Category Archives: rural life

The sights and sounds of summer’s end

goldenrod, rural scene

A field of goldenrod.

By Bruce Stambaugh

My wife and I sat on our back porch enjoying a light lunch. A gentle breeze sifted through the backyard as monarch and skipper butterflies flitted about, buoyed by the day’s brightness and coaxed on by instincts humans have yet to understand fully.

The rhythmical hum of neighborhood lawnmowers joined in concert to drown out the hypnotic cadence of the cicadas and katydids. As if they were following instructions, the leaves of red maples and sugar maples were beginning to blush just a tinge of their real color hidden all spring and summer by the chlorophyll.

Try as it might, Daylight Savings Time can’t delay the inevitable. The sun and the moon, the stars and the planets, work their seasonal magic, triggering an unstoppable unfolding of goodness and allergies alike.

Even in the noontime heat and humidity, senior citizens and expectant mothers walk their dogs on the broad neighborhood streets. In some cases, it’s the other way around, leashes fully extended, human arms straining to keep control and still chat on their cell phones.

Dragonflies dart here and there, somehow avoiding being lunch for some hungry migrating birds. Black and turkey vultures circle overhead, letting the convection vortexes carry them higher and higher.

White and yellow Sulphur butterflies zigzag their way past my window as if imitating fallen leaves being blown through the yard. A few grasshoppers jump from one blade of grass to another in short flights like so many commuter planes.

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Summer’s full corn moon has come and gone in one cool weekend, a pleasant relief from the storms and heat. But come Monday, the late summer swoon returned, ushering in more warm and muggy weather all across the eastern United States.

So intense was the dreaded combination of atmospheric siblings heat and humidity, some schools mercifully canceled or dismissed early. Without air conditioning, students and staff swelter, unable to conduct the proper learning processes.

That weather, however, eventually ends. Sooner or later, September’s customary, soothing elements do return. Blue-sky days precede comfortable evenings followed by starry nights. Unless infiltrated by tropical storm remnants, thunderstorms come and go without catastrophic consequences.

That’s what makes September the jewel in fall’s seasonal crown. It quietly but most assuredly melds August’s stubborn temperament into October’s Technicolor Dreamcoat landscape.

Until the first killing frost, September is the pollinators’ paradise. Squadrons of bees, flies, ants, butterflies, hummingbirds, and hummingbird moths follow the sweetness from fall bloom to fall bloom.

The mums’ warm colors have replaced the showy bubblegum petunias as the go-to domesticated floral display. Melons, gourds, pumpkins, and squash take center stage at produce stands. Thorny thistles and goldenrod populate the rural roadsides until they meet their sickled doom.

The furry critters must note the changes as well. The squirrels and chipmunks are bolder, more aggressive in their foraging, which is only appropriate. Their lives likely depend on the amount they stored if they can remember where they put their cache.

The morning and evening chatter at the backyard bird feeders is diminished to Song Sparrows and Northern Cardinals, with the Carolina wren making an occasional soliloquy. Now and then the northern mockingbird will chip in a few bars, too.

Once the winter migrants show up in a month or so, that scenario will change. Until then, we’ll enjoy the spontaneous choruses of the crickets, katydids, and cicadas. We’ll joyfully anticipate autumn’s arrival while summer’s pleasantries still linger.

Baker WV, West Virginia

A late summer thunderstorm.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Filed under birding, birds, column, human interest, nature photography, photography, rural life, Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, weather, writing

Old Truck, Old Tree

rusty truck, giant sugar maple

When I saw this scene near Mt. Storm, WV, a multitude of questions zipped through my mind. Why was this old farm truck parked under this giant sugar maple tree? What stories could it tell? What had it hauled during all those years of service? Did the farmer have a special place in his heart for this faithful old truck? Did he park it under the tree for protection? Did he park it close to the highway for others to enjoy?

I don’t know any of the answers to those questions. However, I do know that the truck and the tree caught my attention. There was something poetic about the ancient tree sheltering the old vehicle like a hen protecting its chick. Whatever the reasons, “Old Truck, Old Tree” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Filed under human interest, Photo of the Week, photography, rural life, travel

A sunrise that made my day

Ohio's Amish Country, Holmes Co. OH

The sunrise at its summit.

By Bruce Stambaugh

I sat in awe at the beauty unfolding before me. What I had seen compelled me out into the dawn of the day.

I had slept restlessly despite having been emotionally and physically drained by the previous days’ activities. I had returned to Ohio to assist our son in preparing to move before the professional movers would shuffle him off beyond Buffalo to upstate New York for his new job.

For two long, hard days, we sorted and packed his items, and cleaned the house he was leaving for a smaller apartment. I would also stuff our van with family heirlooms and thrift store pieces to take back to Virginia. It was hard to see him off, he and I both in tears.

With those emotions still stirring internally, I surrendered to what lured me outdoors. The day was dawning with a broken cluster of wispy gray clouds hanging in the eastern sky. A spot of pink hue peeked at the horizon, giving me hope of a lovely sunrise.

I sat in the morning’s coolness on the patio waiting breathlessly for the show to begin. Would those clouds enhance or hinder a brilliant sunrise? The answer found itself in patience, not my best quality.

Flowers reflect first light.

Nevertheless, I remained nearly alone overlooking Millersburg, Ohio from our friends’ place high on a hill. A light, feathery mist lingered over the hardwoods, farm fields, and commercial properties that filled the Killbuck Valley.

As the sky brightened ever so slightly, a menacing caw, caw, caw punctuated the morning air. I strained in the dim light to find the source of the harshness. Suddenly, a pair of inky figures, their black wings flapping furiously, repeated their raucous call.

The two American crows were on a beeline southwest in hot pursuit of another crow far ahead of them. It was like two undercover cop cars chasing a crook.

The only other sounds were human-induced, the distant hum of a few vehicles, and a dump truck on an early run from the gravel pit down the road. Neither crickets nor katydids had awakened yet.

Then it happened. A silent burst of radiance raised me out of my chair and freed me from my stupor. I danced barefoot into the dewy lawn. I soon found myself at the southeast corner of the yard where I had a better angle to view the sunrise and could ignore the obnoxiousness of an ill-placed cell tower, its red lights annoyingly blinking.

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Ironically, the only camera in hand was the one on my cell phone. So I hypocritically began snapping photo after photo of the stunning, flowing scene changing second by second.

Those once gray clouds now glowed gold, yellow, orange, red, pink, mauve, and crimson. In the foreground, security lights and streetlights twinkled below the incredible show. One would think I was observing my first ever sunrise the way I clicked away.

Still, I continued to capture the incredible drama before me, not for myself so much as for others. In such a setting, my joy comes as much in the sharing as experiencing the splendor. When the sun finally poked above the horizon, I walked back towards the house.

This sunrise had awakened me as no other had. I felt renewed and refreshed from the emotions and exertions of the previous days. I was ready to begin my journey home.

For most folks, if they saw it, this was just another sunrise. To me, it was a blessed miracle.

Millersburg OH, Holmes Co. OH

Even the northern sky flashed radiance.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Filed under column, family, friends, human interest, nature photography, Ohio, photography, rural life, travel, Virginia, weather, writing

Grazing in the Sun

Booker T. Washington National Monument, Virginia

Grazing in the Sun.

As I explored the reconstructed buildings at the Booker T. Washington National Monument, I came upon this scene. The grazing horse was on the north side of the barn, and I was on the south. For fear of spooking the horse, I used my long lens to zoom past the open barn door, the horse stalls, and to the shadowed gate on the far side.

The contrast between the darkened gate and the sundrenched horse made an interesting composition. “Grazing in the Sun” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Filed under architectural photography, history, human interest, Photo of the Week, photography, rural life, travel, Virginia

How retirement was meant to be

Virginia sunset, August susnet

Sunset wakes.

By Bruce Stambaugh

There we were, two couples sitting around a table at 10 o’clock on a beautiful but sultry Monday morning playing cards. Our only objective was to win the game.

Nana Neva and I had taken an extended weekend break from our part-time grand-parenting duties to explore a less-familiar area of Virginia with another retired couple.

We had worked all of our lives to reach this point. Playing cards followed by a round of dominoes seemed like the perfect way to begin a new week, especially on a hot and muggy morning.

We played until lunch and then walked down the slanting limestone driveway to a cozy eatery in a marina for some fabulous homemade ice cream. Choosing which flavor became the toughest decision we made all day.

The location had much to do with our buoyant attitude. We had rented a cottage situated on a point overlooking a man-made lake where the dam generated hydroelectricity. The lake was long and narrow, the product of a few creeks damned up to fill steep valleys in southern Virginia.

Such a project brought more natural benefits than producing power. Wildlife thrived.

Each morning and evening a resident bald eagle perched on a favorite snag, often on the same limb a quarter of a mile across the bay from us. We had a perfect view from our deck that faced the water, made murky by a series of recent heavy rains.

Osprey, Virginia

On the watch.

Before breakfast, I spotted an osprey perched on a dead pine farther up the narrow bay. The “fish hawk” stood tall and stately in the morning mist.

Pileated woodpeckers called and flew back and forth across the water, too, landing if only briefly in the sizable wild cherry tree in our front yard along the shoreline. An eastern kingbird, a much smaller species, chased the much larger woodpecker upon every approach. Fierceness is the kingbird’s nature.

The ripe fruit of the lakeside tree drew songbirds, too. The kingbird didn’t seem to be as bothered by the Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, red-bellied woodpeckers, and even young redheaded woodpeckers. I could have stayed there all day to watch that show.

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The previous day we ventured to Rocky Mount, the county seat where my maternal grandparents were born. We researched family records in the historical society. The lilt and soft, southern accent of our hostess could have been my grandmother’s.

In the process, I was a boy again, standing in the hot Virginia sun inserting a nickel into a parking meter for my father. Dad had to finish the task because I wasn’t strong enough to turn the knob so the coin would activate the meter. The street meters have long disappeared, just like the department store where a relative had worked.

We visited the Booker T. Washington National Monument where the famous educator was born and freed as a slave. The sweltering heat and humidity made it easy to envision the slaves toiling in the parched fields.

Back at the cottage, boats rippled the reflected sunset as they headed in for the evening. Spiders devoured gnats trapped in the delicate webs on the deck just as a young eagle glided across the dusk’s burnished light.

This is what retirement was meant to be. We are grateful to be at this phase of our lives.

That said a palpable quietude subdued any thought of celebration. Too many others would not know the same joy and appreciation. Empathy should temper our golden years. Compassion must rule the way to ensure a purposeful retirement.

retirement, Smith Mountain Lake SP Virginia

A picture of retirement.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Transforming work into play

Holmes Co. OH, Millersburg OH

The prairie on the hill.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Several years ago, our lifetime friends Dave and Kate built their dream house on a hill overlooking Millersburg, Ohio. They picked the perfect spot.

From that lofty vantage point overlooking a lovely valley, Dave and Kate can see the county courthouse clock tower, the school where they both taught, and the hospital where their children were born.

The setting is marvelous, the view fantastic. Still, through hard work and creativity, the couple has managed to improve their surroundings, not only for themselves but for the wild things, too.

About five years ago, Dave decided to turn work into play so to speak. He kicked the cows out of the five-acre, pastured hillside that surrounded the house. His goal was simply to let nature take her course.

Before the European invasion 300 years ago, a dense, mature forest covered most of what is now Ohio. Dave wanted to test an old theory that the land would replenish itself if allowed to go fallow.

So instead of cows grazing, grasses, plants, and seedlings began to sprout freely. Today, the results are impressive, producing rewards that even the amiable couple could never have imagined.

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On an all-too-brief return to our Ohio haunts, Dave led me on a walking tour of his mostly-spontaneous prairie. We traversed a looping pattern of mown paths that crisscrossed the rolling hillside topography.

Up and down and around we walked. All the while Dave pointed out some of the changes that had already naturally occurred. In some spots, he had helped things along with saplings and young trees he had planted. He checked on them like a mother hen guarding her chicks.

Of course, he encaged the plantings with wire mesh to stymie the ubiquitous and free-ranging deer that nibble the tender and tasty leaves and stalks. Sometimes it worked.

Wildflowers and plants now flourished in the prairie plots where heifers used to munch. The floral growth attracted appreciative pollinators that flitted and buzzed about while we ambled along. Bees and butterflies, flies, dragonflies, and damselflies all made appearances.

Holmes Co. OH, Millersburg OH

Eastern Bluebirds.

Several pairs of eastern bluebirds tended to their nests in boxes Dave had erected. Some had eggs, some second brood hatchlings. Others were empty. When we cleaned out an old nest from one birdhouse, a bluebird pair began building anew a short time later. Dave’s face glowed.

At the bird feeders, Ohio’s smallest to largest woodpeckers and several species in between vied for the suet offerings. Both pileated and red-bellied even brought their young to learn to forage for the protein.

On the parameters of the property, red-tailed hawks dove from shaded oak perches, unsuccessful in snagging a mammal breakfast. An indigo bunting began its song but stopped short, a typical behavior this late in the summer.

Cedar waxwings preened in the morning sunshine on dead ash snags. American goldfinches harvested thistledown for their late-season nests.

The gnarled, amber trunks of giant Osage orange trees served as living statuaries in the young reclaimed landscape. Their coarse-skin fruit hung lime-green and eerie, like so many Martian brains.

Once dormancy dominates the prairie, Dave will mow down this marvelous and necessary wildlife habitat to eliminate the human-made nuisance multi-flowered rose bushes. Of course, he’ll save the trees, both those he planted and the multitude of volunteers that are thriving.

That adage is coming true. Left to grow on its own, this come-what-may former pasture is an ever-changing habitat for all things bright and beautiful. The environmentally friendly owners couldn’t be more grateful.

Holmes Co. OH, Millersburg OH

Sunrise valley view.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Filed under birding, birds, column, friends, human interest, nature photography, Ohio, Ohio's Amish country, rural life, travel, writing

Why I always dreaded August’s return

August, sunset, Virginia

An early August sunset.

By Bruce Stambaugh

August is upon us once again.

As I look back on it, I always dreaded the return of the eighth month. Through my not-so-nostalgic reflections, I realized that my reasons evolved across the decades.

As an elementary school student, I knew all too well what August’s arrival meant. We were down to one month of summer vacation.

Those were the days when agrarian mentality ruled the school year. All scholarly studies were squeezed between Labor Day and Memorial Day. When the county fair gates closed, the school doors opened.

Now, of course, no such luxury exists for students. Back to school shopping has already begun. With August at hand, many students start the daily countdown until the dreaded day arrives.

Don’t get me wrong. I liked school, well, the elementary version at least. However, I enjoyed playing much more so. Summer vacation generated much less stress for youngsters then. Our screen time meant going to the drive-in movie theater on Friday nights. Our phones stayed at home firmly affixed to the wall.

butterfly, wildflowers, Virginia

Male Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly on Cardinal flower.

So when the calendar flipped to August, the neighborhood gang of hooligans started planning our next sleep-out under the stars or our next daytime adventure at the creek down-over-the-hill. Time was a wasting.

In high school and college, it wasn’t playtime but work that got shortened by the start of school. At $2.06 an hour, I needed to work all I could to deter my own educational expenses. With younger siblings and a stay-at-home mother, it was the least I could do to help the family financially. My older brother set that model.

When I started my career in public education, I began to more fully understand the importance of August. It meant readying for another school year, only this time as the teacher and eventually principal.

The late summer days of August always meant sweating it out decorating my classroom before the students arrived. Those old schools didn’t have air conditioning. I could hear the busyness of protégés down the hallways also preparing for the coming school year. We came in early morning and early evening to avoid the afternoon heat.

August, Ohio's Amish country

Come August, summer winds down.

When I joined the administrative ranks, August meant meetings, which I loathed unless they were held on the local golf course. That venue seldom happened, however, despite the chatter around the window table at the locals’ favorite eatery.

I heard samplings of student whining from our son and daughter, who knew too well that the coming of August meant school band camps and fall sports practices. Our son chose wisely. He joined the golf team and scored much better than his father ever could.

Just like their parents’ childhood schedules, once the county fair ended, the school year began for our children, too. By then, however, Labor Day became the first school holiday, not the summer’s last.

Somehow, though, we all survived those August perils. As a retiree, August has lost it sting. I don’t have the self-imposed barriers to hurdle anymore. I can relax in air conditioning as the thermometer hits 90.

Like all the previous years, I anticipate golden sunsets sinking beyond the horizon. I’ll watch for the Perseid meteor shower, hoping that the August haze has faded in the cool of the night.

The fraternal twins of retirement and maturity have a mellowing effect on sour attitudes. Instead of dread, this August I’ll breathe in a deep breath, say a prayer of gratitude for another new month, and enjoy the moments at hand.

Ohio's Amish country, Amish

Back to school.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Summer is a humbling time

Amish farm, corn, wheat, oats

Grains of Summer.

By Bruce Stambaugh

With all of its positive and pleasant attributes, summer makes it hard to be humble.

We all want to get out and take full advantage of the sunny days filled with warmer temperatures and a wide variety of activities. We fling ourselves full force into each day whether it’s for work or for play. We want to drink in every drop of sunshine, warmth, and blue skies, from dawn to dusk.

Hungry Mother SP VA

At the beach.

Toddlers, children, and teens fill the local swimming pools, both public and backyard venues, while adults keep watchful eyes on the less careful youth. Construction workers bask in the fair weather, narrowing four lanes to one with an arsenal of orange barrels.

Lawnmowers hum morning, noon, and evening throughout global neighborhoods. Contractors and excavators work sunup to sundown. Farmers are in their glory, beginning to harvest the fruits of their labor.

In many places, the corn reached far beyond knee-high-by-the-Fourth-of-July standards. In others, stalks stood only inches tall, drowned out by the super wet spring and early summer rains.

Amber waves of grain really did roll in the wind until giant combines gobbled them up or they formed rows of shocks like so many soldiers standing guard in Amish-owned fields.

Summer, however, has other, more drastic ways to get our attention with her weapons. Summer can humble us lowly humans in many ways. Think floods, wildfires, tornadoes, droughts, golf ball-sized hail, record heat and humidity.

No matter our stature or station in life, we all succumb to those prevailing conditions. Summer humbles us.

humble singFor those unfamiliar with E.B. White’s beloved children’s classic “Charlotte’s Web,” humility played a major role in the book’s plot and dialogue. The spider Charlotte wove “Humble” into the web that served to save the life of the precocious pig Wilbur. She wanted a word that meant “not proud” as Wilbur’s crowning characteristic.

But humility has a second meaning beyond the social one. Humble implies a willingness to learn, and thankfully summer has much to teach us. The lessons are all around us in a more pleasing, useful, and beautiful form than what disasters wrought.

Vegetable gardens and truck patches team with all sorts of goodies that nurture us. Tasty homegrown sweet corn, luscious red tomatoes, green, red, and yellow peppers, and tangles of zucchini are just a few examples.

Roadside produce stands and supermarkets tempt us with juicy peaches and vine-ripened melons. Generations ago indigenous Americans taught us to plant, tend, and harvest these marvels.

For those non-gardeners among us, we sniff and thump and feel and taste to select the best of the bunch like our parents and grandparents did. The poor fruits and veggies pay the ultimate price.

Please click on the photos to enlarge them.

Flower gardens are peaking with hollyhocks and zinnias and cultivated flowers, too. Leafy hardwoods provide shade and refreshing coolness from the oppressive summer heat for humans and critters alike.

Wildflowers and wildlife, too, show their stuff. Dainty spotted fawns venture out on their own while mom watches from more secluded spaces. Parent bluebirds and house wrens ferry insects, worms, and berries to their youngsters nearly as big as the adult birds.

Families crowd beaches and climb mountains on vacations, exploring new venues or returning to old haunts discovered by previous generations.

Where is humility in all of this? Using the educational definition, it’s merely a reminder of the responsibility of the created to care for the creation. That is about as humbled as we can get.

pasture field, cumulous clouds

Summer landscape.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Surrounded

Surrounded.


My wife and I have always been enchanted with this lovely farmette at Judy Gap, West Virginia. The charming setting flashes into view on U.S. 33 as you round a downhill curve traveling west. The plain, white farmhouse with the sweeping front porch certainly stands out. However, it is the regiment of matching and neatly maintained red outbuildings outlined in white that really catches the eye.

The picturesque scene certainly conjures up a multitude of questions. What purpose does each building serve? Why are they situated every which way? Do the owners know just how gorgeous their property and unique set of structures are? Do they fully appreciate the beauty of both the setting and their artistic contribution to it?

As a stranger, I’ve never had enough nerve to stop to ask these intrusive questions. Instead, I am content to both admire and share the Currier and Ives-like scene.

“Surrounded” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Filed under architectural photography, human interest, Photo of the Week, photography, rural life, travel

This Old House

old farmstead, Elkton VA

This Old House.


I’ll just let the title speak for itself on this photo. The old farmstead is located in Elkton, VA.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

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Filed under architectural photography, history, human interest, Photo of the Week, photography, rural life, Virginia