We’re leaving the lights on for you

Photo by Bruce Stambaugh

My wife and I are leaving the lights on for you. And, no, we’re not Motel 6.

The year-end holidays may be over, but our modest festive light display is still burning brightly. We began our celebrative decorating early and are letting our lights shine well into the New Year.

We are not crazy, nor do we own stock in our electricity company. We have our altruistic reasons for letting the lights continue to shine.

Lighting up our homes inside and out runs deep in our linage. My wife’s family always brightened their cozy farmhouse with tactful holiday flare. Her frugal farmer parents wanted to share their holiday spirit, too.

Although my exuberant father sometimes got a bit too flashy for my taste, my family was no different. Nevertheless, Dad’s heart was in the right place. He wanted to bring joy to all who passed by our little brick bungalow on our busy suburban corner.

Dad’s enthusiasm seemed to progress with each passing year, however. He loaded the corner evergreen with strings of those big-bulbed multi-colored lights. Later, he outlined the front porch, then still later erected dangly white lights that imitated icicles around the roof’s edges.

Fortunately, our mother, the artist, had control over the creative interior decorating. The decked-out Christmas tree always stood in front of the living room’s picture window. Christmas cards covered the inside of the old wooden front door, and the fireplace mantel always said Happy Holidays!

My wife and I have a 49-year tradition of lighting up our home inside and out for the holidays. We credit our parents for that creative itch.

Given the world’s state in 2020, Neva and I decided to get a jumpstart on our holiday decorating. We had the time and opportunity since we tried to follow the stay close to home pandemic guidelines. So, that precisely is what we did.

We didn’t try to imitate my late father by any stretch of the imagination. We simply did our usual holiday festooning, only jumpstarted the holiday decorating just before Thanksgiving. The traditional commencement for our holiday decorating was the day after.

Our Jenny tree, a memorial for a friend gone too soon.

Now with Christmas come and gone, we packed away most of the interior decorations. But drive by our modest ranch home at night, and you’ll discover the exterior lights still brightly burning. They will continue to do so for a while.

What is our motivation? We are taking the idea of letting your light shine seriously. And why not? With the pandemic and continued social polarization, society is still bewildered and dismayed nationally and globally. The recent coup attempt in our nation’s capital only added to the nationwide angst.

Some might view our extended light display as simple-minded. We’re alright with that. It’s just our way of expressing gratitude for a new year and new opportunities to make things right in the world.

We also know that some might think our actions foolish. Our lights will shine nevertheless.

The multiple strings of little white lights combined won’t generate much real warmth. Instead, by letting the lights continue to glow, we hope that their presence, their shining on, countering the cold darkness of the world, will, in some small ways, warm a few hearts.

Like our late parents, our sincere hope is that this humble display simply helps brighten any passersby’s souls on any given chilly winter’s eve. We’ve noticed that we aren’t alone. Others continue to keep their holiday lights on, too.

Whether it’s a single glowing candle in the front window or a lighting extravaganza, that light radiates joy. That’s a commodity all of us need now and always.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Evening Grosbeaks

I had heard that flocks of Evening Grosbeaks were in the Rockingham Co., Virginia area. However, I could never discover where they were showing up on a regular basis. Then a friend from Ohio, where we used to live, sent me a text with a photo of Evening Grosbeaks that were regular visitors at her brother’s feeders. He lived a little more than 10 miles from our home.

I called and received persmission to photograph the birds. The home owner, also a birder, said the birds usually fed in the morning between 7 and 9. My wife and I arrived around 8 a.m., and I drove slowly up the farm’s long driveway. As soon as I reached the back of the house where the feeders were, about 30 Evening Grosbeaks flew to trees not far away. I lowered the van windows and waited for them to return.

And return they did! I had both of my cameras along, and I clicked away. I had seen Evening Grosbeaks before, but never this close or this many. Normally, Evening Grosbeaks don’t venture this far south in the winter. But during irruption years, they appear almost randomly at various locations in the east and midwest. It is thought that an irruption occurs when the hatch rate of birds is high, but their usual food supplies can’t match the demand. Other species, like Snow Owls, also appear in irruptions. The Evening Grosbeaks were feeding on black oil sunflower seeds.

“Evening Grosbeaks” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Happy New Year!

I chose this photo of two women watching the sunset on July 3, 2020 to represent the relief of 2020 finally coming to an end. We are universally happy to see this horrific year end. In my 73 years of living, I can’t remember a worse one. Let’s let the sun go down on 2020, and hope upon hope that 2021 will be a better year in every way.

I suspect, however, as President-elect Biden has already stated, that things will get worse before they get better. Of course, he was referring to the pandemic, but that may also play out in other aspects of our lives.

I hope and pray that the New Year will, in the long-run, indeed bring a better life for all of God’s global children. Enjoy the sunset, but cherish the sunrise.

“Happy New Year!” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Merry Christmas!

From my family to yours, Merry Christmas! Whether you gather in person or remotely or in some combination of both, may this Season of Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love bring purpose, meaning, and grace to each of you.

Thank you so much for following along all these years. Christmas Blessings to one and all!

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Scalloped Sky

Clouds have fascinated me since I was a kid. Clouds affect our moods and inspire our imaginations with their unique shapes and various colors. These rippled altocumulus clouds appeared in the eastern sky just as the sun rose over the distant Blue Ridge Mountains. The sun’s low angle helped accentuate the wrinkles in the cloud layer.

Though it looks like a black and white photo, this is actually a color shot. “Scalloped Sky” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Celebrate a different Thanksgiving differently

A bygone Thanksgiving morning in Ohio’s Amish country.

Thanksgiving season is upon us here in the U.S. The day won’t be the same as in years past, with the pandemic still raging. Nevertheless, we can, and we should celebrate.

I have always relished Thanksgiving. The food, the fellowship, the interplay of cross-generational conversation and gaming made the day special.

Growing up in blue-collar northeast Ohio, my four siblings and I had a boatload of first cousins with whom we communed on Thanksgiving Day. Our maternal grandmother graciously oversaw the gathering of her three daughters and their families.

A buffet of all the traditional Thanksgiving goodies filled the long dining room table at our Aunt Vivian and Uncle Kenny’s place, where we usually assembled. Other relatives occasionally joined us.

Besides gorging ourselves, we played football, hide and seek, and sang at the piano. By day’s end, both our stomachs and our souls were more than satisfied. Laughter and familial love will do that.

As the children matured to teens and then to adults, spouses joined in the festivities. Out of necessity, each family began meeting separately.

Thanksgiving Day resembled a progressive supper. It was one house for a noontime holiday spread and then dinner at the in-laws with an equivalent bounty.

Those traditions evolved even further when our children married or moved hours away. Thanksgiving became an extended holiday to accommodate as many attendees as possible. We would eat our way through Thursday to Sunday.

Regardless of the settings and meeting arrangements, fond memories always resulted. That was true even if the mashed potatoes were lumpy or the dressing was too dry.

This year, those memories will have to flavor Thanksgiving Day whatever, however, and wherever we celebrate. The coronavirus will likely alter any large gatherings, even if they include all family members.

As the contagious pandemic continues to spread and spike, we all have to do our part to thwart its invisible advance. It never was going to evaporate, no matter who won the presidential election.

This Thanksgiving, we have to let go of our traditions, our expectations, and our American pride and do what is best for the common good of all. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention advises against any large-group inside gatherings.

The professional advice is that people not be in an enclosed space with the same people for more than 15-minutes. I’ve been known to be a fast eater, but not that fast.

For my wife and me, that means we will be hoping for a warm Thanksgiving Day to meet outside with our daughter, her husband, and our three grandchildren. We’ll connect as we are able with our son and his wife in New York.

This pandemic has been the paradigm shift of a lifetime for all of us. It’s been hard for us, independent-minded citizens, to accept governmental and medical leaders’ guidelines and restrictions.

Trying to provide accurate safety information about a new and dangerous virus can’t be easy. It is incumbent on all of us to follow the advice to help slow this COVID-19 until an effective vaccine arrives.

Nevertheless, virus or no virus, Thanksgiving Day will arrive, and we should express our great gratitude. How that occurs is an individual choice, of course.

I am grateful for the many blessings received over all these many years. If we can’t meet in person with our family like my nostalgic recollections, I will be disappointed. However, we can still express our appreciation virtually.

The principle of being thankful is the very foundation for Thanksgiving. Let us all keep that tradition alive as joyously and safely as possible.

The traditional Thanksgiving turkey.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Day is Done

Showy sunsets have been hard to come by recently in the Shenandoah Valley. Either the skies have been clouded over, or there have been no clouds at all. When friends invited us over to view the sunset from their backyard, I was hoping for the best. I got my wish.

As we sat around the fire pit in the coolness of the early evening, the day’s high, thin clouds hung around long enough to provide a colorful show to the waning day. In the foreground, the silhouettes framed the reddish clouds hanging over the Allegheny Mountains, which mark the boundary between the Commonwealth of Virginia and West Virginia.

“Day is Done” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Birds of winter are returning

A male Purple Finch eyed the black oil sunflower feeder.

I’m sitting at my desk, looking out the window, enjoying my favorite pastime. Several winter birds have returned and are feeding on and under the feeders that I hang each fall.

In this case, it’s a flock of chattering pine siskins partaking of black oil sunflower and safflower seeds. I mix the two varieties in a tube feeder that dangles from the lowest red maple branch in our front yard.

That’s what the sociable pine siskins were devouring. They are a dainty bird with a pointy little beak. Unlike other species, the siskins don’t seem to be too competitive. They dine cooperatively. The pesky house finches could learn a lesson from their smaller cousins.

I consider the siskins a real treat, an honor to have them partaking of my offerings. They tend to move around a lot in the colder months. They can be here one day and gone the next. So, I enjoy them and the other birds while they are here. I do hope they stick around.

The purple finches have returned, too. Like the siskins, I never know how long they will stay. I just keep filling the feeders and appreciate their beauty. Birders ogle over having purple finches, and the glorious but unpredictable evening grosbeaks even more so.

The white-throated sparrows have also arrived for their six-month hiatus from the Canadian provinces and the northeastern forests. They are marvelous birds to both watch and hear. I never tire of their hop and kick approach to feeding on the ground.

The song of the white-throated is the delight of winter. Neva and I hear their distinctive, lyrical whistle when we walk in the morning. Their cheery call quickens our step on chilly mornings.

The dark-eyed juncos and white-crowned sparrows have just begun to arrive. More will likely appear as the weather grows colder.

I enjoy the year-round birds, too. Is there anything more beautiful than a bright red northern cardinal perched on an evergreen branch? If it happened to have snowed, it creates a Christmas card moment for sure.

I can always tell when the neighborhood Cooper’s hawk is on the prowl. Stealth as it is, the songbirds can’t always fly for safety. So, they freeze in place by staying still and low or press tightly against a tree trunk, hoping not to be spotted.

I don’t mind if the sly hawk captures one. It has to eat, too. However, my preference would be to snag a few of the noisy, hoggish European starlings. They devour the suet cakes like they are candy.

I enjoy the various antics and interactions of my feathered friends. The Carolina wren’s repertoire of songs alerts me to be on the lookout. Sure enough, it bounces around our front porch, checking nooks and crannies for any dead insects.

The wren also partakes of the seeds and suet. Birds need their protein, too. That explains why American robins peck beneath the suet feeder while the starlings sloppily gorge themselves. The robins gobble up the dropped suet pieces from the unruly gang overhead.

I always am pleased when the northern mockingbird makes an appearance at the suet, too. Even the starlings yield to this aggressor.

I marvel at the various woodpeckers that make infrequent stops. The downy is the most faithful, followed by the red-bellied and northern flickers. I’m still waiting on the pileated to make its initial appearance this year.

That’s half the enjoyment of being a birder. You never know what to expect next. You just have to keep watching and appreciate what arrives, starlings excepted.

This Pileated Woodpecker got the last of the peanut butter suet on March 24, 2020.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Cirrus Clouds

Like many other locales in the eastern United States, the Shenandoah Valley has been experiencing some marvelous, unseasonably warm weather. After morning fogs burn off, clear blue skies have dominated most days.

Imagine my surprise when I stepped outside one recent afternoon to enjoy the amazing weather. What appeared to be an army of wispy cirrus clouds hung in the eastern sky. Cirrus clouds are ice crystals that form above 20,000 feet in the atmosphere. They often appear bright white and in unusual formations, sometimes resembling human hair or feathers.

I thought their bright white against the deep blue sky created an inspiring scene. “Cirrus Clouds” 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