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

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

Making the colors of summer last year-round

The colors of summer are as pretty as they are delicious and nutritious.

Just as I began to write about the colors of summer, a friend posted on social media about her visit to a local farmers market. In one digital photo, she succinctly summarized what I intended to say.

A cornucopia of vibrant colors from gardening harvests filled her photo. The variety of tomatoes alone captured nearly every hue of an artist’s paint pallet.

Ruby reds, luscious purples, warm yellows, and lime greens took center stage of their kitchen table. The light yellow of summer squash and the ribbed texture of a muskmelon represented the earthen tones.

A perfect emerald cucumber, the variegated rind of a watermelon, and a cluster of fresh basil leaves provided a generous sampling of the locally grown greens. The haul from your gardens, nearby produce stands, and farmers’ markets likely create similar still-life artistry.

Our house is no different, despite not having a garden. My wife does pamper a half dozen potted herb plants sitting on the white enamel top of an inherited old table on our patio.

Our daughter supplies us with all the plump, juicy, and tasty tomatoes that we can use from her garden. Her blackberry plants have produced an abundance of delicious tartness, too.

The half-box of organic fruits and vegetables we get each Monday from our Community Supporting Agriculture program assures that we maintain a healthy, flavorful diet. We also frequent several local produce businesses, mostly operated by the Shenandoah Valley’s Old Order Mennonites.

It that regard, we are reminded of our Ohio home, where we knew many of the Amish and Mennonite vendors personally. Somehow that seemed to make their homegrown offerings all the tastier.

My energetic wife ensures that we celebrate the summer’s colorful bounty all year long. Canning and freezing are in her farmer genes.

When it comes to preserving the downhome goodness of food, we have noticed a difference between living in Ohio versus residing in Virginia. Instead of in spurts, everything seems to come ripe at once in the valley.

One day we are canning peaches and the next day tomatoes. Those jars have barely stopped popping their lids when the sweet corn comes ready, tender, tasty, and delicious. The varieties here are as delicious as our Ohio favorite, Incredible.

We’ve also learned a few new tricks living in a new culture in a new state. We husk the sweet corn, clean it, and cut the kernels straight from the cobs. Neva fills the plastic containers, and when we want fresh corn at Thanksgiving, that’s when it gets cooked and not before.

Apples are next on the list. The sweet tartness of the ginger golds more than satisfy our family’s taste buds. Neva freezes enough for the grandkids, who usually finish off their supply long before Nana can do another batch.

Of course, canning and freezing are a lot of hard work. Sterilizing the jars and lids, cleaning the fruit and veggies, and peeling when required, all take time and effort. Then there is enduring the sauna-like heat at the height of the canning process in our tiny galley kitchen.

The vent fan works overtime, expelling the heat and steam to help cool the temporary cannery. But in the long run, it’s all well-worth every drop of sweat.

Come the cold, dark, dull months of winter, and we will have summer at mealtimes in our household. Those yellows, reds, and greens of the harvest will brighten any dark day and table, and make all of the perspiring worth the effort.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Hawksbill Summit


The summit of Hawksbill Mountain is one of the most popular spots in Shenandoah National Park. There are many good reasons for that.

Hawksbill is the highest point in the park at 4,050 ft. above sea level. You have a 270-degree view from the summit. Hikers love it since two trails lead to the peak, and a covered shelter is available. Plus, the view is incredible.

I chose the Upper Hawksbill Trail for several reasons to do my second hike in the park this year. The trail has less elevation, is shorter, and I had never hiked it before. I wasn’t disappointed. Birds and butterflies were abundant, and most hikers donned face masks as we passed on the trail.

As you can see, the rock outcropping of the peak is rugged and angular. The Appalachian Trail is 500 ft. below. The drop into Timber Hollow, however, is 2,500 ft., which is the most significant elevation change in the park. Unlike others, I stayed well away from the edge.

“Hawksbill Summit” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Feeling stressed, fearful? Head outside!

The misty morning view from the Skyline Drive.

Awash with news and information about COVID-19, it’s easy to feel tense, confused, irritable, fearful, or even bored. Due to the global pandemic, millions of people of all colors, religions, cultures, and languages are experiencing similar trepidations.

A sense of hopelessness can be emotionally overwhelming. There’s a way to help overcome that despair. Head outside!

Studies have shown that connecting with nature calms fears, and uplifts spirits. I embrace those findings as often as I can. I recently headed to my favorite get-away place, Shenandoah National Park.

Mine was a twofold mission. Besides going into the wild, this was my first hiking experience since my knee replacement surgery last September.

I started early to beat the heat and humidity. The sun hadn’t yet risen over the Blue Ridge Mountains as I approached the park on U.S. 33. I exit that road into the park at Swift Run Gap.

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Rounding a slight curve on a typically hazy summer morning, I noticed a large dark object in the opposite lanes of the divided highway. I slowed and rolled past a massive black bear standing beyond the grassy medium.

The magnificent creature looked both ways and then bolted across the roadway. It promptly disappeared into the steep, wooded hillside before I could even grab my camera.

Buoyed by that encounter, I arrived at the trailhead in high spirits. Surely, anything that I would experience the rest of the day would be anti-climactic, unless I saw another bear on the hike. I didn’t.

I walked a few yards on the Appalachian Trail to where it intersected with the trail I wanted, the Mill Prong. It was all downhill from there until the return trip.

The forest was amazingly still. No birds sang, and no vehicles hummed along the nearby Skyline Drive. I took in every moment, the wildflowers, the ferns, brightly colored fungus conspicuously growing on dead trees. The distant sound of water gurgling its way down the mountainside lured me onward.

I heard or saw no one else. A gray catbird burst from a bush beside the trail. A feisty squirrel angrily scurried away, flapping its tail in disgust of the human disruption.

I rested at the shallow stream. The morning sun filtered through the forest canopy, sparkling the gently rippling water. I felt exalted.

Farther downstream, I sat on a large rock and just enjoyed the sound of water trickling over ancient boulders. On my return trip, I passed a few other hikers. Each one donned face masks as we passed on the trail. More gratitude and thoughtfulness mutually expressed.


Click on the photos to enlarge them.
When I reached the parking lot, the strengthening morning sun spotlighted some bright orange Turk’s cap lilies just off the trail. Their beauty drew me like a magnet. I snapped my camera’s shutter over and over, trying to preserve the glory I beheld perfectly.

Suddenly, a female tiger swallowtail butterfly alighted on the same flower that I was photographing. Again, delight and gratitude filled me to the full.

In the rest of the world, the pandemic raged. But in the wild, only the big black bear, the forest’s serenity, the kindness of other hikers, and this tango of floral and fauna mattered.

I was thankful for each magical moment, and for the skillful surgeon who had replaced my knee. Gratitude is appropriate anytime, but especially during this pandemic.

Connecting with nature does indeed do wonders for your soul. You can find peace and gratitude in a local park or even your backyard.

Get outdoors, follow the prescribed safety rules, and enjoy all that comes your way.

The splendor at trail’s end.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

The Blues Have It!


I am fortunate that I can incorporate my three favorite hobbies into one outing. Whenever I go hiking, I always take my binoculars and camera. Every now and then, I am rewarded with an opportunity to capture the beauty of birds.

This male Indigo Bunting landed on this jumble of dead branches just out of the morning’s sunlight. Still, the ruffle of the striking bird’s feathers as it turned its head revealed several shades of blue. Indigo is the perfect name for this avian beauty.

I am happy to share my Photo of the Week with you, “The Blues Have it!”

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Morning Surprise


I easily spotted the small patch of Turk’s cap lilies as I finished my hike on a trail in Shenandoah National Park. The morning sun perfectly highlighted them against the forest green background. Since they stood high above other plants along the trail, I knew I could get a good shot of these nature wildflowers.

I took a few photos when this female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly suddenly attacked the flowers, flitting from one to the other. It was a very pleasant surprise. The beautiful butterfly moved around so much that it was difficult to get a good angle. As I snapped the last shot, which was this one, the butterfly fluttered off out of sight.

“Morning Surprise” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020