The colors of August

Wheat shocks at sunset.

The colors of August captivate me. Living nearly all of my adult life in Holmes County, Ohio gave me a full range of that summer paint pallet.

The pleasing contrasting greens and golds quickly got my attention. I admired the rolling contoured rows of lush green field corn against the toasted waves of winter wheat.

In the eastern part of the county, wheat shocks stood as sentinels guarding the fattening ears of corn nearby. Unfortunately, their presence seldom deterred the deer from nibbling the outer rows to the cob.

The blooming alfalfa brought pretty butterflies, honeybees, and other vital pollinators. The swooping swallows had their own feast, especially when the farmers made their August cuttings whether by tractors or horse-drawn mowers.

August was when the vibrant green leaves of deciduous trees began to curl in the heat, humidity, and parched soil. By month’s end, a few even turned brown or began to color.

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I always enjoyed the flowers that bordered blossoming gardens or multiple flowerbeds like my wife cultivated to perfection. Hollyhocks were my favorite until the gladiolas raised their pink, red, yellow, and white flags.

I would be negligent if I failed to mention the summer birds, some of which had already begun their return flight south. Though not as vocal as earlier in the year, most still showed their breeding colors.

The flashing iridescent red on emerald of the male ruby-throated hummingbird and the flashy orange and black of Baltimore orioles spruced up any welcoming yard, if only temporarily. Sometimes the two species vied for dibs at the sugar-water feeders.

By months end, early morning coolness brought silent, silken fog that glowed bronze with the rising sun. If eyes were sharp, silver droplets dotted the dewy threads of spider webs artistically strung from one barbed wire strand to another.

Much of that changed, however, when my wife and I moved to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Like Holmes County, the Valley, as locals like to call it, is the breadbasket of the south. Agriculture still rules the rural areas.

Farming is a bit different here, however. Though the Old Order Mennonites still drive horses and buggies, they man the latest farm machinery invented. As thrifty as their Amish cousins, they often farm right up to the roadway.

Though the topography is similar, strip cropping is seldom used. No-till farming seems to be the in thing here. The result is wide swaths of wheat sown between two fields of field corn or the tallest soybeans I have ever seen. It’s still green and gold, just different species.

With soil that hardly ever freezes and being further south, the growing season is longer. Farmers and gardeners get an earlier start on planting and consequently harvesting. The colors I was used to in August begin to appear in July. Produce stands evidence that.

The produce peak, however, still seems to be August. My wife and I can attest to that thanks to the generosity of our son and daughter’s families. They gifted us a weekly produce box known as CSA, Community Supporting Agriculture.

End of August morning.
We have already enjoyed weeks’ worth of fresh, organic produce that is as tasty as it is luscious to admire. Mellow yellow summer squash, prickly green pickles, plump red tomatoes, sweet red beets, orange cantaloupe, and juicy red watermelon make our summer meals perfect.

Happy to merely admire the colors, I almost hate to have Neva slice, dice, fry, cook, and can the colorful lot. I change my mind, however, with the fresh salsa alone.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2019

Butterfly Breakfast

Butterfly Conservancy, Key West FL
My wife and I visited the Key West Butterfly Conservatory and Museum in Key West, FL. It’s a magical place, full of colorful butterflies and plants and flowers on which they thrive. We arrived right after the business opened, which turned out well for both the butterflies and us.

The staff had just set out plates of over-ripe fruit sprinkled with various nutrients the butterflies needed. Whether intended or accidental, the breakfast offerings for the lovely creatures were themselves works of art.

“Butterfly Breakfast” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2019

Why are you thankful?

By Bruce Stambaugh

Thanksgiving is upon us. This year in the United States, the annual day of thankfulness arrives as early as possible, November 22. Our Canadian friends to the north celebrated their Thanksgiving on October 6.

It is only right and proper to pause as a people to reflect and give thanks. We can be grateful for so many things in our abundant living.

A friend on social media posted a list of items for which he was thankful. Given his life of service to others, I wasn’t surprised at how simple and ordinary the conveniences were that he listed.

Sometimes it’s the familiar, everyday activities and routines that are most meaningful to us. With my friend’s permission, here is his top 10 list of thankfulness:

1. Drinkable tap water
2. Flush toilets
3. Working septic system
4. Washer and dryer
5. Electricity in the home
6. Clothes to wear
7. A house to live in
8. Shoes
9. Floors that aren’t dirt
10. Ample food

Keeping things simple helps us think beyond ourselves, consider the plight of others who don’t have even those most basic necessities. The Center for Disease Control estimates that 780 million people globally do not have access to clean water, and 2.5 billion lack improved sanitation. That’s billion with a B. Think about those numbers for a second.

Food, water, and shelter are the basic essentials for living. My friend set a good example. He recognized just how fortunate we are to be able to go most anywhere in our country and turn the tap and be able to drink the water without worry of contamination. I realize that folks in Flint, MI would differ with this comment. As dangerous as their situation is, I’m glad it is an exception.

And when it comes to waste products, I’ve always respected folks who make their living dealing with the muck of life. Farmers, public utility workers, garbage and waste haulers all have tough jobs. I am thankful for them.

Granddaughter's new shoesBefore we moved from Ohio to Virginia, Neva and I significantly reduced our individual wardrobes. I had too many shoes and too many shirts and pants I seldom wore. Off they went to the thrift store. I’ve been to locales where decent clothing was hard to come by, if only for economic reasons. I, too, am thankful for affordable clothing and footwear.

Housing is indeed another luxury we too often take for granted. Many moons ago I encountered students I had in my classroom who lived in a house with dirt floors. I had a hard time getting over that when we were more than halfway through the 20th century.

Now here we are well into the 21st century, and poverty and inadequate housing are still rampant in our society and globally. Neva and I do what we can to help the homeless through trusted charitable agencies. I am also thankful for the home we share together, and for my gracious wife’s willingness to use her gift of hospitality.

Before the guests arrived.
Finally on the thankfulness list is food. Food is a universal need and reason for jubilation. Food takes center stage at Thanksgiving. Roast turkey, dressing, potatoes and gravy, salad and pies all bedeck Thanksgiving Day tables in Canada and the U.S. alike.

When we say grace over this Thanksgiving Day meal, I’ll also be mindful of those who would love to be gathered there with us. Perhaps we should ensure that happens by inviting others not generally in our family circles.

When you think about it, doesn’t my friend’s list about cover what Thanksgiving is all about? What are you thankful for this Thanksgiving?

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

Finding gratitude where least expected

Rockingham Co. VA, rural farms
Where some of the local food is grown and where some of the food pantry clients live.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Life never ceases to amaze me. In my long years of living, I’ve learned that gratitude often emerges in the least likely of places.

My wife and I were asked to volunteer one evening a month at a local food pantry near downtown Harrisonburg, Virginia. The Friendly City is home to 55,000 people in the center of the Shenandoah Valley. The pantry operates once a week, providing foodstuffs for those who don’t have enough income even to buy basic grocery necessities.

Participants are only permitted to visit the food pantry once per month. Individual records are kept to ensure the rules are followed. That has never been a problem, however.

tomatoesbybrucestambaugh
Locally grown produce like these tomatoes is often donated to the food pantry.
The pantry receives its supplies from two sources. A regional food bank provides federal government USDA commodities, while local supermarkets, restaurants, and farmers donate their surplus food to the pantry. A few farmers even grow extra produce to help supply in-season fresh foods.

Those who depend on the food pantry for their sustenance must qualify by income for the USDA items. Pantry participants receive the locally provided food without qualification. The pantry offers a few healthcare products, too.

Neva and I have settled into our roles of interviewers. Our job has multiple responsibilities. We have to ask many invasive, personal questions before we can check off the USDA food preference list with the clients. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to write down $0 for a monthly income. It’s a humbling experience both for the clients and us.

With all the “workers wanted” signs around, a logical question might be, “Why don’t these people get a job?” The answer to this question is two-fold. Many of the clients do have jobs. Their meager incomes and family sizes qualify them for the federal subsidies.

William Penn quotation.
From my observations and interactions, those who receive aid and don’t work are not employable for a host of obvious reasons. Some stay at home with small children. Some are senior citizens whose productive working days are long past. Some are disabled with no financial support of any kind. You get the picture.

Amid the discomfiting officiousness, one quality consistently shines from month to month, person to person. Everyone we encounter expresses gratitude for any help provided. Some are effusive while others say a quiet thank you.

As humbling and perhaps even embarrassing as the experience is for the clients, they are all thankful. Without being prompted, a few share heartbreak stories with us. They seem glad to have someone with whom to converse. We listen intently and thank them for sharing. A hardy handshake sometimes ensues.

I have yet to meet anyone who feels entitled to this food. Just the opposite is true. The clients’ glow of exuberant gratitude outshines any hint of disparity.

The joyous expressions and cheery thankfulness for whatever assistance they receive more than reward us for our collective efforts. Every client is especially appreciative if the list indeed includes healthcare items like diapers, shampoo, or toothpaste.

It takes courage to admit you need help. But if your child is hungry and the cupboard is bare, courtesy, gratitude, and thankfulness vanquish pride.

A disconcerting trend has developed, however. Each time we serve at the food pantry the number of clients tends to increase. Nevertheless, humility, smiles, and expressions of relief also grow exponentially.

Who would have thought that we would find and receive abundant gratitude from those who can’t afford daily food? Who would have imagined that serving in such a manner would reward us with humankind’s most heartfelt thanks?

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

Is October the best month?

Maryland Mountain, fall color
Changing leaves.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Everybody has favorites. From favorite ice cream to a favorite sports team, we humans tend to quantify and qualify most everything.

Months of the year are no different. I’m as guilty as the next person in this category. October is far and away my favored month.

I’m likely not alone in stating the primary reason for liking October so much. The ever-changing color schemes fascinate me. Living all of my life in areas where mixed hardwoods warm the landscape with vivid, fiery colors makes that choice easy.

I hope I never take that annual beautification for granted. That’s because no two autumns are alike. So many factors go into just how colorful the trees will be. Half the fun is anticipating the intensity of the leafy rainbows.

We wonder what effect the persistent wet weather of the summer will have on the colors. Will they be bright or will they be dull? Will the leaves even last long enough to fully color, or will they succumb to gravity’s inevitable tug and prematurely tumble to the ground?

I know that may sound like a silly question. But my wife and I have already noticed that the leaves of the red maples in our yard in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley began falling days ago. Last year they hung on red and green until well after Halloween.

Holmes Co. OH, autumn leaves, sugar maple
Changing colors.
If we pay close attention, nature sometimes offers us a sneak preview. Certain sections of particular trees begin to turn long before the rest of their foliage. Sugar maples are especially prone to this phenomenon. Could it be the compounding effect of the day after day absorption of the sun’s intense first rays during September and October mornings?

Trees aren’t the only canvas on which nature paints though. Fall also displays her colors among the agricultural harvest in the waning days and weeks of the growing season. The warm hues of gourd and squash varieties rule produce stands and supermarkets everywhere.

Those yellows, oranges, and crimsons contrast nicely with their hosts’ rich greens. Mums and sunflowers testify to the validity of these facts, too. The array of fruits and vegetables available also join the splashy seasonal show.

Restaurant menus highlight the food of fall with autumn entrees and beverage offerings alike. However, I’ve not joined the pumpkin-spice-flavored-everything club. I’m happy with my wife’s homemade gluten-free apple crisp washed down with a glass of delicious and locally produced apple cider.

Milder and less humid air is a welcome change from the steady heat and humidity that filled summer and early autumn days, especially here in Virginia. As I have unfortunately discovered in my first year of living in the Commonwealth, invisible pollen particles fill the air awakening allergies I didn’t know I had. So for selfish reasons, I look forward to the first killing frost.

I realize that the end to the growing season means we are closer to the cold and dark of winter days. But the earth still turns on its axis and rotates around the sun. Without winter there can be no spring.

Perhaps I am too taken with the overall aura of October itself. Our North American society has made October a festive month with one community celebration after the other. Consequently, food truck operators work overtime to meet all the demands for their tasty treats.

All in all, October is fall’s time to shine. With the harvest in full swing, October is a celebratory time. For me, that is excuse enough to elevate the tenth month above its jealous siblings.

Corn shocks at sunset.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

I don’t know how she does it

By Bruce Stambaugh

August is rapidly coming to a close. For our family, that means that Neva is in her comfort zone doing what she does best.

Neva loves to help others. It’s in her DNA. In the fall, our daughter’s busy family becomes the center of our attention. In part, that is why we moved to the Shenandoah Valley.

Carrie is the women’s volleyball coach at Eastern Mennonite University. Her personal and professional schedules are head-spinners. Practices and meeting with players consume Carrie’s time. Once the regular season starts soon, it gets to be grueling.

canning
Neva spends much of her time in the kitchen preparing meals, frozen sweet corn, and applesauce for others.
Of course, our daughter has a family to care for as well. That’s difficult to do, even with a helpful and talented husband. That’s where we come in, especially my wife.

Before our move from Ohio’s Amish country to the Commonwealth of Virginia, Harrisonburg became our temporary home in the fall. Neva lived there August into November. I shuttled back and forth during those months as work duties called.

Now that we are retired and live just five miles away, we can quickly assist our daughter and her family. When it comes to Neva, “assist” is an understatement.

My energetic wife puts all she has into helping our daughter’s home run as smoothly as possible. It’s a must do situation with three active grandchildren and both of their parents working full-time.

creativity,
Neva added a repurposed screen door to a flowerbed.
With Neva taking the lead, my wife and I gladly step in to do what we can. Me? I do whatever I’m asked or told to do. If you are a betting person, wager on the latter.

Of course, the grandkids and our son-in-law all do their part. We fill in the gaps when work and school schedules preclude household chores being completed.

When it comes to domestic skills, I can’t hold a candle to Neva though. She plans and prepares family meals. I set the table and clean up. Occasionally, Neva prepares food for the entire volleyball team. I’m the gopher. I go for this and go for that.

While Neva is cooking or cleaning or shopping, I might be running the oldest grandchild to the gym for workouts or picking up the middle grandkid from after-school activities or accompanying the youngest to her soccer practice.

See what I mean? All that coming and going keeps us active, energized, and helps us sleep well at night.

In addition to all of this activity, our son has taken a new job in a different state seven hours away from us. With Neva leading the way, we helped him ready for this significant transition in his life, too. We were glad to do what we could.

Why does Neva do all of this? It’s all she knows how to do. It’s how she loves. Her compassion manifests into tasty, nutritious meals, quality time spent sharing her gifts and wisdom with the grandkids, and a sense of security for our son, daughter, and son-in-law.

enjoying an evening
Every now and then, Neva takes a break.
I marvel at Neva’s determination, fortitude, skills, and drive to aid others. It’s definitely that time of year again, and we all reap the benefits of Neva’s generous gift of hospitality.

Our fall schedules are hectic to be sure. Neva and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

To paraphrase the late Arthur Ashe, we do what we can with what we have right where we are. At our age, at any age really, that’s all that can be expected. In Neva’s case, she exceeds any and all expectations.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

Summer is a humbling time

Amish farm, corn, wheat, oats
Grains of Summer.

By Bruce Stambaugh

With all of its positive and pleasant attributes, summer makes it hard to be humble.

We all want to get out and take full advantage of the sunny days filled with warmer temperatures and a wide variety of activities. We fling ourselves full force into each day whether it’s for work or for play. We want to drink in every drop of sunshine, warmth, and blue skies, from dawn to dusk.

Hungry Mother SP VA
At the beach.
Toddlers, children, and teens fill the local swimming pools, both public and backyard venues, while adults keep watchful eyes on the less careful youth. Construction workers bask in the fair weather, narrowing four lanes to one with an arsenal of orange barrels.

Lawnmowers hum morning, noon, and evening throughout global neighborhoods. Contractors and excavators work sunup to sundown. Farmers are in their glory, beginning to harvest the fruits of their labor.

In many places, the corn reached far beyond knee-high-by-the-Fourth-of-July standards. In others, stalks stood only inches tall, drowned out by the super wet spring and early summer rains.

Amber waves of grain really did roll in the wind until giant combines gobbled them up or they formed rows of shocks like so many soldiers standing guard in Amish-owned fields.

Summer, however, has other, more drastic ways to get our attention with her weapons. Summer can humble us lowly humans in many ways. Think floods, wildfires, tornadoes, droughts, golf ball-sized hail, record heat and humidity.

No matter our stature or station in life, we all succumb to those prevailing conditions. Summer humbles us.

humble singFor those unfamiliar with E.B. White’s beloved children’s classic “Charlotte’s Web,” humility played a major role in the book’s plot and dialogue. The spider Charlotte wove “Humble” into the web that served to save the life of the precocious pig Wilbur. She wanted a word that meant “not proud” as Wilbur’s crowning characteristic.

But humility has a second meaning beyond the social one. Humble implies a willingness to learn, and thankfully summer has much to teach us. The lessons are all around us in a more pleasing, useful, and beautiful form than what disasters wrought.

Vegetable gardens and truck patches team with all sorts of goodies that nurture us. Tasty homegrown sweet corn, luscious red tomatoes, green, red, and yellow peppers, and tangles of zucchini are just a few examples.

Roadside produce stands and supermarkets tempt us with juicy peaches and vine-ripened melons. Generations ago indigenous Americans taught us to plant, tend, and harvest these marvels.

For those non-gardeners among us, we sniff and thump and feel and taste to select the best of the bunch like our parents and grandparents did. The poor fruits and veggies pay the ultimate price.

Please click on the photos to enlarge them.

Flower gardens are peaking with hollyhocks and zinnias and cultivated flowers, too. Leafy hardwoods provide shade and refreshing coolness from the oppressive summer heat for humans and critters alike.

Wildflowers and wildlife, too, show their stuff. Dainty spotted fawns venture out on their own while mom watches from more secluded spaces. Parent bluebirds and house wrens ferry insects, worms, and berries to their youngsters nearly as big as the adult birds.

Families crowd beaches and climb mountains on vacations, exploring new venues or returning to old haunts discovered by previous generations.

Where is humility in all of this? Using the educational definition, it’s merely a reminder of the responsibility of the created to care for the creation. That is about as humbled as we can get.

pasture field, cumulous clouds
Summer landscape.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018