there is a proven way to satisfy the Midwestern preference for the tidy as well as the Midwestern inclination toward things that are functional and adaptable. Researchers have shown that native plantings that have mowed edges suggest at a subconscious level that the area is cared for and intentional. Of course, education—whether through signage, outreach to landowners or elected officials, or written pieces such as this blog post--can be helpful, too.  


So the next time you are driving along roads in the Midwest, pay attention to what is growing there. What do you think the plants you see say about the people who call that place home?


May 15, 2016 - May is Wildflower Month

Many of the plants that bloom in our woodlands in April and May hug the forest floor, drinking in the sunshine before the trees fully leaf out and shade them. These woodland flowers cannot be fully appreciated from a distance. Many of them require a more intimate encounter and an eye that sees the subtle beauty of the immediate.


And it is not just their beauty that requires our attention and respect. The spring-blooming woodland wildflowers provide some of the earliest pollen and nectar sources for pollinators.  For example, Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) are pollinated by queen bumble bees searching for nectar as they emerge from hibernation. Spring Beauties (Claytonia virginica) are visited by many kinds of bees, including honey, bumble and mason bees.  And Solomon Seal (Polygonatum biflorum) are buzz-pollinated by bumble bees--usually the small worker bumble bees that represent the first offspring of that year’s colony. Photo at right: Bumble bee on Dutchman's Breeches (photo credit Meredith Borchardt)


Fascinated by the spring migration of birds? Many of the wildflowers of our woodlands help the birds that return to your neighborhood each year or are just stopping by to rest on their way farther north. The May-apple (Podophyllum peltatum) often forms large colonies on the forest floor that can shelter flocks of birds as they migrate through. Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) is a favorite source of nectar for returning hummingbirds. And, of course, many birds that feed on insects, or feed insects to their young, rely on the insects that visit spring wildflowers.

As if beauty and birds aren’t reason enough to treasure the plants that grow beneath the trees of our woodlands, researchers have demonstrated that these plants help reduce stream pollution by retaining nutrients in the soil. Researchers at Iowa State University found that woodland wildflowers such as wild ginger (Asarum canadense reflexum), Virginia waterleaf (Hydrophyllum virginianum), and Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) are effective at capturing and storing nutrients.  

While some people see the trees and all the green plants in the woods and think all they see is as it should be, a healthy forest ecosystem requires a lot of care and management to keep it healthy and robust. Photo at left: Bluebell's along Rolling Prairie Bike Trail. (photo credit Meredith Borchardt)


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