Horses in the snow

Horses in the snow.

Photo by Bruce Stambaugh

Seeing horses was an everyday occurrence when my wife and I lived in Ohio’s Amish country in Holmes County, Ohio. We would see horses pass by our home on the busy county road daily pulling carts, buggies, and wagons.

The Amish still use workhorses, like the ones shown here, for their field work. Mechanical power was shunned in order to literally ground and keep the Amish connected to their earthy roots.

This photo shows a pair of workhorses amidst a wicked snowstorm in bitterly cold conditions. Since they could not find grass on which to graze, their owners would bring hay and feed to sustain them. In the distance at the bottom of the hill, the fallen snow had already been started to be cleared so Amish youngsters could skate on the thick ice.

“Horses in the Snow” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

White on White

We just had our first winter snowstorm in Virginia, even though winter doesn’t officially arrive until next Tuesday. Other than refilling bird feeders, I stayed in the safety of our home. Instead of going out, I sorted through my photo files and found this beauty after a snowstorm in Ohio’s Amish country. The late afternoon sun was just sneaking through the thinning clouds, kissing the white barn and homestead.

“White on White” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Ridgeline Sunrise

Due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, it’s been a year since my wife and I last visited our former stomping grounds in Ohio’s Amish country. That’s when I took this shot at dawn of a distant ridge. December’s bare deciduous trees on the rolling hilltops provided a foreground silhouette for the glowing morning sky.

“Ridgeline Sunrise” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Let’s make the holidays as cheerful as we possibly can

I don’t know about you, but I am more than ready for the holidays. It’s been a long year with all that has happened, and we still have a month to go in 2020.

What a month it is, though. Holidays of all sorts fill December. For Christians, Advent marks the beginning of the Christmas season, the four Sundays before the big day on December 25.

For our Jewish friends, Hannukah runs from the evening of December 10 to the evening of the 18th. The winter solstice is December 21.

Orthodox Christians, Amish, and other faiths extend the season into the New Year with the celebration of Epiphany or Old Christmas on January 6. That’s the date fixed for when the three kings found the Christ child by following the bright star.

All of these special days revolve around the idea of light. That is most appropriate in these dark days, figuratively and literally.

Each celebration puts the onus on us. We need to be the light that brightens these bleak times. That is especially true given the resurging coronavirus. The tightened restrictions on group sizes will undoubtedly alter our traditional holiday gatherings. That’s as it should be to keep us all safe.

Consequently, we will all need to be on high alert for ways to brighten the holidays for others. We need to contemplate how to spread that cheer, directly and indirectly.

Packing school kids for children overseas sent through Mennonite Central Committee.

I see the holiday season as an opportunity to finish out this unimaginably horrific year on a better note. Amid the gloom and doom that permeates our daily lives, we each have chances to make this holiday season extra special. The secret is in our daily actions.

That’s true every day, of course. But during these next few weeks, we will likely have multiple occasions to overshadow the social angst and dark news with the shining light of kindness, generosity, and compassion.

To keep the cheerful holiday spirit alive throughout the season and into the New Year, we need to stay alert for every opportunity to spread goodness to others. We may not be able to counter all the dark news that swirls around us. We certainly should not add to it, however.

I’ve noticed that some people already have gotten into the spirit. They have their Christmas trees up and doors decorated with wreaths. Towns and cities have erected their holiday banners, lighting, and trees, too.

As a child, I always enjoyed the holiday lights. I suppose I have my father to thank for that outlook. Every Christmastime, he would load his progeny into the family car, and off we would go looking for decorated neighborhoods. Sometimes we would drive to other cities to see the holiday lights and department stores’ decorated display windows.

I’ve never lost that passion. My wife and I have continued our family tradition of displaying candles in our windows. It’s our way of sharing the bright holiday spirit. We intend to leave them up longer than usual this year. You just never know how such little things can positively affect others.

Our sharing the light with others doesn’t have to be extravagant or expensive. Send a card to someone you know but haven’t communicated with for a while. Drop your loose change in the red kettle. Secretly send someone a gift card from a local small business.

In what ways can you help brighten the holiday season and still keep yourself and those around you safe? How can you help others improve their life, even if it’s only a simple gesture?

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Hello darkness, my old friend

October’s Harvest Moon rises over Massanutten Mountain near Harrisonburg, VA.

Many moons ago, I remember clearly seeing the Milky Way for the first time in ages. I stood starstruck at the twinkling, gem-like brilliance overhead.

In the evening chill, I gazed transfixed, awestruck. Of course, the setting alone provided that opportunity. I had just stepped out of the historic El Tovar Hotel at the Grand Canyon’s edge in northern Arizona.

I felt like a child again, my mind racing back to forgotten summer nights when I would lay on my back in the coolness of the grass and watch the stars and planets. My family lived in a suburb of a blue-collar steel town in northeast Ohio. We could still see the heavens above.

Back then, light pollution was not an issue. Street lights were fewer, and their incandescent bulbs radiated soft light. I even remember being able to track satellites from our front yard.

Somehow, somewhere we North Americans became afraid of the dark. More and brighter street lights and security lights multiplied, all in the name of blotting out the darkness. Now, light pollution prevents 80 percent of the U.S. population from seeing the stars.

The evolution of lighting up streets, buildings, and entire cities has grown exponentially with urban sprawl. In today’s world, most people have to travel out into the country to see the stars.

Residents of cities like Jacksonville, FL, have little chance of seeing the night sky.

Seeing the night sky was one of the benefits of living in a rural area like Holmes County. The air was so clean that Amish buggies rode by at night with no lights on at all until they heard a vehicle coming. Though it wasn’t a safe thing to do, the point was that the horse and driver didn’t need lights to guide them.

We chose the house we now live in near Harrisonburg, Virginia, in the daytime. Being able to see the night sky on a clear night came as a bonus. Our expansive housing development has no street lights.

Light fills our modern night lives, too much of which is bright, blue illumination from all of our electronics. Cell phones, computers, and TV screens stimulate us rather than relax us before bedtime.

Humans need dark nights to get proper sleep. Some people have to use black nightshades to cover their windows to shut out external, artificial light to get some sleep. Sleep deprivation can lead to too many negatives for us humans.

Excessive night lighting disturbs wildlife, too. More than 60% of invertebrates and 30% of vertebrates are nocturnal. Each year, millions of migrating birds die by flying into urban windows illuminated at night long after employees have gone home.

Newly hatched sea turtles crawl to the brightest light, which used to be the stars and moon twinkling over the sea. Now, the turtles turn the wrong way and perish unless the artificial lighting is turned off.

Nighttime photos taken from space of urban areas may look pretty, but such massive lighting causes problems and is extremely expensive. Imagine the money and resources society would save by simply turning off all those unnecessary lights. Plus, too many of the lights point skyward instead of down.

We shouldn’t be afraid of the dark. Nighttime is good for our rest, our bodies, our souls, our ecosystem. As we enter the winter’s season of darkness, we should embrace it, not try to either eliminate or illuminate it.

Yes, darkness arrives early now and will continue to do so into the New Year. Until then, I’ll just steal an opening line from Simon and Garfunkel: “Hello darkness, my old friend…”

Halloween’s Blue Moon and Mars in the abstract, taken from my backyard.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Halloween pranks then and now

We don’t need a calendar to remind us that Halloween is just around the corner, quickly followed by the U.S. presidential election. Do we get doubly spooked this year?

I can’t decide which is worse, all of the Halloween related commercials or the political campaign ads on television. Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between the two.

Halloween has had a history of inspiring misbehavior, reference Ichabod Crane. Unfortunately, ghoulish nonsense gradually replaced good-natured orneriness over time.

When I was a youngster, a hooligan once stole a pumpkin right off of our front porch. My younger siblings and I happened to see the teenage culprit dashing down Winton Ave. with our jack-o-lantern still flickering with each stride the young man took.

Once we arrived back home after a two-hour trick or treat raid of the neighborhood, we forgot about the lowly pumpkin. Our childish attention turned to comparing who got the most and the best candy.

Our family dentist declared the winner at our next checkups. The one with the fewest cavities won.

Growing up in suburbia in the 1950s and 60s was mild compared to today, however. Usual Halloween tricks included throwing shelled field corn against people’s windows to scare them. Soaping windows was also a common prank. Those who traded soap for paraffin were considered mean.

I found out what real Halloween tomfooleries were when we moved to Holmes County, Ohio, in the heart of Amish country. Torching corn stalks in the middle of the night and burning tires on highways were major annoyances, not to mention illegal and dangerous. The county sheriff added extra patrols to try to quell the orneriness.

I remember one story, vividly. A sheriff’s deputy that I knew was driving his cruiser through dense fog late one night. An egg thrown from a passing Amish buggy hit his vehicle, and a short pursuit ensued. The black buggy with no lights quickly disappeared into the thick fog.

Teens took turns tormenting different towns. It would be Berlin one night, Mt. Hope the next. Then it was Benton, followed by Farmerstown, and on and on it went.

There never seemed to be any rhyme or reason to the order of towns adorned. Toilet paper streaming from trees and utility lines decorated each village. I hope that doesn’t occur during the pandemic, or they’ll be another shortage of toilet paper.

Pranksters would hoist farm equipment atop buildings and corral “borrowed” livestock in town squares. At least they provided hay and straw for the animals. The critters and buggies usually found their way back to the rightful owners.

Trick or treating was more controlled in the rural areas. Community organizations and volunteer fire departments hosted gatherings for children and handed out candy in pre-stuffed bags. Hundreds of costumed kids paraded before judges, who then awarded cash prizes for the funniest, the most creative, and the scariest costumes.

This year community-based parties like those that our children attended will replace trick or treating. With the pandemic still raging, many communities around the country are rightly canceling traipsing door-to-door.

But don’t worry. This year Halloween night has some extra special celestial treats for everyone. The night sky will scare up a Blue Moon. The October 1 Harvest Moon was the month’s first full moon.

There’s more. Mars won’t be this close to Earth again for a long time. The red planet will cozy up to the full Blue Moon on Halloween night.

Let’s hope for a clear sky so that we can enjoy the heavenly show. Just don’t gaze skyward too long. Someone might steal your pumpkin.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Pure Gold

This was our view every fall when we lived in Ohio’s Amish country. I took this shot from our backyard. The sun had just risen above the hills to our east, bathing everything, including the already colorful leaves, in pure gold.

“Pure Gold” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Entering the October of my life

October in Ohio’s Amish country.

October offers up some of the year’s best weather. It often claims ownership of the year’s first killing frost, too, and the first snow. Sometimes it’s both.

October and I have a lot in common.

Weather is one of my favorite hobbies. I have satisfied that itch as a volunteer severe weather spotter for half a century for the National Weather Service. However, October is usually one of the quieter weather months unless a tropical storm plays havoc across the eastern U.S. Evidence 2012’s Superstorm Sandy.

The western edge of Superstorm Sandy exits Holmes Co., Ohio.

October tends to be the calendar’s buffer between fairer weather and the more barren, colder months that follow. In other words, the tenth month foretells the winding down of every year. There can be no better year than the present to draw to a close. I doubt that I need to elaborate or provide the gory details.

Enough of the quixotic shenanigans. October and I have much more in common than climatological conditions.

I’ve entered the October of my life. I stay as active as I can, but it’s pitiful to watch me throw a tennis ball for our granddog to fetch. Millie is so unimpressed that she often refuses to give up the retrieved ball I’ve thrown.

Millie.

Millie knows that my toss can’t compare to that of our oldest grandchild, the 16-year-old with a pitcher’s arm. Millie gets to run far beyond one of my feeble efforts.

Before and since my knee replacement a year ago, I have maintained a regular exercise routine. I also do yoga twice a week. I try to walk a mile every day. I ride my bike around and up and down our inclined neighborhood. To look at me, you wouldn’t know that I do any of that.

I have never been a muscular guy. But I usually could hold my own in most physical activities. Not anymore.

I am not ashamed to admit it. I’ve accepted where I am in life. I also kindly relent to any assistance from passersby when I’m toting multiple bags of mulch or birdseed, or anything heavier than a gallon of milk. I’m old, and I want to get older. So I quash my male ego and accept offers to help.

A few years ago, Walter C. Wright wrote a book, “The Third Third of Life: Preparing for Your Future.” It’s a workbook to help you ready for retirement and beyond. It’s an easy, practical read. The hardest part is accepting the fact that you are in that senior citizen-stage of life. For some, it comes sooner than it does for others.

When I was young, I’d spouted off that I would live until I was 100. I have longevity on both sides of the family to back that up. But I also have ancestors who never reached retirement age.

Like leaves on deciduous trees, I want to keep on hanging on as long as I can. However, the leaves, of course, eventually color, fade, and fall.

I also understand that that is where October and I differ. After the foliage tumbles, buds protrude for next year’s crop to unfurl, and once again nurture the growing tree with a thriving canopy.

Humans don’t have that option. We get one shot at life unless you believe in reincarnation. For the record, I don’t. But if I did, I would return either as a chiropractor or a meteorologist.

October is a fine month of the year. I have fond memories of her from childhood to the present. Here’s to many more nostalgic Octobers for everyone.

October on the line.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Autumnal Equinox Sunrise


Fall in the Northern Hemisphere has officially arrived! I always welcome the fresher, cleaner air, less humidity, and cooler temperatures.

The first sunrise of autumn on September 23, 2013, brought all of that and more. As you can see, fall got off to a foggy start that day.

This photo was taken as the sun filtered through a typical September morning fog in Ohio’s Amish country, where I used to live. The wagon in the alfalfa field is a church bench wagon. It was parked there to provide seating for an Amish wedding.

“Autumnal Equinox Sunrise” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Celebrating the universal work ethic

Old Order Mennonite farms dot the landscape in western Rockingham Co., Virginia.

Americans will enjoy yet another three-day weekend in the U.S. with Labor Day picnics and outdoor events of all kinds. However, this year’s activities likely will best be tempered with proper physical distancing and perhaps a dab of humility, given all the national chaos.

Labor Day became a national holiday when President Grover Cleveland signed a bill into law in 1894. It designated the first Monday of September as a day to honor all those who work. Several states had done so previously after labor strikes and deadly battles between workers and authorities. The ugly details, unfortunately, compare equally to today’s ongoing strife in the U.S.

Growing up in a blue-collar town in northeast Ohio, Labor Day served two purposes for the young. It was yet another three-day holiday weekend, and it marked the end of summer. A half-century or more ago, summer vacation from school ran Memorial Day to Labor Day.

As a youngster, I don’t recall being curious about why there was a Labor Day. As an adult, I now know that it was a hard-fought effort on the part of laborers for fair pay, decent work hours, and safe conditions.

Amish children routinely help adults with chores, especially on farms.

Even in a pandemic, we can easily forget or ignore the efforts of others to make our lives more comfortable and enjoyable. In that regard, Labor Day might be the most under-appreciated U.S. holiday.

During the Industrial Revolution, machines created jobs, and people willingly and unwillingly filled them. Men, and too often children as young as six-years-old, worked long, grueling hours, sometimes half a day with no overtime pay.

The children, of course, were paid far less than the adults for the same amount of work time. Such treatment helped bring about our current child labor laws.

It only seems logical to have a holiday that celebrates work. A strong work ethic is valued in cultures worldwide. Too often, however, folks don’t see it that way. They imagine that they somehow have a grip on the virtue of work, while at the same time chastising others as lazy or preferring government handouts.

Harvesting coffee beans in Honduras is a family affair.
Multiple trips to Honduras helped me see through that divisive thinking. Hispanics like to work as well and as hard as any other culture. They also did so earning less than a dollar an hour for a day’s work in maquilas, or sweatshops, making brand name clothing for citizens of the western world to wear.

We are fortunate in this country to have had workers who banded together in the 19th and early 20th centuries to demand fair pay and safe working conditions. Today, however, say the word “union,” and it might be the end of a budding conversation.

The truth of the matter is that were it not for unions and strikers, we might not be enjoying an extra day off of work this weekend. Given our fast-paced, 24/7 online universe, many workers might rightly wonder, “what day off of work?”

Our grandson mowing our lawn.
I much appreciate the influence of my parents, grandparents, and their peers in modeling the importance of having a strong work ethic. It helped my siblings and me in gaining an education, training, and extended careers.

Energetic peers surrounded my wife and me for all of our adult lives in Ohio’s Amish country, where work ethic continues to be revered. It’s equally so in the Appalachian and Old Order Mennonite cultures in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, where we now live.

This Labor Day, like every Labor Day, we will smile upon the generations of bold laborers who made it possible for us to work and play along life’s way.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020