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

Making the colors of summer last year-round

The colors of summer are as pretty as they are delicious and nutritious.

Just as I began to write about the colors of summer, a friend posted on social media about her visit to a local farmers market. In one digital photo, she succinctly summarized what I intended to say.

A cornucopia of vibrant colors from gardening harvests filled her photo. The variety of tomatoes alone captured nearly every hue of an artist’s paint pallet.

Ruby reds, luscious purples, warm yellows, and lime greens took center stage of their kitchen table. The light yellow of summer squash and the ribbed texture of a muskmelon represented the earthen tones.

A perfect emerald cucumber, the variegated rind of a watermelon, and a cluster of fresh basil leaves provided a generous sampling of the locally grown greens. The haul from your gardens, nearby produce stands, and farmers’ markets likely create similar still-life artistry.

Our house is no different, despite not having a garden. My wife does pamper a half dozen potted herb plants sitting on the white enamel top of an inherited old table on our patio.

Our daughter supplies us with all the plump, juicy, and tasty tomatoes that we can use from her garden. Her blackberry plants have produced an abundance of delicious tartness, too.

The half-box of organic fruits and vegetables we get each Monday from our Community Supporting Agriculture program assures that we maintain a healthy, flavorful diet. We also frequent several local produce businesses, mostly operated by the Shenandoah Valley’s Old Order Mennonites.

It that regard, we are reminded of our Ohio home, where we knew many of the Amish and Mennonite vendors personally. Somehow that seemed to make their homegrown offerings all the tastier.

My energetic wife ensures that we celebrate the summer’s colorful bounty all year long. Canning and freezing are in her farmer genes.

When it comes to preserving the downhome goodness of food, we have noticed a difference between living in Ohio versus residing in Virginia. Instead of in spurts, everything seems to come ripe at once in the valley.

One day we are canning peaches and the next day tomatoes. Those jars have barely stopped popping their lids when the sweet corn comes ready, tender, tasty, and delicious. The varieties here are as delicious as our Ohio favorite, Incredible.

We’ve also learned a few new tricks living in a new culture in a new state. We husk the sweet corn, clean it, and cut the kernels straight from the cobs. Neva fills the plastic containers, and when we want fresh corn at Thanksgiving, that’s when it gets cooked and not before.

Apples are next on the list. The sweet tartness of the ginger golds more than satisfy our family’s taste buds. Neva freezes enough for the grandkids, who usually finish off their supply long before Nana can do another batch.

Of course, canning and freezing are a lot of hard work. Sterilizing the jars and lids, cleaning the fruit and veggies, and peeling when required, all take time and effort. Then there is enduring the sauna-like heat at the height of the canning process in our tiny galley kitchen.

The vent fan works overtime, expelling the heat and steam to help cool the temporary cannery. But in the long run, it’s all well-worth every drop of sweat.

Come the cold, dark, dull months of winter, and we will have summer at mealtimes in our household. Those yellows, reds, and greens of the harvest will brighten any dark day and table, and make all of the perspiring worth the effort.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

A once in a lifetime man

An Amish farmstead near Kidron, Ohio.

Jay Lehman was the kind of man that you might meet only once in a lifetime. He embodied the very values of the community in which he was born, lived, and worked.

Jay died recently at age 91. He was the founder of the old-time general store Lehman’s in Kidron, Ohio. I was fortunate to have known him as both a friend and a business leader. Scores of others can say the same thing about Jay.

Jay Lehman.
That, however, is what impressed me so much about the man. We weren’t close as friends go, and we didn’t run in the same social circles. And, yet, whenever he saw me, he always went out of his way to call me by name, say hello, shake my hand firmly, and ask how I was doing. Jay was a good listener.

I got to know Jay the best through a cooperative marketing group that I facilitated. The original group included six Amish country, family-owned and operated businesses with a single location. Lehman’s was a founding member.

Jay pointing out one of the museum-quality pieces in the store he founded.
Jay started his little hardware and household goods business in 1955 at the crossroads of his rural hometown village. His original purpose provided necessary lifestyle items for the Amish community that surrounded Kidron.

Over time, the store’s purpose ironically flipped, becoming more of a tourist destination in Amish country. Jay embraced that change without losing sight or letting go of his and the community’s core values.

Faith, family, community, and a strong work ethic fulfilled humbly reflected not only the area’s priorities but Jay’s, too. Jay modeled those qualities in his personal and business life. That’s what made both Jay and his company tick.

In that success, Jay honored those values. He lived his faith by supporting the church and charities that he cherished. Even in a crowd of hundreds at statewide church conferences, Jay would acknowledge people by name and ask how they were doing. It might have been years since he had seen them. He understood the worth of healthy relationships.

That, in part, is what drew folks to Jay. He possessed a quiet, confident demeanor, and yet humility formed the mantle of his character. Even Lehman’s tagline reflects that concept: “For a simpler life.”

Jay Lehman at Lehmans in Kidron, Ohio.
Jay saw the future in the past. He preserved anything of locally historical value for posterity and education. A walk through the store reveals hundreds of antique relics that would have been lost were it not for Jay’s foresight. If you want, you can have lunch at Lehman’s while sitting in the old town jail.

Jay enjoyed the simple life, but he certainly was not a simple man. He loved a good “Rook” game with friends and family as much as he enjoyed traveling. Future generations were as vital to him as his Swiss ancestors, which he revered.

As the company grew and expanded, family members, friends from church and community joined in to help him run the store. When he reached retirement age, he passed the leadership on to the next generation. But he continued to be a dynamic presence at Lehman’s.

It was a joy to watch customers recognize Jay as he strolled around his much-expanded corner store. He was the living icon of Lehman’s, now an international business.

Jay’s legacy will live on through his successful entrepreneurship and his lifetime of kindness and generosity. Living those essential core values shaped that legacy.

His was a compassionate life. Jay lived not just for himself, but for all whom he so tenderly touched far beyond the little town of Kidron, Ohio.

Jay, shown with his daughter Glenda Lehman Ervin, often talked with visitors to the store.

© 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.

(Mouse over the photos for the captions)

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

Whistling in June


I reached into my archives and found this lovely Eastern Meadowlark singing from an old wooden fence post. You can frequently hear these colorful robin-sized birds before you spot them.

I thought the shot was the perfect way to welcome you all to June. “Whistling in June” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020