Letting Creation find you

Looking west from a point in Big Meadows in Shenandoah National Park.

Even though the morning’s southeast breeze was gentle, the leaves rained down like ticker-tape parade confetti. I was in my favorite outdoor space, Shenandoah National Park’s Big Meadows.

Big Meadows is an anomaly. No logical or scientific reasons can explain why the expansive meadow sits in the middle of this popular national gem.

Scientists have determined that there is nothing unique about the soil’s geologic makeup or bedrocks below that would create a meadow in the middle of a forest. In a matter of yards, the foliage changes from plants of a kettle-like marsh to wooded hillsides. I imagined Big Meadows as God’s thumb stamp of approval on these ancient mountains.

In the short time we have lived in Virginia, I’ve found fall is my favorite time to visit this gorgeous spot. From our valley home, the weather appeared to be perfect. But when you visit the mountains, conditions can be changeable at any time of year. I packed for the unexpected, and that’s what I got. With every step, creation’s glory unfolded.

You could hardly call my creeping along as hiking. I followed the parameter of the southern part of Big Meadows. In three hours, I covered only a mile and a half. A wooly worm would have made more progress, but likely not shared my joy.

I wasn’t out to break any endurance records. I went to see whatever came to me as I strolled along and through the area’s various topography. In the mountains, just a change in altitude of a few feet makes a big difference in the kinds of vegetation that grow.

This gently sloping mead is home to flowers, grasses, reeds, trees, and assorted creatures great and small. As an invader of their varied habitat, I tried to remain obscure.

With fall’s migration, I knew plenty of bird species might be passing through on their way south. I expected year-round residents, too, along with a few lingering butterflies.

Resident eastern bluebirds and handsome field and song sparrows greeted me. Eastern phoebes, magnolia warblers, blue-headed vireos, Carolina chickadees, and dark-eyed juncos darted about, too.

Dressed in their duller non-breeding feathers, some birds, especially the warblers, went unidentified by this average birder. Chirps near and far came from other species that I couldn’t locate.

I crept along the raggedy edge that separated fields from woods, exhilarated. I lingered in a high place beneath a sweeping white oak at the meadow’s southernmost border, where I could see near and far.

Contentment filled me as I sensed all the life around me. Instead of hiker, birder, or photographer, I was an uninvited but appreciative guest. Every moment bore existential meaning.

The first frosts of the season created a festive carpet of fall’s primary colors that spread across the landscape. The leafy trees and evergreens looked on in envy. Red-tinted green leaves, spent wildflowers, delicate ferns frosted golden, ruby-colored blueberry leaves, and russet grasses decorated the earth like it was Christmas.

Overhead, the sky also joined nature’s artistry. One minute, it was pure cerulean, the next white fluffy clouds.

Suddenly, a fog rolled in from the eastern piedmont. The steady breeze soon carried it to the western slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

I breathed an appreciative silent prayer of gratitude for all these sights and sounds. The old withered away, yet the promise of rebirth remained.           

At every step that I took, I was delighted to have observed all that found me.

The fog that hung over Shenandoah National Park even after I left.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

The benefits of standing still


I’m a person that is usually on the go. However, I know first-hand the benefits of standing still.

I recently went to the Big Meadows area of Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to do some birding. I have learned that the open spaces along and near parking lots are favored by certain bird species. Wildflowers and dense brush grow there beneath mature deciduous trees. That combination provides both cover and food for my avian friends.

It didn’t take me long to be rewarded. Though it was windy, the birds were active. Due to the wind, however, most kept low and in the thicket, making it harder to photograph them or even find them with binoculars.

On this overcast morning, the sun suddenly peeked through, and just as suddenly, this lone Cedar Waxwing landed on a pokeweed bush right in front of me. I slowly raised my camera and clicked away.

I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Cedar Waxings are some of my favorite birds due to their posture, coloration, and behavior make them regal birds. I snapped off four quick shots of this beauty as it checked its surroundings, and then just as quickly as it had arrived, the bird flew off.

Other than the slow raising of my camera and the ear-to-ear smile, I hadn’t moved. I was graciously rewarded for standing still. For the record, cropping and adding my watermark were the only “alterations” done to the photo.

“The benefits of standing still” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Officially welcoming another autumn


Residents of the Northern Hemisphere are on the eve of yet another autumnal equinox. Autumn officially begins at 9:30 a.m. EDT on Tuesday, September 22.

Autumn has given us plenty of warnings even before her arrival. Instead of turning red, many of the leaves on our backyard maple have simply been falling off one-by-one for weeks. We can thank the leafcutters for much of that.

The crazy weather of this insane year has also played a role in the dying leaves, along with other climatological irregularities. Let’s count the ways.

In late spring, an extended spell of chilly, wet March-like days did their damage. The steady damp weather kept farmers out of fields over much of the U.S. east of the Rocky Mountains.

Some bird species even delayed nesting because the weather was so foul. If birds did nest, naturalists found hatchlings dead because their parents couldn’t find enough insects to feed them.

Then just like that, it got hot and dry. Here in western Virginia, the furnace was on one day, and the air conditioner the next. Vegetation flourished in such conditions, causing the humid, hot wind to carry various pollens far and wide. According to my allergist, I wasn’t the only one sneezing.

The day the rains started in mid-July.
About the time Major League Baseball finally began in July, the heavens opened up. The rains canceled games, and so did COVID-19 because too many players tested positive.

Record rains pelted the full length of the Shenandoah Valley. August usually is a hot and dry month here. Not this year. The weather was more like June should have been. We mowed our lush lawn twice a week for several consecutive weeks.

All the while, fall kept creeping upon us. Butterflies, relatively scarce during June and July, began to arrive. So did the ruby-throated hummingbirds. Now they are all filling up their tanks for their annual southern migration.


The yellow, green, and black Monarch caterpillars have morphed their way into magnificent orange and black butterflies. Predators have learned to avoid dining on them since the Monarch’s appetite for milkweed renders them bitter, according to lepidopterists.

That dreaded F word, F-R-O-S-T, has already made appearances across the northern reaches of the U.S. Can the rest of us be far behind?

If you listen to the jingles and jargon on TV, this is pumpkin spice everything season. Despite the marketing ploys, I’ll gladly stick to my decaf mocha lattes. They’ll taste just as robust when the first freeze hits.

Of course, hurricane season peaks in the first few weeks of fall. The National Hurricane Center has already increased its predictions for both the numbers and intensities of those tropical storms.

Out west, you can’t breathe the air. It’s so oppressively hot and thick with smoke from record-breaking fires that have caused death, destruction, and devastation to humans, wildlife, and entire towns. More than 10 percent of Oregon’s population has been evacuated as of this writing.

Unfortunately for those millions of west coast folks, the sky has glowed an apocalyptic orange for all the wrong reasons. A good frost or even a lovely blanket of snow would greatly help those tired firefighters slow the infernos.

Autumn, of course, abounds with fiery colors, orange included. In addition to the winged creatures, mums, maples, pumpkins, and gourds are but few of the things that warmly usher in fall.

Climate change has undoubtedly played a part in stirring up 2020’s weird and wild weather. It’s been a universally strange enough year already all the way around.

Let’s welcome fall with a blissful hope for more normal global weather patterns.

The right kind of orange.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Teasel


I loved how the afternoon light highlighted the prickly details of this dense stand of spent teasel heads. Likely, several varieties of birds thrived on the seeds of these thorny remains.

I was happy that the farmer had let these beauties stand for all to enjoy. “Teasel” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Enjoying September’s melodies

Singing September’s song.

We’re already pushing to the middle of September. Have you heard the many melodies she’s already played?

If not, please don’t fret. If September plays her usual gig, she will beautifully and joyously harmonize her way into October.

We have to pay attention morning, noon, and night to fully appreciate September’s numerous odes. It’s a perpetual concert out there.

September has many modes of singing to us. That’s good news for those of us with diminished hearing. The seasonal songs are ubiquitous and indiscriminate.

Crickets, katydids, and locusts lull us with their winged cacophonies. Nature’s stringed rhapsody signals the season’s end and celebrates each day’s closing.

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A tiny screech owl’s raspy soliloquy provides a brief interlude to the insect symphony. The chilling tune means trouble for little four-legged rodents romping around in summer’s last evenings.

If you listen carefully, you might be fortunate to catch the call of migrating birds piping on the wing high overhead. If you can’t hear them, aim your binoculars at the moon and enjoy the sideshow.

September croons to us in color, too. Her many blooms of gold, crimson, yellow, red, and even blue paint a many-colored musical in flower gardens, along roadsides, and in unkempt fields.

The month’s repertoire includes occasional towering thunderstorms. Their lightning dances and their thunder booms, drumming fear into almost every canine within miles.

At the storm’s end, perhaps she will surprise us with a dangling rainbow. Look quick before that high note fades. Remember to breathe in the aftermath, refreshing, clean, pure.

September invites us to sing along with her eclectic playlist. The crisp snap of husking the golden ears of sweetcorn is the prelude to perhaps the year’s last fresh corn on the cob.

Of course, the hiss of canners still sings, bubbling with goodness and a kaleidoscope of colors. Besides corn, salsa, beans, tomatoes, pickles, peppers, peaches, grapes, and apples all play their fruitful parts.

I adore the choruses in the outdoors the most. Find a pleasant spot in the woods, and just sit, watch, and listen as the sounds of silence come floating in decorative displays.

Migrating butterflies flutter to their specific tunes. Groups of Monarchs congregate in the coolness and safety of trees until the morning sun dries and warms their wings.


Swallowtails, fritillaries, Buckeyes, and skippers flutter their notes in their particular and various flights. It’s always amazing how they can find the slightest blooming speck to nourish them on their way south.

Brilliant sunrises and sunsets add magical backdrops to September’s forte. The trick is to rise in time to catch the morning show or to stop what you are doing and embrace heaven’s evening song.

The deciduous trees, of course, join the colorful choir one leaf at a time. Their intensity increases as the month wanes. They usually wait until October for their triumphant exit.

Still, whatever voice they can bring to September’s musical is much appreciated. We humans inadvertently join the band with our out of tune rakes and mechanical blowers.

Nevertheless, September’s concert is a joy to grasp. That’s true even if the neighborhood skunk makes an unwelcomed visit.

We can still enjoy the many classical notes of the year’s ninth month. At day’s end, the stars and planets twinkle their universal choruses, glorifying the heavens above.

If we are attentive and diligent, we breathe in deeply this joyous song of creation with all of our innate senses. Consequently, September would love to have you sing along.

Amish scholars walk to their private school in a September morning haze.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

The Doting Mother


I spied this female Eastern Bluebird peering over the top of the leaves of this tree early one morning. I heard her plaintiff call, and then another from a slightly different location. A quick glance around revealed this juvenile basking in the morning sunshine.

Apparently, mom just wanted to make sure her baby was alright, or perhaps they were searching for breakfast in the wild cherry tree. “The Doting Mother” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Feeling stressed, fearful? Head outside!

The misty morning view from the Skyline Drive.

Awash with news and information about COVID-19, it’s easy to feel tense, confused, irritable, fearful, or even bored. Due to the global pandemic, millions of people of all colors, religions, cultures, and languages are experiencing similar trepidations.

A sense of hopelessness can be emotionally overwhelming. There’s a way to help overcome that despair. Head outside!

Studies have shown that connecting with nature calms fears, and uplifts spirits. I embrace those findings as often as I can. I recently headed to my favorite get-away place, Shenandoah National Park.

Mine was a twofold mission. Besides going into the wild, this was my first hiking experience since my knee replacement surgery last September.

I started early to beat the heat and humidity. The sun hadn’t yet risen over the Blue Ridge Mountains as I approached the park on U.S. 33. I exit that road into the park at Swift Run Gap.

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Rounding a slight curve on a typically hazy summer morning, I noticed a large dark object in the opposite lanes of the divided highway. I slowed and rolled past a massive black bear standing beyond the grassy medium.

The magnificent creature looked both ways and then bolted across the roadway. It promptly disappeared into the steep, wooded hillside before I could even grab my camera.

Buoyed by that encounter, I arrived at the trailhead in high spirits. Surely, anything that I would experience the rest of the day would be anti-climactic, unless I saw another bear on the hike. I didn’t.

I walked a few yards on the Appalachian Trail to where it intersected with the trail I wanted, the Mill Prong. It was all downhill from there until the return trip.

The forest was amazingly still. No birds sang, and no vehicles hummed along the nearby Skyline Drive. I took in every moment, the wildflowers, the ferns, brightly colored fungus conspicuously growing on dead trees. The distant sound of water gurgling its way down the mountainside lured me onward.

I heard or saw no one else. A gray catbird burst from a bush beside the trail. A feisty squirrel angrily scurried away, flapping its tail in disgust of the human disruption.

I rested at the shallow stream. The morning sun filtered through the forest canopy, sparkling the gently rippling water. I felt exalted.

Farther downstream, I sat on a large rock and just enjoyed the sound of water trickling over ancient boulders. On my return trip, I passed a few other hikers. Each one donned face masks as we passed on the trail. More gratitude and thoughtfulness mutually expressed.


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When I reached the parking lot, the strengthening morning sun spotlighted some bright orange Turk’s cap lilies just off the trail. Their beauty drew me like a magnet. I snapped my camera’s shutter over and over, trying to preserve the glory I beheld perfectly.

Suddenly, a female tiger swallowtail butterfly alighted on the same flower that I was photographing. Again, delight and gratitude filled me to the full.

In the rest of the world, the pandemic raged. But in the wild, only the big black bear, the forest’s serenity, the kindness of other hikers, and this tango of floral and fauna mattered.

I was thankful for each magical moment, and for the skillful surgeon who had replaced my knee. Gratitude is appropriate anytime, but especially during this pandemic.

Connecting with nature does indeed do wonders for your soul. You can find peace and gratitude in a local park or even your backyard.

Get outdoors, follow the prescribed safety rules, and enjoy all that comes your way.

The splendor at trail’s end.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

The Blues Have It!


I am fortunate that I can incorporate my three favorite hobbies into one outing. Whenever I go hiking, I always take my binoculars and camera. Every now and then, I am rewarded with an opportunity to capture the beauty of birds.

This male Indigo Bunting landed on this jumble of dead branches just out of the morning’s sunlight. Still, the ruffle of the striking bird’s feathers as it turned its head revealed several shades of blue. Indigo is the perfect name for this avian beauty.

I am happy to share my Photo of the Week with you, “The Blues Have it!”

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Ambivalent about August

August in Ohio’s Amish country.

I’ve always been a bit ambivalent about August. I’m especially so this year, given all the ramifications of the ongoing pandemic.

When my wife and I lived in Ohio, August kept us busy as career public school educators. We each geared up for the start of a new academic year. As a principal, I created schedules and rosters and attended too many meetings. The excellent teacher that she was, my wife spent many hours preparing each classroom to be an inviting learning haven.

Canned peaches.
August also ushered in the food preservation season. We froze dozens of containers of sweet corn and apple sauce. We waited for the canning lids to sound the seal of approval with satisfying “pops” for the tomatoes, grape juice, beets, and peaches. Rainbows of goodness adorned our shelves.

Of course, we weren’t alone in these endeavors. After I retired, I savored sale mornings at the local produce auction. I loved the hustle and bustle of men and women unloading their trucks and horse-drawn wagons. The rhythmical cadence of the auctioneers barking out their persuasive banter was sweet music to my ears.

The growing season here in the Shenandoah Valley where we live now is a couple of weeks ahead of Holmes County, Ohio. So, we don’t have to wait as long to enjoy our first taste of locally grown veggies.

Farmers Produce Auction, Mt. Hope OH
Auction in action.

August is more than agriculture, though. The three H’s rule the eighth month: hot, hazy, humid. That’s not the main reason for my ambivalence, however. With the coronavirus continuing to run rampant, uncertainty abounds in everyone’s life.

The city schools where our grandchildren attend here were set to open with a combination of in-person and online instruction. The latest surge in COVID-19 has altered that plan. They’ll start the year learning remotely.

Mask-wearing is the norm, especially when entering stores or buildings. Neva and I have continued to be extra cautious about keeping our physical distancing. We truly miss the close socialization of friends and family.

Some states are doing better than others at slowing the virus. States that reopened with too few restrictions or where few people followed the guidelines are unfortunately paying the price.

A migrating black tiger swallowtail butterfly.
Since the governors have had to take the lead in issuing orders and health guidelines, rules and suggestions vary significantly from state to state. In part, that’s what has fueled our consternation.

We haven’t seen in person our son and his wife, who live in New York State, in more than a year. We have friends and relatives who have tested positive, but fortunately, they have all recovered so far. Too many others weren’t as fortunate.

County and street fairs, high school football, band shows, concerts, vacations, have all been canceled. Major League Baseball is trying to play a shortened season with no fans in attendance.

Virus or no virus, August will be August no matter what. Golden sunsets will blaze away in the hazy evening skies. Migrating birds and butterflies will begin to wing their way south.
We’ll continue to meet with friends, relatives, and worship remotely through technology.

Under the current dire circumstances, it’s the best and safest we can do. We’ll continue to do our shopping curbside.

Even given all that, I know that my August ambivalence must yield to patience, and patience to resolve. We have to see this global health crisis through for however long it takes. I’ll continue to be cautious, careful, and diligent. I am not ambivalent about COVID-19.

My challenge is not to let my melancholy deter my joy for living, for sharing, for helping others, even if it is with an altered daily lifestyle.

An August sunset.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Loving Shenandoah National Park

Old Rag is a popular hike in Shenandoah NP.

My wife and I have enjoyed Shenandoah National Park since we moved to Virginia three years ago. There’s a lot to love about the park, and it’s less than an hour away.

We’re not the only ones who appreciate it, of course. The estimates of annual visitors compare to those of Ohio’s Amish country, our former residence. Each location attracts millions of visitors a year.

Of course, the novel coronavirus pandemic has put a damper on tourist numbers everywhere. With the virus cases flattening out in Virginia, the park has mostly reopened.

When we want to break our stay-close-to-home routines, Neva and I head for the hills. Sometimes I will venture out alone, birding, hiking and shooting photos. It’s an enchanting place, a multi-sensory extravaganza.

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I hear the beautiful song of an indigo bunting, and I raise my binoculars, scanning the area for the likely source of the melody. Novice that I am at identifying bird calls, I want to make sure I am matching the right species with the song. I’ve learned that, like human accents, bird calls of the same species vary geographically.

Once I find the bird, I switch to my camera to try to get a decent photo. With the trees in full summer canopy, that’s not easy to do. Now and then, I am fortunate to find a bird singing in the open, and I click away.

I catch a slight, silent movement out of the corner of my eye. Is it a doe with a fawn, or perhaps twins? Is it a black bear grazing before nightfall? One never knows. On warm days, keeping a lookout for a lounging timber rattler while scrambling on a rock outcropping is always a good idea.


The park is a great place to take sunset photos, too. But sunsets in the mountains can be problematic.

The expansive, rolling Shenandoah Valley is bordered on the east and west by mountain ranges. Sunsets can be as disappointing as they are stunning. Weather plus geography equals a formula for the unknown.

When we lived in Ohio, all we had to do was look out our windows to know the potential for a spectacular sunrise or sunset. We were spoiled.

Here in the breadbasket of Virginia, the rising and falling topography makes it iffy to predict what the eastern and western skies will do at dawn or dusk, respectively. You hope, pray, and go for it. Sometimes you are disappointed. Other times, you are speechless.

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It can be cloudy and raining in the valley. The view from the mountains of the park, however, might be spectacular if you wait long enough. Pick one of the many west-facing overlooks along the majestic Skyline Drive, and prepare yourself for come-what-may.

The elevation of the old, folded mountains ranges up to 2,500 feet higher than that of the valley. From the park, you can see the Allegheny Mountains that mark the boundary between the Commonwealth and West Virginia.

Patience, intuition, and good fortune can be the formula for bathing in a dreamland. Even with a thick cloud cover, the sun can still break through, turning drabness into beautiful in the blink of an eye.

I’ve learned to be ready for the unexpected as the sun slinks below the jagged horizon. Will the clouds refract the sun’s rays into pinks and blues, lavenders and oranges? Or will they merely steal away the sun without fanfare?

You don’t have to have a national park to enjoy heavenly landscapes. Wherever you are, just wait and watch, and let nature do the rest.

Sunset in Ohio’s Amish country.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020