Half empty and half full’s juncture

An iconic mid-summer scene in Ohio’s Amish country.

It’s July, and you know what that means. We are already halfway through the year. How can that be?

It seems like only yesterday that it was cold and rainy, and folks from Florida to Ontario were all tired of wearing winter jackets. But here we are at the beginning of July, the year half spent like a jar half full, or is it half empty?

I suppose the answer is a matter of personal perspective. Given all that has happened in 2019 so far, I could respond either way. It’s been that kind of year.

Sometimes life is a question mark.
The half emptiness comes from the loss of long-time friends, people who lived productive, generous lives of service. They meant so much to not only me but to so many others that they also touched so tenderly. Others who have passed on were much too young. Their deaths caused heavy, burdensome grief, and raised imploring questions and inquiries of the Almighty about life’s fairness.

The unruly weather caused miseries more disastrous than prolonged cold spells. Extensive record flooding indiscriminately inundated homes, businesses, fields, and overflowed the largest lakes.

Ohioans came to the aid of their waterlogged Nebraska compatriots. Weeks later, it would be the Buckeyes who watched and waited for their fields to drain. Crops that managed to be planted risked rotting in the soggy soil. Other ground may simply go fallow.

My wife and I have found that the half-fullness overflows with bounteous joys of exploring new places, meeting new people, having others reach out in friendly ways. To say we are grateful would be insufficient in expressing our appreciation for what life in the first half of 2019 has brought us.

In mid-January, a sun pillar brightened the already gorgeous sunrise over the Atlantic Ocean outside our snowbird rental. The ever-changing scene served as a reminder to breathe deeply and to embrace each moment as 2019 unfolded.

After a light late February snow, the sun strained through trailing clouds and turned the rolling Shenandoah Valley landscapes into a spectacular sparkling winter wonderland.

A pastel March sunset bid us farewell as we said our last goodbyes to the family cottage in Ohio. Generations of family and friends helped fulfill the dreams that my folks had had for their quaint lakeside-gathering place. But as that chilly sunset waned, we shed tears of gratitude and appreciation for the memories made and wished the new owners the very same.

Each spring, I had enjoyed the showy lavender blooms of redbud trees that adorned still barren forests and neighborhood landscapes. However, I had never noticed how each individual blossom so closely resembled tiny hummingbirds on the wing until a kind neighbor showed me in April.

A state bridge engineer directed us to a cascading waterfall we would have surely missed had we stayed on the main highway. In the quintessential New England town of Jackson, New Hampshire, Jackson Falls became one of the many highlights of our May vacation.

The same kind neighbor who pointed out the redbud hummingbirds brought over a couple of puffy pastries she had made using the sour cherries she had recently picked. Her tasty treats made this June day even better than it already was.

You likely have a comparable list. What challenges and surprise blessings are in store for us the rest of 2019? We really don’t know.

Like July is to the calendar, we encounter life’s happenstance experiences at the juncture of our half empty and half fullness. Our job is to be alert to explore and savor those serendipitous, joyous moments.

An end of June sunset marks a fitting demarkation for any year.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2019

Sensing a bit of home wherever we go

Catskill farmstead.

My wife and I enjoy traveling.

Planning for travel sometimes takes longer than the trips themselves. We prioritize the places we want to see, activities we want to do, and connect with any friends we can visit along the way.

We leave plenty of room for flexibility. Spontaneity spices up every trip. We also try to include some downtime, opportunity to recharge and reflect. As much as we travel, I never know when and how that time will arrive.

For me, travel is a multi-task opportunity. I bird, photograph, explore, meet the locals, and record the highlights. Occasionally, like on this trip, bad weather interferes with the plans we have made. We adjust accordingly.

Steady rain and low-hanging clouds obscured the mountains around us, which kept me inside. We were in New York’s Catskill Mountains, where we caught up to spring’s emergence. Coltsfoot and lady slippers bloomed.

I birded by window watching. Five deer emerged from the newly leafing trees to graze in the grassy meadow that served as a yard around the house that we had rented. A pair of common yellow-throated warblers fed and frolicked in the dampened branches of a nearby bush.

This was so much like home, both our former Ohio home and our newer home in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Together the mountains, forests, rushing streams from too much spring rain, and the wildlife made it feel like home.

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Yet, it wasn’t home, either Ohio or Virginia. We were transients, merely passing through, seeing the sights, and taking in the grandeur of the fabled Catskills.

That afternoon, my wife and I drove around the countryside despite the dreariness and the constant rain. No cell signal rendered our GPS useless. The perpetually winding roads hugged the bases of the mountains like a child clinging to his mother’s apron. Steep wooded hillsides on one side, roiling waters raced over boulders on the other. In the summer, these would be braided streams, more rocks than water.

With the low clouds, the mountains all scrunched in around us, a myriad of curves on the rural roads. Road signs, either numbered or named, were few and far between. Priding myself on knowing directions, I had lost my bearings.

We stopped at the local post office for directions to our desired destination. Just then, a customer arrived and told us to go to the stop sign and turn right. The way he pointed and his casualness about turning at the stop sign renewed my hope. Reality set in. The stop sign was five miles away. I made the right-hand turn, and I regained my orientation.

In Holmes County, Ohio, we had rolling hills, and expansive woodlots, abundant agriculture, valleys carved by old-aged streams, and helpful people. The same was valid for Virginia, only mountains east and west dwarfed the valley hills and farmlands. In the Catskills, farmland is confined to hillside and floodplain pastures. Gardeners erect six-foot high messed wire fences in small truck patches to abate the deer.

One particular quirk became obvious. Everywhere we went scores of roadside, no trespassing signs warned people to stay away. Apparently, property owners and hunting and fishing clubs control access not only to the land but also the water flowing through. Places for public access to the alluring trout streams were far and few between.

The legalistic signs unsettled me and softened my comparison to the mores of our former and current home. However, they in no way spoiled our appreciation for all the natural beauty and genuine human kindness we encountered along the way.

Despite the dreary, wet weather, we felt right at home with scenes like this.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2019

April’s inconsistent, variable weather

weather, April, Holmes Co. OH, Ohio's Amish Country
Just another snowy, grey day in April in Ohio’s Amish country.

Compared to other months of the year, April is erratic when it comes to weather.

It’s not that the rest of the months don’t produce variable atmospheric conditions. They do, just not as consistently as April’s predictably unpredictable weather.

Our latest 10-day forecast was proof of that: Sunny, blue skies and 70-degree temperatures one day, and low 20s and snow flurries by week’s end. I’ll keep my birdbath heater going for a while.

That conjecture accurately describes April’s extremes. April uses her versatile weather wand to divulge her bipolar meteorological attributes.

In 30 days, the fourth month throws everything it has at us. Snow, sleet, glorious sunshine, pelting rain, lightning, tornadoes, flooding streams all are April possibilities, though not certainties.

Often the host for both Easter and Passover, April’s assortment of weather takes no holidays. Recall the twin tornadoes of Palm Sunday in April 1965? Do you remember the 20 inches of snow in early April three decades ago?

Silver Lake Dayton VA, Silver Lake Mill, mild weather
A puffy, white-cloud day in mid-April in Virginia.
When April arrives, we all are more than ready for spring. That is especially true after this extended winter season that ranged far beyond its usual territory.

April’s weather plays games with us, teases us, infuriates us, and beguiles us to the point of hopelessness. Nearly at the breaking point, we relent and grudgingly accept whatever she has to offer. Do we have a choice?

A conciliatory attitude allows us to engage all of our senses into whatever the weather and activities are at hand. It enables us to pause long enough to enjoy the brilliance of forsythia’s yellows before the greening leaves override them.

I watched an American robin mightily tug at the remnants of last year’s plant residue, lying spent and browned in the flowerbed from winter’s bitter harshness. The robin pulled the lifeless strands taut.

I turned away for a second, looked back, and both the robin and the ideal nesting material were gone. Had I witnessed the natural lifecycle in action, the very hope of spring?

tulips, spring flowers
Red, yellow, and green.
The increasing daylight combines with the warming earth and nourishing moistures to create rapidly changing landscapes. Rembrandt meets Van Gogh.

Deadened lawns seemingly turn dull green to emerald overnight. A heavy frost or soaking rain kills the temptation to even out the irregular grassy clumps posing as a front yard. First, however, winter’s gales and unwelcomed snows require leaf and limb removal before any lawn trimming.

The first dandelions compete with trumpeting daffodils while the last of the crocuses yield to showy tulips. Honeybees celebrate wildly at the cherry blossoms’ coming out parties. They even gorged on the crimson buds of red maples. The little creatures are a welcome sight and the constant humming a glorious symphony, especially given their recent biological life struggles.

Avid birders actually embrace April’s changeable weather. They know strong cold fronts bring more than severe storms or blinding snow squalls. Shorebirds, songbirds, and birds of prey are all on their various lists of birds to check off. They’ll brave April’s worst weather to chase a rare bird.

The good news is that April’s cold, wet weather won’t last long. That’s in keeping with its role as a transition month from winter’s dormant dullness to spring’s brimming vibrancy.

I’m always glad when April rolls around. From month’s beginning to end, she offers up a sampling of weather that’s sure to both please and disappoint most everyone. The challenge is to make the most of whatever comes our way.

Ohio's Amish country scene, Amish farms
Hopefully by month’s end, pastures will have greened up, fruit trees will be in full bloom, and farmers can once again till the earth.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2019

When tragedy strikes, communities respond

Ohio's Amish country, Holmes Co. OH
Even a peaceful scene in Amish country can become tragic.

Tragedy. It’s bound to invade our lives, often when we least expect it. Too often, it happens more than once in our lifespan.

Unfortunately, we likely have all seen our fair share of tragedy. Calamity merely is part of life. That doesn’t make it any easier to accept.

I’ve seen and experienced a lot of tragic incidents in my life as a member of volunteer fire and rescue squads. Often I knew people involved in the emergency incidents. That’s not surprising when you live most of your life in a close-knit, rural community.

Sometimes tragic national news hits close to home, too. The recent fatal shooting of Dean Beachy and his son Steve is proof of that. Naturally, people were shocked and horrified at the senseless killings.

Their lives are a huge loss to the family and the many, many people they touched. My wife knew the family well, having taught Steve’s three older brothers.

Ohio's Amish country, Holmes Co. OH
An hour after a tornado damaged this farm building, neighbors came to repair its roof.

Most likely, we each could create a long list of personal tragedies that have significantly impacted our lives. Mine would have to start even before I was born.

My great grandfather was killed in an auto accident involving a drunk driver. The crash critically injured my father and his only brother a block from their home. My uncle’s traumatic head injuries caused lifelong, family-wide ramifications.

My mother’s father was electrocuted six months before I was born. I am sure you have a comparable list of interpersonal human misfortune.

We learn life lessons from tragedies. One is when disaster strikes, people respond. That’s the way community works. What affects one family affects us all to varying degrees.

My wife and I experienced and witnessed positive responses many times over our four decades of living in Holmes County, Ohio. When bad things happen to good people, others want to help. So they do. They bring food, share tears, hugs, and sit quietly with the victims’ family.

Some tragedies happen suddenly, like the Beachy shootings, a traffic crash or a house fire. Others happen gradually and last over an extended time. Likely, we have all known someone diagnosed with a terminal illness.

In either situation, shock, denial, anger, fear, and blame all surface in the face of loss. Often those emotions occur at different times for different family members. Heartache knows no boundaries. To be there is what really matters to the hurting individuals.

Ohio's Amish country, Holmes Co. OH
Barn fire.

As an EMT, I once responded to a drowning call at an Amish farm. The toddler was dead by the time we arrived in the country setting. Still, all the first responders wanted to do something. We comforted the grieving family as best we could.

With the corner’s approval, I carried the youngster’s body to the ambulance where family, friends, and neighbors filed through saying their goodbyes. It was the Amish way, and the officials in charge wanted to respect that.

Regardless of the type of tragedy, whether sudden or lengthy, no one is immune. As human beings, we can choose to offer whatever we can or to ignore the situation.

Those who chose the former realize that in giving there is receiving. In caring, appreciation is returned. In listening, genuine sharing occurs. With your presence, acceptance and understanding slowly unfold.

Human beings have a responsibility to one another, to be kind, to be generous, to be available, to help, to be respectful. There is no better time to express those gifts than when tragedy strikes.

It’s not merely the way a community responds. It is the way a caring community thrives.

Ohio's Amish county, Holmes Co. OH
This Amish barn raising occurred less than a month after the farmer’s barn burned.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2019

Winter’s variable paint palette

Amish farm, Holmes Co. OH, Ohio's Amish country, snowscape

No matter where you live, winter offers a wide variety of colors across its changeable landscapes.

Often, the colors transform with the weather’s latest tantrum. Given the global climate’s bipolar dysfunctions, winter’s color palette has expanded far beyond its usual earth tones and neutral hues. Wetter and warmer winters convert lawns from frosted brown to April’s greens.

Living in Ohio for nearly seven decades, I intimately learned nature’s dormant color schemes. She usually painted under steely skies, which perhaps limited her range of color options.

burnished leaves laden with snow

Growing up in a blue-collar suburb in northeast Ohio, my memory is filled with a canvas of white on white. We sledded down steep hillside paths beneath stately evergreens laden with inches of snow.

Clumps of yellowy prairie grasses waved in the icy wind as we zoomed by shouting and laughing like the kids we were. Our wind-chapped cheeks and red noses were proof of our gold, silver, and bronze successes.

Besides the fun, we relished a good snow cover that blanketed the grit and grime that most winters brought. The fluffy whiteness enlivened the quiescent landscape, the leafless trees with their non-descript brown, gray, and black trunks and branches. The pure white snow on piney coniferous bows highlighted clusters of chestnut pinecones.

eastern bluebird in winter

Heavy wet snow provided a stark color contrast of white on black. That all shifted in a flash when a wicked winter wind whipped nature’s artwork into layered snowdrifts crusty enough for adventuresome children to walk on.

Ohio winter weather being what it is and always has been, not much changed as I grew into adulthood. Browns and whites alternated dominating the lay of the land with temperature playing the role of the artisan. A mundane scene became a Currier and Ives gem with four inches of overnight snow.

A January thaw altered all that in a hurry. The snow melted into a mushy, muddy mess, and brown soon became the primary color and texture, much to my mother’s chagrin. Usually, though, our inattentive father rightly got the blame for the sticky indoor tracks.

Amish farm, Wayne Co. OH, Ohio's Amish country

Dealing with both the gooeyness and the frozen precipitation as an adult tendered an entirely different perspective than as a youngster. I hated how everything wore the dirt and grime of winter. That was especially true of driving a filthy automobile. Wash it one day, and it was dirty again the next.

Warm, attractive colors in winter did and do exist of course. Think red holly berries against glossy green leaves powdered with fresh snow.

Each new day brings opportunity. Catch a showy sunrise that may last only a few seconds before succumbing to layers of gray clouds. Sunsets are equally stunning, especially if reflected by lakes and streams, which double the orange, yellow, red, and pink pleasure.

Amish, Holmes Co. OH, Ohio's Amish country

Bright colors come alive literally. Is there anything prettier than northern cardinals perched on evergreens waiting their turn at the bird feeders? If eastern bluebirds also arrive, the winter day becomes all the cheerier.

Moving to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley has lessened some of the sting and bland of winter. We tend to have more sunny and warmer days than we did in Ohio. When it does snow, the aesthetic results are still the same. However, the white stuff doesn’t last as long.

Winter’s radiant sunshine enhances any locale just as it can brighten all human spirits.

January can be lackluster if you let it. Just look a little harder for any hint of color wherever you live. Like many TV commercial disclaimers, your results may vary.

white-throated sparrow, Shenandoah Valley,

© Bruce Stambaugh 2019

Home for the holidays indeed

Ohio's Amish country, Holmes Co. OH
Martha’s wash line.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Last year at this time we were still settling into new surroundings, situations, and holiday opportunities as our relocation process to Virginia’s magical Shenandoah Valley continued. We had moved there to be close to our grandchildren. Celebrating the joyous season with them was paramount.

But this year was different. With Thanksgiving as early as it could be, we found an opening in our busy retirement schedules to return to our Ohio homeland.

An early winter snowstorm surprised us as we traversed roads in the higher elevations of West Virginia and Maryland. That couldn’t deter us, however. We arrived safely in the Buckeye State to celebrate personally with a few family members and friends, people we love and cherish. Some gatherings were planned while others were serendipitous.

Holmes Co. OH, Rebecca's Bistro
Fun with friends.
The frivolity began before we could even unpack our suitcases. That’s the kind of company we keep, and that is willing to host us. Our first evening meal and lively conversation with lots of laughter set the tone for our all too brief visit. We had so much fun we could have turned around and gone straight back to Virginia and been pleased with the trip. Of course, we didn’t.

The next morning we met old friends at a busy locally-owned bistro for breakfast. We discovered other friends there, too. We stayed so long it would have been more profitable if the proprietor had charged us per hour rather than per meal.

As we left for old haunts near Holmes County’s Mt. Hope, the van mysteriously pulled into the parking lot of a favorite chocolate shop. Affabile store owner Jason must sweeten his candy with his hospitality.

We made a beeline to the furniture store where I served as its chief marketer for 11 years in Mt. Hope to say hello to former fellow staff members. Fond hellos, fun memories, and new looks for the store inside and out greeted us. Their ability to create the latest styles in beautiful furniture boggles my mind.

After that enlightening encounter, we took a break at the charming Red Mug Coffee shop, an apt name if there ever was one. Of course, I drank my delicious brew from a red mug.

We hadn’t even ordered when a former student entered. Lonnie and our family go way back. He was born two hours before our daughter. Their cribs were side by side in the nursery at the hospital in Millersburg.

Then a high school friend of our son spied us and years of catching up ensued. Marlin proudly shared photos of his adopted children. Those kids couldn’t be in a more loving situation.

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Laundry on the washline told us that Martha was home. After warm, welcoming hugs, we visited with her and her youngest child until we just had to leave. Our timing couldn’t have been better. I stopped to visit briefly with my friend Dan, who mows the roadsides in the township where I served as a trustee for 20 years.

We found our former across-the-road neighbors Paul and Mary as gracious and hospitable as ever. The time ticked away here much too quickly as well.

The visiting continued at Killbuck with the doctor who brought our daughter and son into this world. As always, his spry wife considered us family. We checked in with a couple of their children and spouses, too. Of course, “children” is a relative term since they all are grandparents.

The pace of our last day in Ohio was just the opposite. Neva went shopping with her sister, and sure enough, met even more friends. I ran some necessary errands before going birding. I was thankful for the exercise, the wildlife I encountered, and many photo opportunities. The sun finally burned through the haze by late afternoon. Still, the air’s temperature couldn’t come close to matching the warmth of fellowship we had experienced.

Holidays are for gathering, reminiscing, sharing. Through both our planned and spontaneous encounters, it was indeed a joy to be home for the holidays.

white-tailed deer, Norma Johnson Wildlife Center
A young buck white-tailed deer bounded across the trail far ahead of me.

Click the photo to enlarge it.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

How a pair of leaky boots sent me back in time

flooding, river in my bakcyard
A river ran through it.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Memories often materialize in the most unusual of circumstances.

It was early June, and we had endured rainstorm after rainstorm. At times, the rain pelted down at the rate of two inches an hour.

When you live between two mountain ranges and groundwater has already saturated the sticky, red-clay soil, that much precipitation spells trouble. And trouble found lots of folks throughout the picturesque Shenandoah Valley.

High water flooded roadways, keeping fire departments and rescue squads busy with multiple water rescues. It was still pouring when a river of muddy water rushed through our backyard.

I decided to check the five-foot crawl space beneath our ranch home. I slipped on my old black gumboots and jumped into eight inches of water. Instantly, cold, yucky water surrounded my right foot. The combination of old age and wear and tear had finally taken their toll on my versatile rubber boots.

I was grateful a local plumber was gracious enough to bail us out despite being swamped with other calls. Everything beneath our home seemed to have weathered the storm except my precious boots.

rubber boots, gumboots
My old friends.
Gumboots are knee-high footwear made of rubber and fabric designed for all kinds of outdoor activities. Those boots and I went way back. They had served me well in a variety of conditions over several years.

I remember where I bought them nearly three decades ago at a now-defunct shoe store in Mt. Hope, Ohio. I wore the boots often in many different situations. I had depended on them time and again, often in dire instances.

When a storm hit, I put them on to check my roads as a township trustee. I can’t tell you how many flooded streets and ditches I waded through wearing those boots. I traipsed through many snowstorms with them, too.

Once after a big snow, I spied a grizzled old opossum munching birdseed from a feeder that sat atop a picnic table in our backyard. On went my coveralls and those gumboots. I intended to shoo off the unwanted mammal. As I opened the door, our pet rat terrier Bill shot out the door ahead of me.

Charm OH, Ohio in winter, ice cycles
Scene of the rescue.
Bill’s fearless instincts immediately kicked in when he spotted the opossum. The little dog circled the unimpressed marsupial once, and on his second pass, Bill leaped for the much larger animal’s tail. The opossum hit the ground with a thud, dead on arrival.

Those boots even helped me as a volunteer firefighter and EMT. On one run, I found myself standing in the shallows of a stream holding up an elderly victim who had fallen into the rushing creek. I still remember the fire chief’s surprised expression when he saw me in the water with those black boots.

Another time, on an early subzero February morning, I spotted our Amish neighbor heading across frozen farm fields toward our house. Levi was delivering the promised fertilizer for our garden. Steam shimmered in the morning light as it rose from the hardworking draft horses and the load of manure they were pulling in the spreader.

By the time I dressed and pulled on my gumboots, I was too late. Levi and his pitchfork had already deposited a still-steaming pile of manure onto the garden plot. Standing in that frigid, fragrant morning air, I asked him how much I owed for the delivery. Levi just smiled and said wryly, “Nothing. I don’t have anything in it.”

Like I said, sometimes the strangest circumstances stir the fondest memories.

Ohio's Amish country, winter, Holmes Co. OH
Our Ohio backyard winter scene.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018