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

Lessons from the Civil War still need to be learned

Memorial markers commemorating the Battle of Cedar Creek.

My wife and I moved to the Shenandoah Valley more than three years ago to be closer to our three grandchildren. We also drew closer to the Civil War.

I remember studying about the Civil War in school, of course. But places and battles like Antietam, Gettysburg, Manassas, Petersburg, and Appomattox overshadowed any Civil War engagements that occurred in the breadbasket of the Confederacy.

That agricultural label was apt. The Shenandoah Valley, especially the area where we live near Harrisonburg, played a vital role in keeping the Confederate States Army fed. The valley is still one of the prime agricultural regions of the Commonwealth.

Agriculture continues to be an economic priority in the Shenandoah Valley.

Many of the citizens of the valley joined in fighting for the south. Others from the Rockingham County area remained neutral, however, preferring to tend their farms. When troops from both south and north moved through the valley, they often bought or helped themselves to foodstuffs, produce, corn, and even livestock.

I recently completed an online university course on the Civil War in the Shenandoah Valley. I saw the class as an opportunity to learn more about what some locals still call “The War of Northern Aggression.”

Indeed, the class taught me much about the war, local mores and history, and just how much military action occurred on and along roads we regularly travel. At times, it felt eerie to know the exact number of casualties on both sides in settings we frequent.

I sat up straighter in my chair when the instructor shared a map that showed troop encampments around Harrisonburg, the central city in Rockingham County. When he pointed to where one of George A. Custer’s cavalry divisions camped, I took notice. It was the area where we live. A friend who grew up here told me that he only remembered our housing development as a pasture with lots of limestone outcroppings. He said it had never been plowed.

The most significant battles in the valley took place in the northern section near Winchester, where the photos above were taken. Lesser skirmishes happened in and around Rockingham County.

One such engagement happened near Cootes Store along the north branch of the famed Shenandoah River. I have a new reverence for the place that we occasionally drive by now that I know Confederates chased Custer and his cavalry across the river as Union soldiers forded absconded livestock. For the record, Confederate flags still fly all around that location.

The small historical town of Dayton, five minutes south of where we live, played a defining part in one of the valley’s darkest events of the Civil War. General Phillip Sheridan, commander of the Union Army in the valley campaign, learned that one of his top aides, John Rodgers Meigs, had been murdered near Dayton.

In retaliation, Sheridan ordered the burning of barns, mills, homes, and crops in a five-mile radius around the town. Most of the residents there were Mennonite farmers who had remained neutral during the war. Nor did they own slaves.

Another aide to Sheridan, Lt. Col. Thomas E. Wildes, begged the general to rescind the order because the residents had treated Union troops well. Sheridan relented, but only for the Dayton area. In appreciation, a plague was placed in Dayton honoring Wildes. Elsewhere in the valley, the Union Army implemented the burning. This action devastated the residents and crippled the Confederate food supply.

Those events are known as “The Burning.” Not surprisingly, hard feelings remain today. That attitude mirrors the current political animosity in the U.S.

As I viewed some of the local battlefields where thousands of casualties on both sides occurred, I couldn’t help but compare that violence to today’s heated rancor and divisiveness.

So how long should we hang on to hate? Isn’t it time to intentionally be more peaceable with one another?      

Union cannons at the Battle of Third Winchester.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

   

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