Letting Creation find you

Looking west from a point in Big Meadows in Shenandoah National Park.

Even though the morning’s southeast breeze was gentle, the leaves rained down like ticker-tape parade confetti. I was in my favorite outdoor space, Shenandoah National Park’s Big Meadows.

Big Meadows is an anomaly. No logical or scientific reasons can explain why the expansive meadow sits in the middle of this popular national gem.

Scientists have determined that there is nothing unique about the soil’s geologic makeup or bedrocks below that would create a meadow in the middle of a forest. In a matter of yards, the foliage changes from plants of a kettle-like marsh to wooded hillsides. I imagined Big Meadows as God’s thumb stamp of approval on these ancient mountains.

In the short time we have lived in Virginia, I’ve found fall is my favorite time to visit this gorgeous spot. From our valley home, the weather appeared to be perfect. But when you visit the mountains, conditions can be changeable at any time of year. I packed for the unexpected, and that’s what I got. With every step, creation’s glory unfolded.

You could hardly call my creeping along as hiking. I followed the parameter of the southern part of Big Meadows. In three hours, I covered only a mile and a half. A wooly worm would have made more progress, but likely not shared my joy.

I wasn’t out to break any endurance records. I went to see whatever came to me as I strolled along and through the area’s various topography. In the mountains, just a change in altitude of a few feet makes a big difference in the kinds of vegetation that grow.

This gently sloping mead is home to flowers, grasses, reeds, trees, and assorted creatures great and small. As an invader of their varied habitat, I tried to remain obscure.

With fall’s migration, I knew plenty of bird species might be passing through on their way south. I expected year-round residents, too, along with a few lingering butterflies.

Resident eastern bluebirds and handsome field and song sparrows greeted me. Eastern phoebes, magnolia warblers, blue-headed vireos, Carolina chickadees, and dark-eyed juncos darted about, too.

Dressed in their duller non-breeding feathers, some birds, especially the warblers, went unidentified by this average birder. Chirps near and far came from other species that I couldn’t locate.

I crept along the raggedy edge that separated fields from woods, exhilarated. I lingered in a high place beneath a sweeping white oak at the meadow’s southernmost border, where I could see near and far.

Contentment filled me as I sensed all the life around me. Instead of hiker, birder, or photographer, I was an uninvited but appreciative guest. Every moment bore existential meaning.

The first frosts of the season created a festive carpet of fall’s primary colors that spread across the landscape. The leafy trees and evergreens looked on in envy. Red-tinted green leaves, spent wildflowers, delicate ferns frosted golden, ruby-colored blueberry leaves, and russet grasses decorated the earth like it was Christmas.

Overhead, the sky also joined nature’s artistry. One minute, it was pure cerulean, the next white fluffy clouds.

Suddenly, a fog rolled in from the eastern piedmont. The steady breeze soon carried it to the western slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

I breathed an appreciative silent prayer of gratitude for all these sights and sounds. The old withered away, yet the promise of rebirth remained.           

At every step that I took, I was delighted to have observed all that found me.

The fog that hung over Shenandoah National Park even after I left.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Mars and the Harvest Moon

The skies were clear in the Shenandoah Valley for the rise of Mars and October’s Harvest Moon. Mars was first to appear over the Massanutten Mountains that end east of Harrisonburg, Virginia. A few minutes later, the full moon also appeared. As the moon rose higher, Mars drew closer to the moon. Mars is the small dot in the upper left-hand corner of the photo.

I took this photo handheld from my front yard just outside the city. “Mars and the Harvest Moon” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

The benefits of standing still


I’m a person that is usually on the go. However, I know first-hand the benefits of standing still.

I recently went to the Big Meadows area of Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to do some birding. I have learned that the open spaces along and near parking lots are favored by certain bird species. Wildflowers and dense brush grow there beneath mature deciduous trees. That combination provides both cover and food for my avian friends.

It didn’t take me long to be rewarded. Though it was windy, the birds were active. Due to the wind, however, most kept low and in the thicket, making it harder to photograph them or even find them with binoculars.

On this overcast morning, the sun suddenly peeked through, and just as suddenly, this lone Cedar Waxwing landed on a pokeweed bush right in front of me. I slowly raised my camera and clicked away.

I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Cedar Waxings are some of my favorite birds due to their posture, coloration, and behavior make them regal birds. I snapped off four quick shots of this beauty as it checked its surroundings, and then just as quickly as it had arrived, the bird flew off.

Other than the slow raising of my camera and the ear-to-ear smile, I hadn’t moved. I was graciously rewarded for standing still. For the record, cropping and adding my watermark were the only “alterations” done to the photo.

“The benefits of standing still” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Meditating while driving

A balmy day in the Shenandoah Valley.

When I drive alone, I often meditate.

It’s not what you might think. I don’t close my eyes, of course. I just enjoy the peace and the time alone to think. I don’t forget about driving. It would be both foolish and dangerous to do so.

I try to allow extra time for a more leisurely drive. I avoid superhighways. Backroads are my preference because I never know when I might need to stop to take a few photos of the fantastic scenery that Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley affords.

Unlike my younger years, I drive silently. No radio, no CDs playing. I enjoy the quiet unless the road surface is too rough. Then I take in the music that my tires sing to the tune over the various macadam surface textures. The octaves change by the mile.

I’ll use the GPS when I have to. Once I know the way, however, I am on my own, like the other day when I had a doctor’s appointment 35 miles away.

A typical farm in the Shenandoah Valley.

I left nearly two hours before my 2 p.m. appointment. Besides a couple of brief planned stops, I knew there would be photo opportunities along the way. I had been that route before.

Driving in that contemplative state helps to clear my mind from all of life’s noisiness. Plus, I get to enjoy the mountains to my left and mountains to my right. In between, there is nothing but gently rolling countryside dotted by farms, fields, forests, and more gigantic chicken houses than I care to count.

Weather permitting, I ride with the windows down and the sunroof open. I sometimes pay the price if I pass a freshly manured field.

This trip turned extra-special. Once I passed Sulphur Pump Road, I turned south on the narrowest windy way with no ditches and farmers’ fences hard against the blacktop.

The paved path twisted and turned, rolled up, down, and around until I made a slight right onto Battlefield Road. In less than a half a mile, I crossed a short narrow bridge in the curve of the road. Ahead, an old plantation sat high on a ridge behind a grove of mature pines.

The spot where young men died in the Civil War Battle of Bonnie Doon.

At this exact spot at the bottom of the hill, Americans fought Americans in a Civil War skirmish. Hand-to-hand combat ensued, with heavy casualties on both sides. Today, fruit trees and fence line trees waved in the wind.

No historical marker identified the bloody spot. I knew it from a Civil War class that I am taking remotely. It was this week’s lesson.


Farther south, a couple of miles, two different historical markers on opposite sides of the road defined the facts and sight of a deadlier clash, the Battle of Piedmont. Field corn and an impressive planting of soybeans nearly hid both plaques, while the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah National Park created an enchanting backdrop.

I wondered if people knew what had taken place here, the massive loss of life, the many casualties, and prisoners of war, the consequence of the Union victory. If they knew, did they still hold a grudge or even care?

Did they appear only as fields of corn and beans to them? Were people merely on their way from point A to point B in their daily lives as they passed?

I pondered all of this as I arrived at the impressive multi-storied medical office building. I donned my mask, had my temperature taken, responded in the negative to all of the required COVID-19 questions, and waited my turn for my 21st-century exam.

My nomadic meditation had ended.

The Union army engaged Confederate soldiers on this ridge.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Officially welcoming another autumn


Residents of the Northern Hemisphere are on the eve of yet another autumnal equinox. Autumn officially begins at 9:30 a.m. EDT on Tuesday, September 22.

Autumn has given us plenty of warnings even before her arrival. Instead of turning red, many of the leaves on our backyard maple have simply been falling off one-by-one for weeks. We can thank the leafcutters for much of that.

The crazy weather of this insane year has also played a role in the dying leaves, along with other climatological irregularities. Let’s count the ways.

In late spring, an extended spell of chilly, wet March-like days did their damage. The steady damp weather kept farmers out of fields over much of the U.S. east of the Rocky Mountains.

Some bird species even delayed nesting because the weather was so foul. If birds did nest, naturalists found hatchlings dead because their parents couldn’t find enough insects to feed them.

Then just like that, it got hot and dry. Here in western Virginia, the furnace was on one day, and the air conditioner the next. Vegetation flourished in such conditions, causing the humid, hot wind to carry various pollens far and wide. According to my allergist, I wasn’t the only one sneezing.

The day the rains started in mid-July.
About the time Major League Baseball finally began in July, the heavens opened up. The rains canceled games, and so did COVID-19 because too many players tested positive.

Record rains pelted the full length of the Shenandoah Valley. August usually is a hot and dry month here. Not this year. The weather was more like June should have been. We mowed our lush lawn twice a week for several consecutive weeks.

All the while, fall kept creeping upon us. Butterflies, relatively scarce during June and July, began to arrive. So did the ruby-throated hummingbirds. Now they are all filling up their tanks for their annual southern migration.


The yellow, green, and black Monarch caterpillars have morphed their way into magnificent orange and black butterflies. Predators have learned to avoid dining on them since the Monarch’s appetite for milkweed renders them bitter, according to lepidopterists.

That dreaded F word, F-R-O-S-T, has already made appearances across the northern reaches of the U.S. Can the rest of us be far behind?

If you listen to the jingles and jargon on TV, this is pumpkin spice everything season. Despite the marketing ploys, I’ll gladly stick to my decaf mocha lattes. They’ll taste just as robust when the first freeze hits.

Of course, hurricane season peaks in the first few weeks of fall. The National Hurricane Center has already increased its predictions for both the numbers and intensities of those tropical storms.

Out west, you can’t breathe the air. It’s so oppressively hot and thick with smoke from record-breaking fires that have caused death, destruction, and devastation to humans, wildlife, and entire towns. More than 10 percent of Oregon’s population has been evacuated as of this writing.

Unfortunately for those millions of west coast folks, the sky has glowed an apocalyptic orange for all the wrong reasons. A good frost or even a lovely blanket of snow would greatly help those tired firefighters slow the infernos.

Autumn, of course, abounds with fiery colors, orange included. In addition to the winged creatures, mums, maples, pumpkins, and gourds are but few of the things that warmly usher in fall.

Climate change has undoubtedly played a part in stirring up 2020’s weird and wild weather. It’s been a universally strange enough year already all the way around.

Let’s welcome fall with a blissful hope for more normal global weather patterns.

The right kind of orange.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Teasel


I loved how the afternoon light highlighted the prickly details of this dense stand of spent teasel heads. Likely, several varieties of birds thrived on the seeds of these thorny remains.

I was happy that the farmer had let these beauties stand for all to enjoy. “Teasel” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Sit a Spell


Touring around the Shenandoah Valley, we stopped at a local orchard and vineyard. Noted for both their apples and cider, both hard and regular, Showalter’s Orchard and Greenhouse has the perfect spot to while away a late summer afternoon.

“Sit a Spell” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Celebrating the universal work ethic

Old Order Mennonite farms dot the landscape in western Rockingham Co., Virginia.

Americans will enjoy yet another three-day weekend in the U.S. with Labor Day picnics and outdoor events of all kinds. However, this year’s activities likely will best be tempered with proper physical distancing and perhaps a dab of humility, given all the national chaos.

Labor Day became a national holiday when President Grover Cleveland signed a bill into law in 1894. It designated the first Monday of September as a day to honor all those who work. Several states had done so previously after labor strikes and deadly battles between workers and authorities. The ugly details, unfortunately, compare equally to today’s ongoing strife in the U.S.

Growing up in a blue-collar town in northeast Ohio, Labor Day served two purposes for the young. It was yet another three-day holiday weekend, and it marked the end of summer. A half-century or more ago, summer vacation from school ran Memorial Day to Labor Day.

As a youngster, I don’t recall being curious about why there was a Labor Day. As an adult, I now know that it was a hard-fought effort on the part of laborers for fair pay, decent work hours, and safe conditions.

Amish children routinely help adults with chores, especially on farms.

Even in a pandemic, we can easily forget or ignore the efforts of others to make our lives more comfortable and enjoyable. In that regard, Labor Day might be the most under-appreciated U.S. holiday.

During the Industrial Revolution, machines created jobs, and people willingly and unwillingly filled them. Men, and too often children as young as six-years-old, worked long, grueling hours, sometimes half a day with no overtime pay.

The children, of course, were paid far less than the adults for the same amount of work time. Such treatment helped bring about our current child labor laws.

It only seems logical to have a holiday that celebrates work. A strong work ethic is valued in cultures worldwide. Too often, however, folks don’t see it that way. They imagine that they somehow have a grip on the virtue of work, while at the same time chastising others as lazy or preferring government handouts.

Harvesting coffee beans in Honduras is a family affair.
Multiple trips to Honduras helped me see through that divisive thinking. Hispanics like to work as well and as hard as any other culture. They also did so earning less than a dollar an hour for a day’s work in maquilas, or sweatshops, making brand name clothing for citizens of the western world to wear.

We are fortunate in this country to have had workers who banded together in the 19th and early 20th centuries to demand fair pay and safe working conditions. Today, however, say the word “union,” and it might be the end of a budding conversation.

The truth of the matter is that were it not for unions and strikers, we might not be enjoying an extra day off of work this weekend. Given our fast-paced, 24/7 online universe, many workers might rightly wonder, “what day off of work?”

Our grandson mowing our lawn.
I much appreciate the influence of my parents, grandparents, and their peers in modeling the importance of having a strong work ethic. It helped my siblings and me in gaining an education, training, and extended careers.

Energetic peers surrounded my wife and me for all of our adult lives in Ohio’s Amish country, where work ethic continues to be revered. It’s equally so in the Appalachian and Old Order Mennonite cultures in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, where we now live.

This Labor Day, like every Labor Day, we will smile upon the generations of bold laborers who made it possible for us to work and play along life’s way.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Great Expectations!


It wasn’t hard to miss these two young girls as they stepped along the river’s shoreline in search of just the right spot to fish. A few minutes earlier, their father gave them instructions and stepped back to let them do their thing.

Initially, the girl with the net had a fishing pole. However, she traded it in for the oversized net in anticipation that her fishing buddy would catch a whopper. The scene reminded me of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn on one of their adventures. The afternoon sun beamed down on the girls with their floppy hats, clunky boots, matching red shorts, and colorful T-shirts.

“Great Expectation!” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

The Doting Mother


I spied this female Eastern Bluebird peering over the top of the leaves of this tree early one morning. I heard her plaintiff call, and then another from a slightly different location. A quick glance around revealed this juvenile basking in the morning sunshine.

Apparently, mom just wanted to make sure her baby was alright, or perhaps they were searching for breakfast in the wild cherry tree. “The Doting Mother” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020