Field Notices


Luther College Chips

September 20, 2007

Getting familiar with your environment is a basic survival skill, so in a new place I welcome the guidance of someone who knows the terrain.

When I moved into a house in England a number of years ago my neighbor did me the favor of walking through our overgrown July garden with me.  “Which ones are ornamental plants and which are weeds?” I asked.  Before I started slashing and clearing my way through this foreign patch of ground that was now my responsibility I needed some expert instruction.

            Halfway through the tour my neighbor stopped at a spiky clump of greenery that leaned heavily into the path at the center of the garden.  I’d been brushing past it with some annoyance for several days. “Now here’s one over which we Brits and you Americans part ways.”

            I took new interest in this nondescript plant that could divide nations.

“Goldenrod,” she said, fingering its thin leaves.  “We English love to grow goldenrod in our gardens.”  Being July, the plant wasn’t flowering.  But once I looked closely, I recognized it: a familiar acquaintance in an unfamiliar setting.

            In this column I plan to do for you the service my English neighbor did for me: to bring to your attention and interpret what’s happening in the green world within walking distance of campus. 

            As you made your way back to Luther at the end of August you might have noticed that goldenrod is blooming now.  Large areas along the edge of Anderson Prairie  have had a mellow golden cast for over a month.

            You won’t find goldenrod growing in the fussy beds outside the new Union.  As my English neighbor knew, on this side of the Atlantic this rangy plant only grows in places left wild: the far, unmowed sides of road ditches or conservation acres halfway through the transformation from cropped field to new forest.

          Though they never let it grow in their garden, my mother and father always watched for the first sign of goldenrod in bloom.  “Six weeks till frost,” they’d say.

With dozens of species of goldenrod growing in Iowa, all coming into bloom on their own schedule, it’s hard to believe there is pinpoint accuracy in the goldenrod seasonal clock by which my parents set so much store.

But there is wisdom in the notice my parents gave to goldenrod.  We live in a social world calibrated to the nanosecond with atomic accuracy.  But for all the predictable order of minutes, weeks, months, and years in our calendar, the valuable knowledge of which night, in Decorah, Iowa, will bring the year’s first frost remains a mystery almost until the moment it happens.

When I saw my first goldenrod in bloom at the beginning of August this year, it was like the tingling of a distant bell.  The new blooms reminded me that the cool, crisper nights we are now beginning to experience were closer than it was easy to imagine in the early August heat.

            Weed or ornamental, it’s good to have the colorful warning of goldenrod. 

The classrooms in Main may still be sweltering, and tubers may still be on the river, but the heat season is coming to its close.  Be sure you brought your warm clothes when you packed for college in August.  It may not be long until you need them.