In awe of fall’s many murmurations

meadow, Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg VA
The hilltop meadow.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Have you seen them? Fall’s murmurations are everywhere, or at least they were. They can be as fickle as fall weather. In fact, it’s autumn’s cooler temperatures and shorter daylight hours that often spur them on.

European starlings create the defining form of murmurations that are often caught on video. Massive, migrating flocks of starlings whirl, dance, gyrate, and swirl, darting high and low, turning seemingly indiscriminately in the sky. One minute they mimic a ballet dancer, the next a fearsome Halloween monster. Sometimes they perform over land, other times they maneuver above great bodies of water. Either way, their machinations mesmerize human observers.

Common Buckeye, honeybees,
Getting buzzed.
These starling murmurations, so prevalent in the fall, appear cloud-like, pulsating as if scripted to a choreographed symphony. They change direction and tempo, moving from Beethoven’s measure to Springsteen’s beat. I once saw a murmuration where thousands of starlings turned and twisted like a tornado, so much so that other drivers also pulled over to watch the show.

As magical as they are, the starlings cannot claim a patent on this fascinating phenomenon. Though not as showy or perhaps even as noticeable, other creatures great and small participate in their own migratory matinees.

A recent Sunday afternoon sabbatical on a hilltop brought me to that conclusion. October’s bright afternoon sun bathed the land in warmth and beauty. I couldn’t have been happier.

West Virginia, Virginia, Appalachian Mountains
The blue mountains.

To my west, the Allegheny Mountains stood eternal, the hazy blue boundary line between Virginia and West Virginia. To the east, the Massanutten Mountain held watch over the city of Harrisonburg, which hummed with its usual busyness.

As pleasant as that was, the setting became secondary to the murmuration activity in the lovely hillside meadow before me. In its last days of seasonal, colorful productivity, hundreds of butterflies flitted everywhere. Multiple species competed for the blooms they far outnumbered. Thousands of honeybees, bumble bees, and beetles also joined in the frenzy for the limited floral offerings.

Monarch butterflies, meadow, wildflowers
Blooms and butterflies.

Though they weren’t captivating clouds of whirling birds, each insect species had its own style. Butterflies chased butterflies. Bees buzzed butterflies, usually unsuccessfully. It wasn’t uncommon for a ladybug, honeybee, a Monarch, and a Painted Lady butterfly to all inhabit the same blooming wildflower plant, appropriating whatever they could for their journey or hibernation ahead.

Overhead, turkey vultures sailed on rising convection thermals, additional byproducts of the generous sunshine heating the cooler landscape. Beyond the urban trees and down the hill, a red-shouldered hawk shrieked its call in an attempt to flush songbirds from their protective cover.

American robins appeared with only abbreviated chirpings. Silent and absent since their last summer nestings, robin congregations bobbed on yards and scavenged crabapple trees for any morsel of energy to wing their way to milder winter climes.

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An eastern phoebe launched from a solitary dogwood tree loaded with bright red berries. The bird had no interest in them, however. Instead, it captured an unsuspecting damselfly, and returned to the same perch in the same tree, wagged its tail one more time and disappeared.

On the way home, a rather lopsided V winged across the last of the sunset’s orangey glow. Even with car windows closed, I could distinctly hear the geese honking as the darkening sky absorbed them. At day’s end, I was elated to have observed a few of the other forms of nature’s murmurations, each with their own flair, their own personal signature.

What murmurations of fall have you seen? Look sharp. They’ll soon be gone, replaced by the coming season’s institution of slumbering stillness.

sunset, Shenandoah Valley
Waning sunset.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

Country View

Shenandoah Valley, Virginia
Country View.

I call it photography by driving around. It has multiple purposes. We moved from Ohio’s Amish country to Virginia’s enchanting Shenandoah Valley in early May. Although not entirely unfamiliar with the area around Harrisonburg, I decided the best way to get to know the countryside was just to drive around the rural roads. Doing so helps me get a lay of the land, occasionally talk with local folks, and find scenes like this one.

This viewpoint is about eight miles north of Harrisonburg looking southeast toward Massanutten Mountain. If you look closely (click on the photo) to the left of the grain mill silos, you can see a string of train cars sitting idle on tracks in the valley near the village of Linville.

“Country View” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

Waiting on rain and suffering the personal consequences

picket fence, black-eyed susans
Is it the flowers?

By Bruce Stambaugh

I sat on the patio reading a marvelous book my best friend had given me before we hightailed it out of Holmes County, Ohio for Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. I didn’t read long, however.

A good case of what I’ll call the Shenandoah Sneeze forced me to retreat to the safety of our air-conditioned home. I had no choice. I was sneezing more than reading. I used more tissues than I turned pages.

Reading was only the secondary reason I had escaped to our outdoor sanctuary. I thought if I went outside the thick promising clouds would finally let loose a downpour. It didn’t happen. Apparently, I was under the spell of not only the Shenandoah Sneeze but also the Harrisonburg Hole. I’ll gladly clarify this localized lingo.

When my wife and I had our first appointments with our new doctor, one of the first questions she asked was if we had contracted any allergies yet. Apparently, newcomers to the Shenandoah Valley acquire hypersensitivities they didn’t have previously. Harrisonburg is The Valley’s notorious epicenter for such physical reactions.

home, Harrisonburg VA
Home sweet home, as long as the windows are closed.
I never had allergies my entire life of living in northeast Ohio. Now, every now and then when I step outdoors, or our home’s windows are open, I suddenly begin a succession of rapid-fire sneezes. I have no idea why or what is causing it. I’ve tried both over-the-counter and prescription medication. Nothing seems to help, so I just endure it. When an attack occurs, I retreat to a private space so as not to spoil a perfectly good autumn afternoon for others.

After the sneezing episode ends, my eyes itch and water and I have to breathe through my mouth due to nasal congestion. In relating this all too personal information, I am not asking for pity, only understanding.

As for the Harrisonburg Hole, that’s the real reason I went outside in the first place. The official forecast was a 90 percent chance of rain. It had been more than a month without rain. Not. One. Drop. I figured if I ventured outdoors the sky would inevitably open up. It didn’t.

backyard, Harrisonburg VA
Where I’d like to relax without sneezing.
Besides the parched yard, I had a selfish reason for desiring a good soaking. I had fertilized the lawn the previous morning when the dew wetted the browning grass. The moisture-laden blades of grass made the tiny granules of fertilizer stick. To make the fertilizer effective, I needed the promised precipitation. Otherwise, the lawn could burn out more than it already was.

You see the Harrisonburg Hole is a fabled meteorological phenomenon that affects our fair city and its immediate surrounding areas. Nine times out of 10, when the weather forecast calls for a high chance of rain, it doesn’t. It does rain, north, south, east, and west of “The Friendly City.” But it doesn’t rain in and around Harrisonburg.

So far I haven’t found one person who can explain why this occurrence happens so frequently. I just discovered a bevy of believers in the myth that apparently has more than a grain of truth to it. I can attest that I’ve checked the radar on more than one supposed-to-rain occasion only to find steady rain everywhere but over “Rocktown.”

I was hoping that in addition to rinsing the specks of fertilizer into the ground that a steady rain would also clear out whatever was in the air that was causing me to make the Kleenex brand rich. No such luck.

Please excuse me now. I have to sneeze again.

still life
Wishing my life would be still.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

Seasons of Gaillardia

gaillardia, blanket flower, great spangled fritillaary
Seasons of Gaillardia.

When I asked my wife to identify the flower the butterfly was enjoying, her reaction surprised and inspired me. “Wow,” she said, “seasons of Gaillardia!” Then I saw it. As the growing season winds down, this meadow of wildflowers held the blanket flower nearly in every stage of growth. The Variegated Fritillary butterfly, which just happened to be in the shadow of a taller flower, fed on one of the remaining Gaillardia heads still in full bloom.

“Seasons of Gaillardia” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

Embracing October’s sensory qualities

changing leaves, Holmes Co. OH
Autumn’s glory.

By Bruce Stambaugh

I’ve always loved October. The month never seems to fail in its sensory-sensitive offerings that surprise, frustrate, and elate you. October in Ohio has that much variety. Halfway through the tenth month, I’ve learned that’s even true in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, where we now live.

Fall’s first frost ushered in the new month on October’s very first morning. Light as it was, the chill still stung the tomato and pepper plants in our daughter’s garden. Overall, the days have been balmy and very dry. I haven’t mowed the lawn in a month. No worries. I’ve found other ways to spend my time.

I chauffeured our granddaughter to 5 p.m. soccer practice on her eighth birthday. She took along a sweet treat to share with her teammates, which the college-student coaches wisely kept until after practice. A refreshing breeze blew through a crystal clear, early October sky while the youngsters jostled back and forth on emerald grass bordered by stands of patient trees waiting for the signal to paint their leaves.

sugar maple, Shenandoah Valley
Sugar Maple.
After an afternoon of volunteering at a local thrift store, my wife shared a touching story with me. A customer came in from Florida. She and her husband had evacuated to a relative’s home in Harrisonburg to escape the wrath of Hurricane Irma. The lady’s husband was gravely ill with cancer. She was gathering clothes for their return trip home. The man wanted to die in his own bed. The store manager and Neva donated the clothing to the grieving woman. As she was leaving, the lady turned at the door and said, “You don’t know how much this means to me.”

Loyalist that I am, I wear my Cleveland Indians gear wherever I go. As I walked across the campus of Eastern Mennonite University to the school’s library, a student stopped me. “I noticed your Indians shirt,” he explained. Turned out, he had graduated from the same small, rural Ohio high school as our son and daughter. I had a brief chat with Aaron Weaver, now a college senior. The connection brought me as much joy as an Indians postseason win.

harvest moon
Harvest Moon.
Soon after that encounter, October’s Harvest Moon bathed the earth in creamy nocturnal colors, enabling the skunks to waddle their way around with ease. You could follow their trails with your nose.

Of course, this October brought more human-induced and unnecessary horror that just cannot be understood. Innocents in Las Vegas fell dead or injured faster than autumn’s leaves. I shudder at such horrid, incomprehensible, and inexplicable violence.

Even with that sad news, if you asked me to pick one month out of the year as my absolute favorite, it would be October. My October memory bank is overflowing.

One particular Ohio scene is indelibly etched in my mind as if it were yesterday. In reality, my regular morning walk on my favorite township road was actually four years ago.

Typical for an Ohio October morning, the air was crisp, embroidered with lacy fog that snaked across the landscape indiscriminately, propelled by the rising sun that warmed the country air. My stroll was nearly half completed when a young boy quietly passed me on his bicycle near an Amish parochial school. The sun’s defused rays colored everything a luminous, eerie monochrome on the hazy landscape canvas.

That’s an October memory I’ll always recall for its vividness, its sensory invigoration, and its blessed setting. It’s helped me to continually be alert for unfolding comparable moments. They are everywhere for everyone, especially in October.

Amish boy on bike, foggy morning
Into the fog.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

Zigzag Chilling

sister and brother, resting in the shade
Zigzag Chilling.

It would have been easy to title this photo “Relaxing in the Shade.” That is precisely what our granddaughter and her brother were doing while their big brother played baseball in the hot sunshine. However, it was the patterns that caught my eye as much as their shoulder-to-shoulder sharing of a video in the coolness. The black and white tread patterns of their shoes enhanced the multi-blue zigzag pattern of their blanket pad.

“Zigzag Chilling” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

Losing a friend who was a friend to all

Raymond Buckland
A few of Buck’s books.

By Bruce Stambaugh

The news of my friend’s death fell heavy upon me as if all of Autumn’s trees had simultaneously shed their rainbow of colors in one smothering, leafy avalanche. Raymond Buckland meant that much to me.

I wasn’t alone. As word spread of Buck’s death, other friends who knew him began sharing words of praise on social media. All lauded his kindness, generosity, and love for life. He was truly a caring and gentle soul who touched many people around the globe.

Buck’s spiritual heart was full of love and light. His human heart had finally failed him.

Raymond Buckland
Raymond Buckland.
I met Buck through our weekly writing group, the Killbuck Valley Writers Guild. We met every Sunday afternoon for three hours at Jitters Coffee House in Millersburg, Ohio. I think Buck picked that venue as much for the yummy pastries as the central location. At the writers’ group, we called him Buck. To others, he was Raymond or Ray.

Born in London, England, his alluring British accent enhanced his magic words that he loved to read aloud. Buck was facetious about details, extracting them from his broad life experiences and incorporating them into his informative, vivid, and descriptive writing. He often used the settings of his formative years as the scenes for his many books. When asked, Buck didn’t really know how many books he had written in his lifetime. It must have been at least one for each of his 83 years of dynamic living.

Buck never bragged about his accomplishments or his awards. He would share the good news of course, but always in ways that encouraged and motivated his beloved writing troupe. Through living, reading, and research, Buck became an expert in a wide variety of subjects ranging from mystery writing to witchcraft. His preferred mode of transport, however, was a Corvette, not a broom.

Buck never foisted his beliefs onto others. Nor did he judge others for theirs even though they may have differed. Writing came first and foremost for Buck. It’s how he made his living. It’s how he connected with the world. It’s why he formed and nurtured the writing group.

Raymond Buckland
My last shot of Buck.
The genre of writing didn’t matter to Buck, just so long as you wrote. We had song lyrics, poems, allegories, newspaper columns, essays, narratives, short stories, science fiction, non-fiction, and novels both written and read in our little collection of scribes.

We had lots of laughs in our writing group thanks to Buck’s good sense of humor. He put that jovial approach into supportive action for the good of the community. Buck helped organize and sponsor comedy night benefits as fundraisers for the Holmes County District Public Library.

Buck showed his generosity in various forms. If he knew you were serious about writing, Buck would gladly spend his valuable time advising and encouraging writers, novice and experienced alike. He also freely gave away computers, books, and various writing resources.

He was a realist and idealist, a visionary and a professor all rolled into one loveable and likable human being. Buck’s generosity was a byproduct of his gracious living.

Buck believed in using descriptive, sensory words efficiently. As he would remind us, one word is better than two. “Show, don’t tell” was another essential writing reminder. Showing is precisely how Buck lived his storied, charitable life.

Buck loved music, both playing instruments and singing. He was as engaging as he was creative. In part, that’s what attracted so many readers and writers to him. It’s also why he will be missed so very much by so very many.

Buck enjoyed participating in the benefit comedy nights.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017