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

Phlox on the Rocks

Please excuse the pun

My wife and I participated in a guided spring wildflower walk at the local arboretum yesterday in Harrisonburg, Virginia. While other participants eyed some other floral beauties, I spotted this clump of wild blue phlox, phlox divaricata, growing hard against a bolder of the area’s noted blue limestone. I thought the rock and the bouquet make a nice couple.

“Phlox on the Rocks” in my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

Bloodroot

An aptly named wildflower

Look quickly, or you might miss this lovely spring wildflower. Bloodroot blooms March to mid-April here in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.

There is much to like about this aptly named wildflower. This lovely perennial herb with a simple leaf formation blooms across much of the midwest and eastern United States and into several Canadian provinces. As this photo shows, however, the blooms are short-lived. Some are at their peak, while others are beginning to wither, while still others are beginning to unfurl in the full sun. The flowers close at night.

Look for these beautiful wildflowers in the leaf litter of deciduous forests. Their buttery centers are surrounded by multiple frilly white pedals. Native Americans used the blood-red juices produced by their root stems to dye baskets and clothing. They used the coloration for war paint and insect repellent. The juice, however, is poisonous if ingested. The generic name, from Latin sanguinarius, means bleeding.

“Bloodroot” 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

Spring!

The vernal equinox is March 20

Crocuses are some of the very first flowers of spring. They are emerging all around our neighborhood here in the Shenandoah Valley. Of course, spring doesn’t officially arrive until March 20. But we are glad for the floral showy expressions after this long, cold, wet winter.

“Spring!” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

Diamonds and Ducks

Two treasures in one photo

Bird migration is in full flight. To check for any waterfowl and shorebirds that might be passing through, I head to nearby Silver Lake in Dayton, Virginia. It’s also a favorite spot for sunrise and sunset photos.

On a recent afternoon, I found this flotilla of ducks in the sparkle of the afternoon sun at the south end of the lake. Among this group were Ring-necked and Redheaded Ducks and Greater Scaups.

“Diamonds and Ducks” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

Routines dropped, added, and kept during the pandemic

Blooming Mountain Laurel in Shenandoah National Park, June 2020.

In one way, it’s hard to believe that a year has passed since we had to alter our daily routines drastically. In another, the time between then and now seems a blank.

One Sunday last March, I greeted people at the church door, welcoming them as they arrived for worship. A week later, state after state began issuing orders banning all large group assemblies, including church services. Officials directed additional guidelines as well, all for society’s well-being.

The coronavirus had instantly changed our lives. Since then, more than half a million have died of the virus in the U.S., and 2.5 million globally. That is the very definition of a pandemic. It has been an unwelcome global intrusion that affected all of us in one fashion or the other.

A change of regular routines became the norm universally. It was difficult to adjust so quickly, especially for those stricken with the virus. Given the circumstances, adjusting was all we could do to stay safe.

With our usual routines interrupted, the obvious choice was to develop new ones. So, that’s what my wife and I did.

If we went out, we wore masks that my industrious wife made. Throughout the pandemic, she sewed 1,200 and donated them to individuals, churches, non-profit organizations, schools, and medical facilities. She also knotted five comforts for a charity.

Instead of going inside to buy groceries, we ordered our staples online and picked them up curbside. We continue that process, along with ordering takeout from local restaurants. We like to support the mom-and-pop establishments as much as we can.

We took advantage of decent Virginia weather days in 2020 as much as possible, taking hikes, going birding, and meeting with family and friends in well-ventilated places. Of course, we always masked up and kept our physical distance.

Day trips to local, state, and national parks and arboretums replaced planned vacations. For the first time since 1987, we missed our annual respite at our beloved Lakeside Chautauqua.

My exercise program changed when gyms closed. I biked in the neighborhood, and I walked with Neva when the weather cooperated. We joined a twice-weekly yoga group via Zoom.

My wife and I started a new routine that we both enjoy. Nearly every morning, around 9:30, we take a coffee break and play cards. We’ve played hundreds of games, and I am exceedingly pleased that Neva hasn’t kept a running tally of wins and losses.

We loved hosting friends and family. With the necessary physical distancing guidelines still applicable, Neva magically transformed her gift of hospitality into taking food and meals to others.

Despite the sluggish snail mail, we have redoubled sending note cards to friends. We’ve also added more texts and actual phone calls to our repertoire of communication.

How we have attend church services for the last year.

Our church pastors and staff have done a yeoman’s job of keeping church services going via Zoom and YouTube. Thanks to them, we’ve only skipped that one Sunday.

We miss the joy of congregational singing. I have kept one custom, however. Despite worshiping remotely, I continue to dress for church. I felt compelled to continue that tradition if simply to confirm that it is Sunday.

When will we be able to return to our pre-pandemic routines? That question currently has no answer. Until then, we will continue to play it safe by maintaining our pandemic practices.

I do have a question about whenever we can return to worshiping safely in the church building again. Will I be allowed to take my recliner and drink my coffee during the service?

Neva made our Christmas masks.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

Soft Sunrise

Heavenly pastels at their finest.

As lovely as this sunrise is, it wasn’t my objective for the morning. I had risen early to get a shot of February’s Snow Moon setting behind the Allegheny Mountains about 15 miles west of our home in Rockingham County, Virginia. The forecast said clear skies in the morning, so I headed out for the 6:47 moon-set.

A quick glance to the west and I realized that shooting the moon was out. Snow clouds had moved in over the mountains, obscuring the moon. I went for Plan B. I drove southwest to Silver Lake at the north edge of the town of Dayton. The sky to the east was clear, so I parked on the west side of the lake and waited. The sunrise wasn’t spectacular, but I loved the soft pastel colors that reflected in the small lake.

“Soft Sunrise” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

Tufted Titmouse

A most attractive and affable bird.

Tufted Titmice are some of the cutest, most personable birds around. Their fairly plain coloration belies their personalities. These acrobatic birds are welcome at any backyard bird feeder. You can often hear them coming before you see them. Their variety of clarion calls are music to my ears. They whistle and call in a variety of ways, sometimes sounding as if they are scolding. Tufted Titmice are often accompanied by the local Chickadee patch.

Seen across much of the eastern United States, these active birds devour black oil sunflower seeds, safflower seeds, and peanuts. They are fun to watch and seldom sit still. I felt fortunate to be able to snap this profile of this Tufted Titmouse. It enables you to see all the bird’s identifying features: its stubby black bill, black forehead, pointy crest, its dominant gray color with rusty sides. The bird’s beady black eyes against its pale face make it easy to see where it gets its name.

“Tufted Titmouse” is my Photo of the Week.

© 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