Arboretums equal beauty

Now is the time to enjoy them

Edith J. Carrier Arboretum, Harrisonburg, Virginia.

Now is the time to get outdoors. Nature is in all of her rejuvenated glory.

No matter where you live, there are likely plenty of opportunities to explore and enjoy the blossoming beauty. It could be the mauve of your neighbor’s crabapple tree. It could be a local park, where multiple options abound. Maybe it’s your own backyard.

The location is insignificant. All of nature is coming alive right now in the Northern Hemisphere. But as the daffodils have shown, this beauty won’t last. Enjoy it while it’s here.

When a friend invited my wife and me to see their magic garden in full bloom, we didn’t hesitate. We had been there before and knew what a treat it would be.

Our friend Mary guided us through the glorious garden filled with various vibrant flowers, all native to the Shenandoah Valley. A pastel pallet of creeping phlox that lined the sidewalk and driveway served as our greeters.

As we wound our way around the house and down into a lovely shaded area, blooming azaleas and cultivated wildflowers popped into view. Mary’s husband Glenn sat on a bench surrounded by Virginia bluebells and their smaller imitators lungworts. Their spangled leaves accented the dainty pink and blue blossoms.

The vivid colors of our friends’ personal arboretum.

Mary and Glenn made us feel at home in their little slice of paradise on earth. I’m sure that’s the case for everyone who visits. They are as welcoming as their heavenly arboretum.

The previous day Neva and I had visited the noted Edith J. Carrier Arboretum on the James Madison University campus in Harrisonburg, Virginia. A free wildflower tour happens every Wednesday when the wildflowers bloom.

Our guide led us around the pond into the woods, frequently stopping to point out the various wildflowers and blooming trees. Of course, the Virginia bluebells stole the show.

Not to be outdone, the deep burgundy of the toad trillium nicely contrasted with their white cousins nearby. Redbuds, both pink and white, provided a pretty umbrella for the gentle, steady rain.

Late-blooming spring beauties and buttery daffodils with orange trumpets caught our attention. The last of the white-petaled bloodroots had to be impressed with the Dutchman’s britches dancing in the raindrops.

The deep red pawpaw buds were still tight, waiting for warmer and sunnier days to open. Several in the group told stories of the delicious pawpaw fruit. Others had their doubts.

Wild blue phlox and lungwort tried their best to distract the visitors from admiring the rose azaleas. Warblers and woodpeckers achieved that goal for me.

We saw and learned about scores of other flowers, plants, shrubs, and trees in the conservatory. Something is always blooming there in the springtime. You can drown in wildflowers.

Back in Ohio, the Wilderness Center at Wilmot and the Secrest Arboretum at the OARDC in Wooster were always my favorite places to visit, especially in the spring. Wildflowers, ornamental trees, and birds and butterflies kept me busy for hours.

Of course, just traveling hiking and biking trails this time of year is a real treat. Different flowers seem to appear daily, along with the migrating and resident songbirds.

My friend and author Julie Zickefoose said it succinctly, “There is so much living to be done in spring when everything is so beautiful.” I couldn’t agree more.

You likely have your favorite places to visit in the spring to view the wildflowers and enjoy the colorful birds. Even if it’s your own backyard, get out and enjoy the glorious show.

A springtime floral display in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

April is a character

In a family of months

Redbuds in full bloom.

I’ve known a few characters in my lifetime. I bet you have, too.

By character, I mean a unique individual who enjoys life outside the expected societal norms. Every family, workplace, and even church seems to have at least one individual who fits the profile.

I’ve learned that you don’t have to be human to be a character either. Our long-departed rat terrier Bill fit that category.

Bill’s personality far outsized his small frame. He once jumped up to try a catch a Canada goose that flew low over our Ohio home.

Other non-human characters include our backyard blonde squirrel and a pair of mallard ducks that frequent our neighborhood.

Just being blonde and a squirrel is character enough. When other squirrels approach, Blonde rapidly flips her beautiful golden tail to defend her territory. Satisfied that all is clear, she stretches out on the cool grass in the shadow of the maple, relishing in her most recent victory.

The ducks are a different story. Even though our suburban home’s closest water sources are swimming pools, this pair flies around the neighborhood, landing on rooftops. From there, they scout out nearby birdfeeders and go house to house foraging for breakfast, lunch, and supper.

Characters, however, don’t have to be living beings or animals.

Take our Julian calendar, for example. Months have dynamic personalities, too. April earns head of the class and not necessarily for alphabetical reasons.

Among her 11 siblings, April can often be a bit obnoxious. That’s especially true when it comes to weather.

April showers bring much more than May flowers. April’s repertoire dishes out tornadoes, snow, frost, floods, 80 degree days, and more. Sometimes only hours separate those diverse conditions.

No matter where you live in the United States or Canada, April can be a stinker. She doesn’t rely only on April 1 to fool you. One day, it’s 15 degrees above average. The sun is shining in a clear blue sky, while songbirds fill the warm air with luxurious melodies. The sound of lawnmowers echoes far and wide.

The next day the fog is so thick the sun can’t even breakthrough. Soon the wind picks up, and storm clouds race across the landscape, pelting rain, hail, and producing winds that exceed the speed limit. It would be justifiable if the weather service issued an arrest warrant for April for perpetrating days like this.

It’s not that we don’t expect variety in the weather. It is spring, after all. But it would be pure pleasure to know it’s safe to store the ice scrapers and snow shovels for at least a few months.

I have anecdotal evidence of such events. One early April day, 20 inches of heavy, wet snow brought much of Ohio to a halt. Volunteer fire departments ferried medical workers to and from hospitals.

On April 3 and 4, 1974, massive and deadly tornados hit Xenia, Ohio, and many other locations in more than a dozen states. Holmes County was in the path of the storm, too.

The sky turned pea green, and everything grew still. The tornado never touched down, but instead, tattered and torn objects from Xenia drifted to earth. People found checks and personal effects from 150 miles southwest.

April continues to be a Jekyll and Hyde. Just as our redbuds were about to bloom pink and bold, back-to-back days of 20-degree mornings deadened their potential pink beauty. I hope they can recover from their frigid encounters.

April is a character, all right. She still has time to repent, however.

Creeping phlox and a lone blue anemone.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

A Sure Sign of Spring

When my wife and I lived in Ohio’s Amish country, there was one sure sign of spring that I always relished. Our Amish neighbors plowing the first furrows of soil always said spring to me.

I never tired of the witnessing the annual tradition. Powerful and beautiful workhorses pulling the farmers seated upon one-bottom plows sealed the spring deal for me.

The jingle of the horses’ harnesses, the smell of freshly turned soil, the encouraging voices of the men calling the names of the horses to keep going created a reassuring feeling. Though the vernal equinox had already passed, this scene always invigorated me. Of course, the longer days, the chorus of songbirds, the pale blue sky, and the budding flowers didn’t hurt either.

“A Sure Sign of Spring” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

Why March is a favorite month

March has always been one of my favorite months for several reasons. Mind you, I don’t get as excited as youngsters on Christmas morning, but it’s close.

March is a transitional month, especially for those who live in the northern realms of the northern hemisphere. That’s especially true for March weather, though I don’t give much credence to the “in like a lion, out like a lamb” folklore.

March serves up a meteorological smorgasbord. Rain, sleet, snow, sunshine, and severe weather can all appear in the month’s 31 days.

A March day in Ohio’s Amish country.

The day I cherish most is the vernal equinox, which is March 20 this year. Let’s hope that the green of St. Patrick’s Day carries on over into April. I won’t hold my breath, however.

March marks the official transition from winter to spring. If the ground isn’t too soggy, planting vegetables and flower gardens commences, and farmers prepare their fields for sowing crops.

When we lived in Holmes County, Ohio, I always marveled at the hardiness of farmers, usually teenagers and young men, who braved the elements to plow and disk the fields. It may have been sunny when they left the barn, but somehow it always seemed to snow or rain when they hit the fields. Still, their teams of beautiful workhorses plodded on.

Here in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, it’s giant-sized tractors and the consequences of zipping in and out of fields that drivers have to watch out for on the ubiquitous narrow, winding roads. Unfortunately, the sticky, red mud is difficult to clean off of your vehicles.

Speaking of mud, I never knew about schools closing for mud days until I moved to Holmes County. Curiosity cured me on the first trip down a rural gravel road. When I became a township trustee, I positively hated when gravel roads turned to mush or hard surface roads disintegrated.

Sandhill Cranes.

March usually means the end of sugaring time. By month’s end, the tempo of warm days and cold nights that encouraged the sap to flow has ended.

Birders live for spring, and March often provides the first rush of migrants returning to nest or passing through to destinations farther north. Is there anything more exciting than hearing a flock of sandhill cranes honking overhead in the twilight?

March means color returns to the deadened landscape. Green shoots of plants and flowers push through the barren soil, even if the majority are dandelions.

A walk in the woods reveals nature at work at many levels. Look down, and patches of spring beauties carpet the ground. Listen, and choirs of spring peepers fill the warm evening air. Look up, and you might find owlets staring you down, nervously jostling on a limb.

Crocuses are some of the first blooms in flower gardens.

Photos of royal crocuses, buttery daffodils, and perhaps the season’s first tulips fill social media pages. It’s society’s 21st-century expression of joy and relief.

Of course, March means work. Winter’s litter of sticks and last fall’s leaves piled in corners far from their mother tree get recycled. Folks are eager to get outside and fuss about the appearance of their yards. They crank up their mowers even though snow is in the forecast.

I put out my hummingbird and oriole feeders in the hope of attracting any early arrivals. While I wait, I am more than content with waking to a competing chorus of robins and cardinals each morning.

Of course, I’m partial to March for personal reasons, especially this year. It’s our anniversary month. Welcoming March for 50 years together is singularly reason enough to celebrate the third month’s arrival.      

The fertile farmland of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

It’s an old-fashioned Ohio winter

Except we live in Virginia.

Just another snowstorm in northeast Ohio.

So far, this certainly has been an old-fashioned Ohio winter. The only problem with that statement is that we live in Virginia.

I was afraid this might happen since my wife and I decided to forgo our usual weeks-long hiatus to our beloved Amelia Island, Florida. It wasn’t always warm in our snowbird retreat there either, but at least it never snowed.

My preferred winter morning scene.

I don’t mind the snow so much. It’s the cold that gets to me. The older I get, the colder I get. My doctor blames that phenomenon on some of the medications that I take. Still, the results are the same.

My wife and I determined it best for us to stay close to home here in the Shenandoah Valley during the pandemic. We didn’t want to miss our chance at getting our virus vaccines since we were in a priority category to receive the shots.

We decided that it was better to endure the usually milder winters of Virginia than those of the Buckeye State we knew so well. This year there’s hardly been a difference.

Scenes from Ohio winters.

We have had cold, windy, wet, snowy, and often gray winter days. It hasn’t been as bad as living in the northeast Ohio Snowbelt. But we still feel those cold Arctic northwest winds nevertheless.

The Allegheny Mountains to our west help block some of the storms, and their western upslopes receive much more snow than we do here in the valley. However, if a storm tracks east of the mountains, we get our fair share of the white stuff, too. Snow and cold have been the rule, not the exception this winter for us.

So far this winter, we have had multiple measurable snowstorms. Some even lasted for a couple of days. We are used to seeing more sunny days here than we did in Ohio. Not this winter. I miss my frequent doses of vitamin D.

There is one good thing about snow in Virginia. It shuts everything down, significantly decreasing the number of drivers trying to test their macho mettle.

In Ohio, severe winter storms also closed schools, businesses, and highways. But that didn’t stop hardy souls from enjoying the snow. In extreme storms, snowmobiles ruled the roads until the snowplows ruined the fun.

Friends have teased us about all the winter storms we’ve had so far this year. “I thought you moved south,” they jest. My rational reply always is, “Yes, just not far enough south.” For the record, we are at the same latitude as Cincinnati.

Of course, we moved here for the grandkids. I’m pleased that they also have sledding hills to conquer and snow forts to build, as we did as youngsters. I’m contented to hear about their fun rather than join in.

Scenes for Virginia winters.

Snow brings more than recreation, though. The aesthetic results of valley snowstorms are a marvel. Like our former home, rolling farms dot the landscape of our expansive county. When blanketed with inches of snow, the already pastoral scenes turn majestic.

The mountainous landscapes become black and white panoramas of steeply sloped woods sprouting from white forest floors. Old Order Mennonites in buggies and on bikes don’t let the slippery stuff stop their endeavors. In that regard, it feels just like Holmes County, too.

The nice thing is that we don’t have to leave our home to enjoy the snow-sculpted scenery. Frosted branches of the neighbors’ evergreens bend low from the wet, white weight. We miss the Florida sunshine, but Neva and I are enjoying the beauty of wintertime in Virginia just as much as we did in Ohio.

Snow-covered Old Order Mennonite farms at the base of the Allegheny Mountains.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

Accepting reality will help us all

I’ll remember January 20, 2021, for a long time.

Yes, it the day we inaugurated a new president of the United States. It was also the day our country passed a sobering, horrid milestone. The number of deaths in the U.S. from the COVID-19 virus surpassed the total number of U.S. military personnel killed in World War II.

That stark and mournful statistic sends a message more significant than its unfathomable number. More citizens have now died of a virus in a year than a four-year-war. What does that say about us as a people?

Indeed, the rest of the world is watching us. And, I can tell you that friends who live in other countries are shocked by what is happening with the spread of the pandemic in our great nation. It shouldn’t have been this way. But it is, and we all have to do something about it cooperatively.

Scientists, medical personnel, and researchers made great strides in developing COVID-19 vaccines in a short time. Of course, they were aided by the federal government with funds and expeditious approval of the vaccines. For that, I give great thanks.

But the facts are facts. To curtail this horrible pandemic, as many people as possible need to get the vaccines. Because of supply and demand, many of us will have to be patient and wait our turn.

Because we are a democratic republic, federal, state, and local authorities must now work together to distribute the vaccines. Consequently, when you get yours will depend on where you live and to which category you belong. Each state has set its particular priority classification requirements for immunization.

In part, that is why my wife and I decided not to be snowbirds this winter. We wanted to stay home for several reasons. Safety and getting the vaccines were high on the list.

A snowbird breakfast.

Yes, we miss our friends and the crashing waves and warmer temperatures on our beloved winter paradise, Amelia Island, Florida. However, we were uncertain if non-residents would be able to be vaccinated in the Sunshine State.

This winter is our first full one in the Commonwealth, even though we moved here nearly four years ago from Ohio. It’s a lot like living in northeast Ohio, except we have more sunny days and less snow.

With all those years of living in much more severe conditions than we have in the Shenandoah Valley, Neva and I are making it through. We are also following all of the CDC guidelines as best we can.

We continue to stay close to home. We continue to do curbside grocery pick up. If we order a meal, we get it via curbside delivery. We much appreciate those services and tip accordingly to show our gratitude.

As for the coronavirus vaccine, we are still waiting.

We know that some people may be leery about being inoculated. We are not. We respect people’s rights not to, but we also expect them to follow the proper guidelines to keep the rest of the population safe.

The reality is that we must all do our part in dampening down this once-in-a-lifetime pandemic to ensure that it is quelled and does not reoccur. Getting the vaccine will go a long way to reaching that end.

We will also wash our hands, and wear masks and keep our physical distance when around others. We will continue to pray for the sick and all those who are working diligently with those infected.

Given the critical circumstances, it’s the best we can do.         

An Amish buggy.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

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

Make this COVID Christmas a reflective one

An Ohio Christmas past.

I’m not sure what Christmas will bring this year, let alone Santa. With the pandemic surging and health guidelines more stringent, it might just be my wife and me enjoying Christmas Day. And that’s okay.

Pandemic or no pandemic, Christmas is still Christmas, whether we are alone or with a gaggle of rowdy relatives. We can still celebrate the sacred day. This year, though, our celebrations will probably be very different since the pandemic is still raging.

Since we likely can’t gather in our traditional ways this Christmas, I have an idea. Let’s enjoy this holiday by joyfully reflecting on Christmases past.

I realize that isn’t always the easiest to do. The holidays bring sad and painful memories for many folks for diverse reasons. Many, like our family, have lost loved ones.

My father and my wife’s father both died just before Christmas. So have close friends, some of them much too young. It’s not hypocritical to miss and mourn as well as celebrate the season, however.

My father loved Christmas. When it came to Christmas, Dad was like a little kid. He couldn’t contain himself.

Dad would overspend on multiple gifts for his two daughters and three sons. I never could figure out how he and Mom afforded what they did for us. They set an example for us that we still follow, though perhaps with more restraint.

It was only appropriate that we celebrated our father’s life well-lived on a cold and snowy December 26. That was 11 years ago already, and it was a Christmastime I will always cherish. The family loved that so many folks took time out during the holidays to pay their respects.

Late one Christmas Eve, I fondly recall delivering the town’s daily newspaper. A fresh six-inches of snow brightened the colorful holiday lights all along my neighborhood route. People seemed extra friendly as I handed them the next day’s paper.

Christmas 1956.

As a youngster, I joined my siblings in excitingly awaiting the appointed early hour of 6 a.m. Christmas morning to bolt downstairs to see what Santa had brought. In minutes, we undid what had taken Mom and Dad hours to assemble and wrap.

Our stockings were always hung with care on the fireplace mantel. We could always count on Santa stuffing it with nuts, candy canes, and an orange at the very bottom. Neva and I continued the same tradition with our own children and grandchildren.

When I was principal at Winesburg Elementary in the real Winesburg, Ohio, the fifth and sixth graders would return to school one evening before Christmas to go caroling to the appreciative elders of quaint Winesburg. The youthful entourage would always end up at the late Mary Ann Hershberger’s house for hot chocolate and yummy cookies. As cold as those nights often were, the memories warm me still.

The weather will determine whether Neva and I can gather with our daughter and her family this year. If it’s fair, we will celebrate adequately distanced on the back porch. If not, connecting using technology will have to suffice.

Besides remembering Christmases past, let’s also reflect on how we can brighten someone else’s holiday today. Connect via letter, email, phone call, or card with someone that you know who finds the holidays especially hard for whatever reasons. It may brighten the season for you both. After all, that’s the true spirit of Christmas in action.

However you celebrate this holiday season, please do so safely and with others in mind. After all, we all want to be around to enjoy many more Christmases to come.

Merry Christmas, everyone!  

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

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