Why I Celebrate December

There are many reasons.

An Amish farmstead in December. Photo by Bruce Stambaugh

December has always given me plenty of reasons to embrace the 12th month despite its sometimes wicked weather.

Though not the most important, I’ll confess that the first reason is personal, perhaps even selfish. My birthday is in December. It’s always precisely three weeks before Christmas, which I believe has propelled me through to the holidays over my many years.

Like it or not, the holidays of December take center stage. Marketing gurus ensure we get their messages.

I always look forward to the four Sundays of Advent. Our lives would be a lot more pleasant if we carried the message of peace, hope, joy, and love far beyond the holidays.

A byproduct of those cherished qualities is joyous holiday music. Some of it, of course, has been absconded by the Scrooges of the world. Their tunes can be a bit corny. That aside, the musical sounds of Christmas somehow still warm the coldest day.

I also love the various stories and films created around the holiday season. Charles Dickens’ novelette “A Christmas Carol” tops my annual December reading list. When I taught elementary school, I read it every year to the delight of my students before Christmas break.

I’ll also admit that I’m a sucker for the movie “Home Alone.” In a somewhat ridiculous manner, the classic film brings home the joy and spirit of the season. Even though I have seen it multiple times, I still laugh as the left-behind youngster gets the best of the buffooning burglars.

Even though the holiday decorating seems to happen earlier each year, I still enjoy seeing the many displays of holiday cheer. It catapults me back to the 1960s when our hyperactive father piled his obedient children into the family sedan after dark. We would drive miles and miles, finding a wide variety of holiday light displays.

Of course, Dad had to join in the illuminating competition. He decorated the big pine on the corner of our suburban lot with hundreds of multi-colored lights. He kept at it for years and years, constantly adding to the glowing ostentation.

Those were the days when sending Christmas cards was in vogue. Hallmark loved our dear mother. She addressed and signed the cards in her lovely cursive while her children licked the glue of the stamps and the envelopes to seal them. It’s a wonder we’re still alive.

I always enjoyed a white Christmas. A fluffy layer of snow made it seem warmer than the actual air temperature. We would dust off our sleds and slicken the blades with paraffin to ensure good sledding.

Off we would head to a nearby hill or a local park where others had built snow-packed ramps. One teeth-shattering jump was enough for me.

Of course, we loved when it snowed well before December 25. But snow on Christmas just made that day all the more special.

The holidays always seemed to make December go too fast. In reality, it was and still is all of the activities we pack into preparing for the holidays.

Still, December awakens all of our senses. The fragrant pine wreaths, the ringing of the Salvation Army bells, the twinkling of the light displays, the yummy Christmas cookies, and especially the hugs of appreciative grandchildren fill my spirit to overflowing.

Lastly, it’s humankind’s general geniality that stitches December’s colorful quilt together. I still believe that even amid today’s global health and humanitarian crises.

I hope I am right. Only time and our intentional daily interactions with others can determine that answer. If that happens, that’s the only birthday gift I’ll need.

Advent candles. Photo by Bruce Stambaugh

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

Burnt Orange

Bathed by the setting sun.

One basic principle in photography is to “look the other way.” In other words, when everyone else is looking at the obvious photo opp, look around. You just might find something even more enjoyable.

That’s precisely what happened on a recent outing to photograph another glorious sunset. Before the sun disappeared behind the Allegheny Mountains that mark the Virginia/West Virginia boundary line, I turned to look east to find this lovely scene.

The sharply slanting rays of photography’s golden hour bathed the already russet leaves of the stand of oaks around this home. This photo is the way I shot it, with no tweaking needed.

Whether alone or in a crowd, it always pays for a photographer to look the other way.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

Winter is waiting in the wings

When November wanes.

Like the last sliver of the moon, November is waning. December is upon us as if we needed a reminder.

After our crazy hot and dry summer and warm and pleasant October, November serves as a buffer between those golden memories and the chilly days ahead. She is readying us for whatever winter brings.

November likes to use her weather arsenal at every opportunity. The recent early blasts of cold weather have already been a one-two punch signaling that winter will soon officially be here.

November clearly understands her convoluted purpose. I recall summer-like weather early in the eleventh month. I sweated on a modest hike in a nearby state park.

Silver Lake, Dayton, Virginia, lived up to its name in November.

A few days later, I was photographing horses romping in the snow. November loves to tease us that way intermittently.

I have fond memories of family Thanksgiving gatherings where the football team of cousins played outside after we stuffed ourselves. I’m sure our parents gladly traded the precious peace for grass-stained blue jeans. Then again, I recall scurrying our young son and daughter from the car to the safety of grandma and grandpa’s farmhouse to avoid cold, stinging raindrops.

Weather, of course, isn’t the only transition from fall’s fairer days to winter’s worst. Every avenue of communication assaults us with seasonal offerings.

TV commercials full of holiday cheer and gift suggestions have aired for weeks. Radio stations blend in secular Christmas songs with hip-hop.

Don’t even get me started on the mail. Sales flyers, myriads of requests for year-end donations, and open enrollment options for us Medicare folks fill our mailboxes. Social media ads and email blasts join the sales conspiracies.

Every time my wife and I head out, we notice more Christmas trees set up in homes along our various routes. A few folks have even jumped the season and decorated their outdoor trees and shrubs with holiday lights. Stringing them up in fair weather is one thing. Turning them on well before Christmas is another.

My energetic wife has joined the efforts. Our battery-operated candles already adorn the windows of our modest ranch home.

November’s gradual trend towards crisp, cold air clears the atmosphere, allowing the stars, planets, and constellations to sparkle. Of course, you have to bundle up to enjoy the celestial show, but it is more than worth it.

I’ve had my birdfeeders up for weeks now, and I am still waiting on that first rarity. Until the purple finches, pine siskins, or evening grosbeaks appear, I’m content with the regulars, but not the pesky, intruding squirrels.

I still enjoy the house finches, Carolina wrens, blue jays, white-breasted nuthatches, Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, and pairs of northern cardinals. I do keep a sharp eye out for a few stray cats that aim for a carryout feathered meal.

A small flock of American robins recently began to start each day at the heated backyard birdbaths. With the steam rising from the warmed water into the cold air, all the splashing resembles an avian spa.

Soon we will flip the wall calendar to its last page. We’ll scramble to find the 2022 calendars that we bought or that arrived in one of those large manilla fundraising envelopes.

As much as I love the rebirth of spring, the warm days of summer, and October’s many golden hours, I accept November’s transitional role. Dormancy is a necessary part of life.

As an Amish farmer friend of mine recently told me, “Winter is waiting in the wings.” Indeed it is.

The sun sets on November.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

Happy Thanksgiving!

From my family to yours.

Beneath the russet oaks and the bright blue sky in the Shenandoah Valley, Happy Thanksgiving to one and all.

I am grateful for those who faithfully follow this blog from around the globe. I especially appreciate your kind comments and continued readership.

Blessings to each of you as we celebrate Thanksgiving in the U.S.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

View from the Campfire

My wife and I were sitting around a roaring campfire with friends when the clouds to the north began to reflect the rays of the setting sun. I slipped away from the genial conversation and snapped this photo at the peak of the lavender sky above this glorious autumn landscape.

From that point on, the conversation freely flowed, the radiant fire grew warmer, shaking off the evening chill. It was an evening to remember, most grateful for the all-sensory experiences.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

Shine Your Brightest as You Age

Just like aging leaves

Sugar Maples line a street in Harrisonburg, VA.

A killing frost serves as the end of the growing season. Much like the coloring of the leaves this year, the initial freeze was a month later than the average date.

We had our first frost of the season last week here in the Shenandoah Valley. For good measure, the next several mornings were equally frosty.

Consequently, the leaves seemed to reach their peak color and then came tumbling down like rain showers. When a breeze stirred, it poured orange, red, yellow, and crimson.

Trees in the mountains to our west and east seemed to show their duller shades still. Here in the valley, it was a different story.

Trees in residential areas glowed the brightest. One particular neighborhood took the prize. Perhaps the combination of the sun’s angle, the slope of the hillsides, and the species of trees created the showiness.

Regardless of the reasons, I was thrilled that I happened upon the scene at just the right time. For days, these trees kept their composure by wearing their chlorophyll masks.

Then, as if by magic, the trees began to turn, which is too trivial of a term. Many of them glowed. In the low slant of the morning and even sunshine, the colors simply took your breath away.

A short walk around our daughter’s neighborhood enabled me to capture multiple photos of fall’s glory. I felt honored to be in such lovely company.

The same was true where we lived five miles away. Sugar maples and red maples especially glowed brilliant hues of reds, yellows, and fading greens. The plentiful variety of oaks retreated to their reddish russets.

That same day, I came across a poetic quote by naturalist and writer John Burroughs. He penned: “How beautiful the leaves grow old. How full of color are their last days.”

Those wise words hit me hard. As a septuagenarian heading toward yet another birthday, Burroughs phrasing echoed through my soul. The poet’s quote seemed especially apt for this time of year, for this time of my life.

Here we are at the physical boundary of November’s purpose: separate fall from winter gradually so humans can fully prepare for life’s necessary hibernation ahead. The series of frosts simply put their exclamation mark on that fact.

All these years of appreciating the changing leaves, I had never thought of them in Burroughs’ terms. Yes, they are pretty when they finally turn their natural colors. There’s much more to his pair of poetic lines than science and common sense.

When I read Burroughs’ insightful lines, I nearly wept. His two simple yet powerful sentences touched me with depth, truth, and stark reality.

More than that, Burroughs poetic description serves as a metaphor for our own lives, should we be so fortunate to live into our Golden Years. Perhaps I finally understood what the phrase “our Golden Years” meant.

This year the leaves precisely fulfilled Burroughs words and meaning as he wrote them. If we bothered to notice, we became the benefactors of this annual wonderment.

None of us know when, like those lovely leaves, we will fall from the tree of life. It is incumbent on us to fulfill our purpose here on God’s good earth every day.

Do we see the wisdom that shines beautifully from those whom we too often label “old?” Do we see how full the color is in their last days? Do we understand that someday we will be them?

If not, let us pause to notice the flourishing lives they lived and say thanks.

Fall on the farm.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

The Old Hot Rod

I came across this intriguing scene yesterday in a rural Virginia town. The car’s owner appeared from his residence across the street, so I asked permission to take photos of the old hot rod and building. He said he didn’t mind and continued toward the old structure’s entrance.

I asked him what kind of car it was. “A Model T,” he replied. Before he could take another step, I asked him about the building. He kindly told me that it had housed an insurance company’s office many years ago. When I further asked about the front doors, the man said he had installed those for better access to his workshop.

I loved how the color of the door fronts nearly matched the pink wheels of the Model T hot rod. And the shapes of the windows merely added to the building’s character.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

Lessons from Fall

She has a lot to teach us.

Even beyond peak, the colors were bright in spots in the Adirondack Mountains.

Believe it or not, fall is half over already.

For a while, we thought summer would never end with the oppressive heat and humidity and the lack of sufficient rain in many regions of the U.S. and globally. But clearly, autumn has now settled in for the duration.

The first widespread frosts and snows for the northern climes have yet to occur. Tinder dry conditions in the western U.S. began early in the summer and continued far into fall. Thankfully, a record-breaking rainstorm helped put an end to much of the drought.

The primary anticipated autumn event for us humans is the changing of the leaves, which has turned out to be much later than usual. In many places, it has also been much shorter in duration than in previous years.

Fall is a favorite season for us photographers. The migrating birds, the changing leaves, the glorious sunsets and sunrises, and the autumn bounty of flowers create plenty of photographic opportunities. Plus, the weather is cooler and generally more pleasant.

I watched weekly updates from the qualified rangers at Shenandoah National Park, my go-to place for taking pictures. The reports kept saying the peak had yet to arrive.

Fall foliage maps created by tourist bureaus offered hope even though green seemed to be the dominant color within my range of vision. When one such map showed the adjacent counties west of us in West Virginia to be near peak color for leaves, I headed out.

Once over the first range of the Allegheny Mountains, I could see that the map and reality didn’t jibe. That didn’t deter me. It was a beautiful day, so I headed to Dolly Sods Wilderness, a noted photographer’s spot. I had never been there, and I wanted to get a lay of the place, if nothing else.

I was pleasantly surprised that the mountaintop wilderness preserve provided many colors, despite the lack of large deciduous trees. I snapped away and enjoyed my short stay.

A few days later, my wife and I drove north to upstate New York to visit our son and his wife and then turned east to the Adirondack Mountains, another new venue for me. We took four days on mostly state routes through Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and the Empire State.

Though it was typical peak leaf-peeping time, the colors on the maples, ash, hickories, and others mainly remained green or dull in color. In the Adirondacks, we were a bit late but saw splashes of brightness between multiple rainstorms.

On our trip home, only in central Pennsylvania did we see the expected reds, yellows, golds, crimsons, and oranges of the fall. Since we were on the interstate, we enjoyed the views without being able to stop for photos.

The leaves have finally begun to turn here in the Shenandoah Valley. Spots of colors dot cityscapes, landscapes, hillsides, and mountain forests. But as multiple cold fronts moved through with winds and rains, many leaves came tumbling down.

Like usual, nature had some life lessons to teach us. Natural wonders happen in their own time.

We learned or were reminded to be patient. The leaves did turn like we knew they would, just not when we had expected.

We learned to look for the beauty in whatever we found. It could be a single speckled leaf lying on the ground or a spider’s web adorned with morning dew drops like dazzling pearls on lacy strings.

We learned, too, to be grateful for all the beauty around us, not just in colorful leaves.

The rainbow of colors at Dolly Sods Wilderness in WV.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

Under the Sycamore Tree

One of the lessons of photography is patience. I drove to Lake Shenandoah a few miles east of Harrisonburg, Virginia, yesterday hoping to capture a photograph of the evening sun shining on the red barn, with a beautiful reflection in the lake. As you can see, that’s not the shot I got.

Clusters of clouds blocked the late afternoon sun. Plus, a steady west wind rippled the shallow lake, eliminating any possibility for the anticipated reflection. I got in my car and started to head home when the sun broke through.

I quickly parked my vehicle and decided to head to the south trail. I kept looking back, and just as I walked beyond a tall sycamore tree, the lighting seemed perfect. I scooched down to properly frame the photo. The light bathed the cattails in the foreground and just kissed the red barn enough to have it pop among the russet colors. In addition, a sliver of the lake showed and far beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains in the Shenandoah National Park.

Patience doesn’t always pay off, but in this case, it certainly did pay dividends.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

The Soybean Field

Sometimes the best things are right at home.

After visiting the mountains of West Virginia, and traversing the highways and byways through West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New York in search of brilliant fall colors, I finally found some. This in-transition soybean field is a mile from our home in the Shenandoah Valley.

As you can see, the trees still aren’t very colorful, but the various shades of yellow intermixed with the verdant green of the soybean leaves caught my attention. Set beneath the cottony clouds and the cerulean sky, the scene nicely framed the farmstead.

“The Soybean Field” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

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