Being vigilant reaches far beyond Christmas

nativity display, nativity scene, quilting, wall hanging
Nativity display. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Vigilance is one of the main themes of the annual Christmas story. It shines as bright as the star of Bethlehem far beyond that ancient event.

For Christians around the world, the season of waiting for the Christ child, Advent, is nearly over. It is a glorious time of hopeful expectation that is renewed each year as winter approaches.

I have always found it a mystery and an appropriate model that the first folks to see the long awaited Christ light were generous foreigners and lowly shepherds, not saintly religious leaders or puffy politicians. The kingly entourage from the East persisted in their long travels to find the meaning of the glowing light in the night sky.

nativity scene, Christmas, hope
Nativity. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.

A heavenly host appeared to the shepherds, not exactly the highest class of citizens even in today’s social mores. Even as a child, I wondered why other folks never noticed what the wise men and the herders plainly saw.

Old and New Testament scriptures alike urge worshipers of God to be on their guard, to be alert, to watch for the light. Asked when that would be, even the adult Messiah said no one would know. The key was to be ready.

As a child, the holiday season meant a lot to me. First came Thanksgiving, the family gathering, and fun and amazing food. Next was my birthday, which always falls three weeks before Christmas.

Just as I knew then, I know now that Christmas is upon us. As a child, those were exciting days of expectation going from unwrapping my birthday present to the anticipation of opening too many gifts beneath the Christmas tree.

Now all those years later, the joy and excitement of Christmas remain, but hopefully for more mature reasons. As a grandfather and mostly retiree, I try to savor and share the mere moments of each day. It’s why I write. It’s why I photograph. It’s why I live.

Amish buggy, Christmas presents
Heading to Christmas.

As I have aged, I realize just how gracious life has been to me through all the experiences I have had. Best of all, most of those blessed moments have been with family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and sometimes even strangers who happen to love the same joys in life as me.

To me, the idea of Christmas is to use our senses to absorb, inhale, appreciate, touch, smile, share, and reflect the goodness given to us. Our gift to the world is simple. We are to use each and every opportunity to make the world a better, brighter place, one thought, one kindness, one word, and one person at a time.

From my perspective of living nearly seven decades, there is no higher calling than to make someone’s day, to help where help is unexpected, to give even when it’s your last dollar, to smile though you are hurting.

The first Christmas likely wasn’t December 25. Those poor sheep and their tenders would have been mighty cold. No matter. I like that we flow so smoothly from Thanksgiving to Christmas and on into a New Year in one holiday season.

My goals in life are simple. I try to awake every morning with a keen sense of the unknown. I cherish comfortable rest at night from a day well spent in service to others. Each day we renew the process all over again until our last breath.

Best of all, we know not the hour or the day or the season. We only know to live vigilantly.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Christmas, anticipation, expectation
Christmas anticipation. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2015

Ribbon Clouds

2015-11-30 15.24.18

Clouds intrigue me. I know I’m not alone in that sentiment. While driving some back roads in rural Wayne Co., Ohio, I spotted this unusually shaped and colored cloud formation. To use the scientific name, these are stratus undulatus clouds.

In addition to their ribbon-like shape, the wide range of soft colors particularly caught my attention. The trees, mailbox, and fence help add perspective to my Photo of the Week, “Ribbon Clouds.”

© Bruce Stambaugh 2015

Is it the end of November already?

sunrise, November
November sunrise

By Bruce Stambaugh

I know I’m getting old. I have a birthday soon to prove it.

I thought I just wrote about what November would bring us, and here it is done and gone already. How can that be? I think I have some answers, all of them as lovely as the month itself.

Given the last two winters, we began this November with more than a little trepidation. We had good reasons for our collective unease.

snow in November
Last November’s snow.
Would we be blasted with another surprise snow in the middle of the month like last year? Could we even begin to hope that November would be half as beautiful as October was?

As you happily know, November gave her best to replicate October’s stunning weather here in Ohio’s Amish country. The eleventh month wasn’t quite as bright and pretty as October, but she sure tried hard.

Even with standard time returning and the daylight hours growing fewer by the day, November was a welcome, pleasant surprise. It exceeded all expectations.

Overall, the month turned out to be a much better than average November if only measured by weather. November charmed me with its hospitality, a welcome relief from the state of affairs on the national and international political front.

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It’s not too many Novembers in Ohio that you see a father and his young son walking along a sidewalk in short sleeves mid-month. Last year they would have been bundled up throwing snowballs.

Municipalities, stores, and homeowners took advantage of the decent days to put up their holiday decorations. It beat trying to hang banners and Christmas lights in blizzard-like conditions.

In some locales, Christmas decorations and Halloween displays stood side by side. I wasn’t going to judge. I just enjoyed the intended spirit each reflected, even if the timing was a little off.

The horses and cattle had to be enjoying the extended stay in the open pastures. Frequent November rains made the grass as fresh as after April showers. In fact, folks were mowing their lawns this November on the same day they were plowing out their driveways last year.

Pine Siskin, birding
Looking up.
I took advantage of the excellent weather, too. I cleaned and readied my multiple bird feeders. I was hardly inside when I spotted a few infrequent Pine Siskins on the cylinder feeder by the kitchen window. They feasted on the cracked sunflower hearts.

With my firewood supply tenuous, I had three pickup loads of split and seasoned hardwoods delivered. Over the space of three days, my wife and I had it all neatly stacked behind the garden shed. Remember, I said I was getting older soon.

November’s brisk winds made regular appearances. That was good news for those who hadn’t yet raked their leaves. Their eastern neighbors may have a different viewpoint on that, however.

We had days of rain and drizzle. We had clear blue-sky days, too. And we had those days of cloudy one minute and sunny the next. None required a snow shovel.

Driving around the November countryside, the landscape seemed wider, more open. Perhaps that was due to the leafless trees affording a three-dimensional illusion, no special glasses needed.

This November frequently offered amazing sunrises and sunsets for all to enjoy. Sometimes they lingered for the longest time. Mostly, though, you had to look sharp, or you would miss the colorful show, just like the month itself.

Like Thanksgiving, November has come and gone. Bring on December and hope that it learned a little kindness from its closest sibling.

November sunset, windmill
Glorious sunset.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2015

Splayed Shadow

windmill shadow, Amish farmstead
Splayed Shadow.

It was unseasonably warm and unusually bright for late November in Ohio’s Amish country. The angle of the late morning sun gave depth to the barn in the foreground and created an artistic display of the windmill’s shadow upon the starched white clapboard farmhouse.

“Splayed Shadow” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2015

The Corner of the Barn

Amish barn
The Corner of the Barn.

I loved how the pine bows mimicked the curvature of the shed’s roof. But it was the old sandstones, now whitewashed, that really caught my eye. Those ancient stones of the 19th century barn have a lot of stories to tell about the farmers who have come and gone, and about the passersby who have driven or biked or walked past this beautiful old building. I sure hope they saw what I saw.

“The Corner of the Barn” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2015

One Room School

one room school, Amish school, private school
One room school.

In one way, this is a typical one room Amish school. In another, it’s not.

The school is plain white, as is the custom among the Amish. This particular one was once a public school until the school consolidation wave hit Ohio in the late 1950s and early 1960s. When the local schools were closed, the Amish often bought them and started their own schools. That way their students weren’t far from home and could walk to school.

The atypical aspect of this school, at least structurally, is that it has a metal roof. Most Amish schools have shingled roofs. A metal roof would cost substantially more than a shingled one.

Another point of interest is that this school was closed yesterday, a Wednesday, when I took the photo. Why? It’s harvest time, and the school was closed for three days so the youngsters could help husk corn at home. Apparently most of the students who attend this school live on farms. Otherwise the school board, made up of five fathers of the students, wouldn’t have closed the school in the middle of the week.

“One Room School” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2015

Rare birds and rare birders

birdersatsunrisebybrucestambaugh
A beautiful sunrise greeted these birders in search of a Snowy Owl.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Birding is one of my many hobbies. I’m no expert birder to be sure. I merely enjoy the sport, and try to weave birding into every travel opportunity.

Birding is an activity enjoyed by folks of all races, religions, cultures and countries. I’m usually side-by-side with men, women, boys and girls wherever I bird.

When these good folks discover I’m from Holmes County, Ohio, I often am asked the same question. Why do you have so many rare birds there?

I smile, pause, and give them my standard answer.

“It’s not that we have any more rare birds than other places,” I say. “Rather, we just happen to have a lot more rare birders.”

That’s when I get the looks. Some vocalize their consternation. The nonverbal cues from others reveal their puzzlement. Still others get it right away.

I believe that the Holmes County, Ohio area has so many unusual bird sightings because it has so many outstanding birders. Many of them are teenagers or young adults.

bird habitat, Ohio's Amish country
Attractive habitat.

The varied habitat of the Killbuck Valley and adjoining manicured farmlands east and west create familiar, safe harbor for a wide variety of birds. Marshes, ponds, brushy fencerows, and extensive stands of woodlots provide excellent cover and feeding grounds for birds big and small.

Birders who reside here know to keep a look out for anything extraordinary. If they see or hear something unusual, they tell someone. An authoritative local birder identifies the bird, and the word spreads near and far.

Many of these bird watchers are Amish. It’s a hobby embraced by their culture and family structure. To be sure, birding is an exercise in which all family members can participate, and be out and about in the nature that they love and embrace.

It’s no coincidence that Amish folks have discovered many of the rare birds sited in the area. Now, it’s not simply because they are Amish that they find the birds. No, they see the birds because they pay attention to their surroundings.

Swainson's Hawk, Holmes Co. OH
Juvenile Swainson’s Hawk.

Take the latest rarity, the juvenile Swainson’s Hawk discovered recently in a newly mown alfalfa field half way between Berlin and Walnut Creek. Workers at Hiland Wood Products noticed particular peculiarities about this bird, its behavior, its flight pattern, its coloration, and its diet.

When the bird was pointed out to skilled birder, Ed Schlabach of Sugarcreek, he easily identified it. Ed works at the company and is a reputable birder.

Ed not only knew what the bird was; he knew that it was a very rare find for Ohio. In fact, the typical range of this buteo is well west of the Mississippi River, and mostly in the southwest, and only in summer.

What the hawk was doing here was a mystery. Ed knew that birders everywhere would want to see this magnificent specimen. The word went out through phone calls, birding lists, emails, texts and social media.

There is always a rush to see a rare bird. Most often such birds do not hang around for very long. This young bird chose to stay for several days, and also picked a spot to easily observe it, whether on the ground or in the air.

For many birders, the young Swainson’s Hawk was a “life” bird. That is, it was the first time they had ever seen this species.

Once again, we can thank the many rare birders who reside and work in our pastoral abode for this latest mega-rare find. Rare birders find rare birds.

Amish birders, Holmes Co. OH
Amish birders.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2015