- all images, © 2008 Mary Swander. All rights reserved.
A Garden Flooded with Gold
My county dump smells like a truck full of rotten eggs. This is unusual. The landfill, loaded with debris from last years flood, is emitting methane gas at an extraordinary rate. Usually, landfill debris breaks down slowly, decomposing and releasing methane after a period of about five years. But the flood debris wet gypsum board the prime culprit is breaking down quickly and producing a choking stench. This is happening on frozen ground during the winter. What will happen in the blistering heat of summer? Jennifer Jordan, recycling coordinator at the landfill, says the smell will eventually go away. The real problem is the extra waste generated by the flood. No one knows what to do with it. Our site is continual, Jordan said in an article in the Daily Iowan. We could be here dealing with waste in perpetuity.
Last summer, I thought my friend Matt was going to be standing in his flooded home forever, surrounded by wet gypsum board, staring out the window at his submerged garden.
Last summers flood came at us quickly, almost overnight, and was much more severe than expected. The water spread out from the Cedar River, seeping into basements and buildings in downtown Cedar Rapids, carrying away the public library, the art museum, the Paramount Theatre with its priceless antique pipe organ.
The river rushed through the homes and businesses in Czech Village, a historic district, washing out families who had lived in their same homes for over fifty years.
Then the crest headed south, sweeping away trailers and modest homes, leaking into twenty different University of Iowa buildings. And the crest kept moving, fanning out over farmland, sweeping over the young corn and soybean plants just beginning to make a stand in the soil.
My friends Matt and Kelly were among those at risk. Their seven acres and old farmhouse were close to the Iowa River. Just months before, Matt had sold his catering shop and retired, ready to return to his first love, gardening.
In the early spring, with his pet goat Noah nudging his side, Matt tilled up his plot, then dug a deep hole with his spade, wrapped the gold bars in a bandana, and dropped them into his garden.
Matt had made a small sum of money from the sale, but didnt trust the stock market, didnt trust the banks, yet didnt want to put the cash under his mattress. So he bought some bars of gold. Well, heres one item I wouldnt compost. But where to put them? Matt decided that his garden would be the best safety deposit box. In the early spring, with his pet goat Noah nudging his side, Matt tilled up his plot, then dug a deep hole with his spade, wrapped the gold bars in a bandana, and dropped them into his garden. The hole marked the spot where he imagined his tomato vines growing up and winding around their cages, the succulent fruits coming to harvest in the heat of late summer.
But the heat never arrived. Instead, the rain fell all spring, and into early summer. The cool temperatures were a boon for the lettuce, spinach, winter onions and radishes, but the rainwater soon bogged down the soil and we were gardening in mud. Weeds sprouted everywhere. The more it rained, the faster they grew. Gardeners, goats, and even lawnmowers couldnt keep up with the crabgrass, dandelions, lambs quarters, and purslane.
The first week of June, lightning flashed and thunder rattled my windows. High winds swept across my garden, breaking off some of the stalks of the broccoli seedlings. My goats ran for cover in their shed and huddled together for warmth. Matt and Kellys goat Noah, sibling to my kids, hid in his shed on their acreage. Noah was the son of my nanny Scalawag. He had been born in the 1993 flood in a puddle of water. I scooped him up in the middle of the night, brought him into the house and dried him off with my hair dryer. By 2008, he was literally an old goat, stiff with arthritis. He would waddle across the pasture, then sit down in the grass, eating a circle around himself.
Early that week, the water was lapping at the road near Matt and Kellys place. Kelly wanted to pack right up then and leave, but Matt refused. He wouldnt leave his garden and the gold.
The water flooded the basement in 1993, Matt said, but didnt go any higher. If it didnt flood the upstairs of the house in 93, it isnt going to flood this year in 08.
By Wednesday, Matt and Kelly had 6 feet of water in their basement.
We need to get the animals out. And we need to get ourselves out, Kelly pleaded, but Matt refused. He didnt want to leave the gold.
On Thursday morning, Kelly packed a bag and left for her job in town at the hospital. By Thursday evening Matt and Kelly had 12 feet of water in their basement.
Im in town, Kelly said when she called me that evening. Can you drive over with your dog kennel and take Noah back to your place?
I jumped in my car, heading south down Highway 22, my wheels churning in the muddy, waterlogged gravel road. I had to take the long way around, going at least five miles out of my way, trying to dodge the closed bridges and flooded roads. I was headed up north again, the sun starting to make a slow descent in the sky, when my cell phone rang.
Abort the mission, Kelly said. Matt called and said the road is completely flooded. You wouldnt be able to get in.
I turned around and wound my way back home. In the meantime, Matt had decided to leave his acreage. He put a weeks worth of cat food in the upstairs bedroom with the four cats. He stationed Noah on the front porch with a bale of hay. He dug up his gold bars as the water seeped to the edge of his garden. Then he donned his life jacket and waded out of his yard in chest-deep water. He braced himself against the swift current, slowly pushing against the floodwaters, inching along toward higher ground. Finally, a farmer drove by in a large-frame tractor and pulled Matt to safety. Matt hitched a ride to town to his sons apartment.
Matt thought that the floodwaters would recede the next day. Nothing this severe had been predicted. But the next day, the flood only rose higher.
Im so worried about Noah, Kelly called again from work. I have to get him out of there.
I began making phone calls, too. First, to the Humane Society. I hoped that they might have some kind of rescue boat. I tried over and over again for hours. Nothing but a busy signal. Next, I called the sheriff. Someone actually picked up the phone.
Youre asking me to rescue a goat? the dispatcher said. Lady, were busy rescuing people.
Kelly found a flatboat, but it didnt have a working motor. She called every fisherman she knew, but they were using their boats, trying to transport people and their belongings from flooded trailers and cottages along the river.
Finally, after two days had passed, Matt put on a life jacket again and waded the chest-high water toward his home, his garden covered with sludge. He found Noah on the porch with a fawn, the two of them sharing the bale of hay. After a week, the sheriff called and said he would take a boat in, sedate the goat and rescue him. Kelly didnt think a 15-year old goat would make it through that procedure. So Noah stayed on the porch for almost ten days, playing with the fawn until the water receded. Then we all walked off the Ark, ready to be united again with our beloved pets, ready to survey the damage to our houses and begin to tear out the soaked drywall and haul it away to the landfill, ready, like Noah, to begin a new covenant.