The Bridge to Willow Grove Mill

Just south of the quaint village of Luray, Virginia, Willow Grove Mill stands between the east and west branches of the Hawksbills Creek. As interesting as the old mill was, it was the old, one-lane bridge that crossed the creek that intrigued me. The bridge was straight as an arrow, but as soon as you crossed it, the road took a sharp left turn.

“The Bridge to Willow Grove Mill” is my Photo of the Week.

© 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

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

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