The colors of August

Wheat shocks at sunset.

The colors of August captivate me. Living nearly all of my adult life in Holmes County, Ohio gave me a full range of that summer paint pallet.

The pleasing contrasting greens and golds quickly got my attention. I admired the rolling contoured rows of lush green field corn against the toasted waves of winter wheat.

In the eastern part of the county, wheat shocks stood as sentinels guarding the fattening ears of corn nearby. Unfortunately, their presence seldom deterred the deer from nibbling the outer rows to the cob.

The blooming alfalfa brought pretty butterflies, honeybees, and other vital pollinators. The swooping swallows had their own feast, especially when the farmers made their August cuttings whether by tractors or horse-drawn mowers.

August was when the vibrant green leaves of deciduous trees began to curl in the heat, humidity, and parched soil. By month’s end, a few even turned brown or began to color.

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I always enjoyed the flowers that bordered blossoming gardens or multiple flowerbeds like my wife cultivated to perfection. Hollyhocks were my favorite until the gladiolas raised their pink, red, yellow, and white flags.

I would be negligent if I failed to mention the summer birds, some of which had already begun their return flight south. Though not as vocal as earlier in the year, most still showed their breeding colors.

The flashing iridescent red on emerald of the male ruby-throated hummingbird and the flashy orange and black of Baltimore orioles spruced up any welcoming yard, if only temporarily. Sometimes the two species vied for dibs at the sugar-water feeders.

By months end, early morning coolness brought silent, silken fog that glowed bronze with the rising sun. If eyes were sharp, silver droplets dotted the dewy threads of spider webs artistically strung from one barbed wire strand to another.

Much of that changed, however, when my wife and I moved to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Like Holmes County, the Valley, as locals like to call it, is the breadbasket of the south. Agriculture still rules the rural areas.

Farming is a bit different here, however. Though the Old Order Mennonites still drive horses and buggies, they man the latest farm machinery invented. As thrifty as their Amish cousins, they often farm right up to the roadway.

Though the topography is similar, strip cropping is seldom used. No-till farming seems to be the in thing here. The result is wide swaths of wheat sown between two fields of field corn or the tallest soybeans I have ever seen. It’s still green and gold, just different species.

With soil that hardly ever freezes and being further south, the growing season is longer. Farmers and gardeners get an earlier start on planting and consequently harvesting. The colors I was used to in August begin to appear in July. Produce stands evidence that.

The produce peak, however, still seems to be August. My wife and I can attest to that thanks to the generosity of our son and daughter’s families. They gifted us a weekly produce box known as CSA, Community Supporting Agriculture.

End of August morning.
We have already enjoyed weeks’ worth of fresh, organic produce that is as tasty as it is luscious to admire. Mellow yellow summer squash, prickly green pickles, plump red tomatoes, sweet red beets, orange cantaloupe, and juicy red watermelon make our summer meals perfect.

Happy to merely admire the colors, I almost hate to have Neva slice, dice, fry, cook, and can the colorful lot. I change my mind, however, with the fresh salsa alone.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2019

Why I always dreaded August’s return

August, sunset, Virginia
An early August sunset.

By Bruce Stambaugh

August is upon us once again.

As I look back on it, I always dreaded the return of the eighth month. Through my not-so-nostalgic reflections, I realized that my reasons evolved across the decades.

As an elementary school student, I knew all too well what August’s arrival meant. We were down to one month of summer vacation.

Those were the days when agrarian mentality ruled the school year. All scholarly studies were squeezed between Labor Day and Memorial Day. When the county fair gates closed, the school doors opened.

Now, of course, no such luxury exists for students. Back to school shopping has already begun. With August at hand, many students start the daily countdown until the dreaded day arrives.

Don’t get me wrong. I liked school, well, the elementary version at least. However, I enjoyed playing much more so. Summer vacation generated much less stress for youngsters then. Our screen time meant going to the drive-in movie theater on Friday nights. Our phones stayed at home firmly affixed to the wall.

butterfly, wildflowers, Virginia
Male Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly on Cardinal flower.
So when the calendar flipped to August, the neighborhood gang of hooligans started planning our next sleep-out under the stars or our next daytime adventure at the creek down-over-the-hill. Time was a wasting.

In high school and college, it wasn’t playtime but work that got shortened by the start of school. At $2.06 an hour, I needed to work all I could to deter my own educational expenses. With younger siblings and a stay-at-home mother, it was the least I could do to help the family financially. My older brother set that model.

When I started my career in public education, I began to more fully understand the importance of August. It meant readying for another school year, only this time as the teacher and eventually principal.

The late summer days of August always meant sweating it out decorating my classroom before the students arrived. Those old schools didn’t have air conditioning. I could hear the busyness of protégés down the hallways also preparing for the coming school year. We came in early morning and early evening to avoid the afternoon heat.

August, Ohio's Amish country
Come August, summer winds down.
When I joined the administrative ranks, August meant meetings, which I loathed unless they were held on the local golf course. That venue seldom happened, however, despite the chatter around the window table at the locals’ favorite eatery.

I heard samplings of student whining from our son and daughter, who knew too well that the coming of August meant school band camps and fall sports practices. Our son chose wisely. He joined the golf team and scored much better than his father ever could.

Just like their parents’ childhood schedules, once the county fair ended, the school year began for our children, too. By then, however, Labor Day became the first school holiday, not the summer’s last.

Somehow, though, we all survived those August perils. As a retiree, August has lost it sting. I don’t have the self-imposed barriers to hurdle anymore. I can relax in air conditioning as the thermometer hits 90.

Like all the previous years, I anticipate golden sunsets sinking beyond the horizon. I’ll watch for the Perseid meteor shower, hoping that the August haze has faded in the cool of the night.

The fraternal twins of retirement and maturity have a mellowing effect on sour attitudes. Instead of dread, this August I’ll breathe in a deep breath, say a prayer of gratitude for another new month, and enjoy the moments at hand.

Ohio's Amish country, Amish
Back to school.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

Sights, sounds say August is waning

field corn
Rows and rows.

By Bruce Stambaugh

I don’t need a calendar to know we’ve past August’s midpoint. The sights and sounds, signs and symptoms abound.

Day by day, the sun rises brilliant and bold closer to the center of the horizon. Ghostly layers of morning fog drift above row after row of tan tasseled field corn, the stalks stunted by the parching summer heat and subpar precipitation.

Teachers’ cars already sit early and stay late in school parking lots while their masters slave away in the sweltering classrooms on their own time, already preparing for the year ahead. Mothers, brothers, cousins, nieces, and nephews accompany the fortunate ones, cutting out letters for holiday bulletin boards or hanging artwork to brighten the sterile schoolroom.

Workdays and evenings repeat the same preparations at Amish parochial schools. Schoolyards get mowed, windows washed, desks and books readied, backstops repaired, all to ensure everything is a go for the teachers and scholars on day one.

The busy buzz of back to school sales replaced the monotonous cicada chorus. Youngsters were glad for both.

The Holmes County Fair is over, this year celebrating not just another successful week, but its new digs. Farmers secretly wish the county commissioners would move up the start of the fair by a month just to get the rain when it’s needed the most. It poured right on schedule.

Multi-shades of brown paint the landscape. Flowers, well watered in the morning, wilt by afternoon.

Applesauce, sweet corn, and tomatoes are canned and frozen within days of one another. There is no rest for the gardeners, chefs, and lovers of all things natural, homegrown, and home-cooked. Succotash in January is the plan.

Orange barrels multiply overnight. Everyone’s pace quickens, except in construction zones. Time is fleeting, but we can neither increase nor decrease its speed.

At night, windows are thrown open even in homes with air conditioning. The concerts of the katydids and crickets are the reward.

The Perseid meteor showers, even more spectacular this year than most, are waning, along with the lightning bugs. Nature’s fireworks announce autumn’s awakening like an opened wedding invitation.

The boys of summer are sorting themselves out in some divisions, and bunching up in others. It’s marvelous to see the Cleveland Indians giving it ago, and those annoying Yankees not so much.

Footballers, pro, college, and high school, practice in the heat. Come playoffs, you can see the quarterback’s breath bark out the plays, we’re that close to the cold.

This year the Olympics caught the tail of summer’s dog days if one cared to watch. I chose to view the evening sky’s gold, silver, and bronze as the insects sang.

American Goldfinches, some of the last birds to incubate, escort their young to the feeders. Their thistledown nests will soon weather away in the forsythias.

August sunsets try hard to outdo the sunrises. Often the orange ball simply slinks out of sight, leaving only contrails glowing in the west.

From month’s beginning to end, nighttime quickens, too, and we wonder where both August and the summer went. They’re still here, just in shorter increments.

Despite the mini-drought, a rainbow of fruits and vegetables color local produce stands. Yellow, gold, crimson, and purple early blooming mums clash with the ubiquitous Bubblegum petunias. No one complains.

Wildfires burn out west, the result of global weirding and human intrusion on wildlife habitat. Like the drought, the fires will end though the intrusive expansions will not.

As August fades, life’s steady heartbeat thumbs its way into September. Are you ready?

Olympic sunset
Gold, silver, and bronze.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2016

August’s end means new beginnings

walk to school, Amish boys
Back to school. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015

By Bruce Stambaugh

A Belted Kingfisher flew furiously over the fresh mown hay towards a neighbor’s pond. Breakfast was likely on its mind.

My farmer neighbor hitched his workhorses and teddered the hay to help it dry. The Barn Swallows, Tree Swallows, and Cliff Swallows circled the productive locomotion and devoured every insect the man, the machine and his faithful team dispersed.

A refreshing north wind eased the day’s early humidity. No need for a calendar. All signs pointed to August’s end.

A few trees had already begun to transition from their chlorophyll green to their disguised shades. Even before the berries on the dogwoods blushed bright red, the trees’ leaves curled and revealed hints of crimson and lavender.

blooming hydrangea
The hydrangea. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015
My energetic wife had already deadheaded the once lovely hosta blooms that adorned the leafy plants in her luscious flower gardens. The Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, hummingbird moths, and various butterflies, bees, and other pollinating insects had completed their instinctive work.

The hydrangea bush bloomed full and pure against the garden shed. It demanded daily watering in August’s heat and dryness.

Juvenile birds, Red-headed Woodpeckers, Song Sparrows and Blue Jays among them, found the feeders and the birdbaths on their own. Another aviary generation will forge into fall and winter without knowing what lies ahead as if any of us do.

American Goldfinch on sunflower
Eating fresh. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015
The acrobatics of the American Goldfinches provided free entertainment as they worked over the volunteer sunflowers that sprouted from bird feeder droppings. Fresh food is not just a human preference.

The big yellow school buses began carting anxious and enthusiastic children alike to and from school. I waved to the drivers as they passed me on my walk.

People often ask me if I miss those days; if I don’t have some innate longing to return to my first career. The short answer is, “No, I don’t.”

I loved the children, whether teaching or being their principal. I greatly enjoyed the interactions of parents and staff members, even when we disagreed. I have no resentments or regrets. Neither do I have any wish to reenlist.

oat shocks
Straw soldiers. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015
My life has moved on. I am the same person, just at a different place in my turn at life’s cycle. I have fond, fond memories of my teaching days and principal days. But now I have neither the desire nor energy to compete in today’s educational whirlwind too often driven by politics instead of common sense.

I would rather sit on my back porch, as I am now, taking in the world as each moment flashes by. I don’t want to miss anything. I want to rise each day to enjoy the sunrise and bid farewell to the evening light that dims all too soon.

fluffing hay, teddering hay
Teddering the hay. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015
Each day is an opportunity to live, to be alive, to help others, to listen, to look, to breath, to pray silently, to work diligently for peace in a troubled world. That is my challenge now.

August has come and gone, always too fast, always too hot and dry. August melds into September.

We can only embrace it, for there are marvelous days ahead. I’ll watch for them whether from my back porch or wherever I might be, knowing that too many in the world will not have the pastoral view or luxuriousness of trusting neighbors that like mine.

It’s my duty to share goodness and joy with others as my life, too, passes from August into September. Isn’t that the real responsibility of all of us at any age?

August, sunset, Holmes Co. OH
August sunset. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015

© Bruce Stambaugh 2015

August is a busy, often forgotten month

oats shocks, Holmes Co. OH
Shocking scene. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015

By Bruce Stambaugh

Poor August. Like Rodney Dangerfield, our eighth month just doesn’t seem to get any respect.

August is the forgotten month. No holiday graces its 31 days. Still, we often get lost in all that August has to offer and forget the month itself.

August calls to us daily, appealing to our innate senses. The month tantalizes us with good things to eat, smell, see, touch and hear. August is an equal opportunity sensation.

sunflower, August
Backlit sunflower. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015
Urban, suburban or country, August flies a multitude of colors. Cultivated and wildflowers grace gardens, country roads and even median strips on interstate highways.

The beauty is ever changing from month’s beginning to end. Cosmos, gladiolas, and hollyhock replace daylilies and daisies. Roadside royalties like asters and chicory are ubiquitous.

The colors of the floral circus attract fluttering visitors. A variety of gorgeous butterflies and exotically patterned insects help pollinate the blooms and entertain us humans.

Tiger Swallowtail, Conflower
Garden beauty. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015
August days grow shorter of course. But its sunrises and sunsets are unsurpassed. Often, smoke and gritty particles blown high into the atmosphere diffuse the sun’s rays to create glorious dawn and dusk events.

Locally, the county fair is in full swing. That means fun and excitement for children both in years and in the heart. It also often means at least one good soaker.

In a properly configured growing season, gardens, orchards, and croplands are yielding an abundant harvest. Despite the late start, this year looks like a bumper crop of color and nutrition except for those poor peaches that were frozen out by two consecutive harsh winters.

All harvesting doesn’t always come from the garden. Picking wild raspberries, elderberries, and even blueberries provides a satisfaction all its own. On a recent jaunt through the West Virginia mountains, I witnessed a few folks staining their hands with those precious fruits.

Commercial and domestic kitchens are abuzz with activity. Jellies, jams, applesauce, salsas and many other seasonal delights are all being cranked out at their demand, not always our convenience.

canning tomato soup
Canning tomato soup. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015

When they’re ripe, they take priority or there’ll be no goodies to spread on warm bread on a cold January evening. Besides the tasty preserves, generations of families and friends gather for the food frolic.

Back to school shopping makes the August to do list, too. Teachers, students, parents, and grandparents crowd the aisles snapping up pencils, paper, glue, and clothing. If you look closely, you’ll likely find a year’s supply of antacids in the teachers’ carts.

When the calendar flips to August, all of this rushes into our lives. Before we know it, Labor Day weekend will be upon us, and August will be but a memory.

young song sparrow, birding
Juvenile Song Sparrow. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015
The oats stand at attention in shocks atop an emerald carpet of alfalfa. The radiant afterglow of another golden August sunset bathed the entire landscape, toasting even darker the already amber grains.

In the evening, choruses of crickets and katydids lull you to sleep. If you awake during the night, you can take in another of August’s wonders. The Perseid meteor showers can entertain you with magical streaks of pure awe.

Only the House Wren, attending its second or perhaps third brood, continues to sing regularly. Other bird species, having done their duties, have mostly grown quiet.

Many migrating birds have already begun their journey south. In the birding world, August is considered the beginning of fall.

See what I mean about August getting no respect?

August sunset, grain field
Russet sunset. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015

© Bruce Stambaugh 2015

After this June and July, do we really need August?

Ohio chaparral by Bruce Stambaugh
Parched pastures in Ohio more resembled California chaparral.

By Bruce Stambaugh

The dog days of August are upon us. The month is notorious for hot, humid and mostly dry weather. Haven’t we already experienced enough of that without adding to the enduring misery?

Once June arrived, the lovely spring weather we had enjoyed literally evaporated. The weather turned unusually warm and dry, not just in Ohio, but also across much of North America. Many record high temperatures were recorded. Geographic areas that had been moist quickly joined other regions that have had ongoing, long-term drought conditions.

Artesian well by Bruce Stambaugh
This artesian well normally runs steady year-round. It dried up by the end of July.
Water became a precious commodity. Wells were taxed. Perpetual springs slowed to a trickle. Local streams, normally gurgling with water from occasional rains, displayed more creek bed than flow.

I pitied those who had to work outside for a living. Many businesses had their employees arrive early to take advantage of the morning coolness, and then let them leave mid-afternoon at the height of the heat.

National Weather Service offices all across the country regularly posted heat advisories and excessive heat warnings. In the cities, where concrete and steel intensified the heat, people sweltered.

It was bad enough here in the country. Lawn care services, usually swamped for work or used to rushing to beat the rain to complete their jobs, simply lost business. They were used to mowing green, not brown. Indeed, there was no need to do so.

Brown lawn by Bruce Stambaugh
Lawns that were mowed short took a beating from the heat.

Farmers watched helplessly as their corn curled and parched pastures more resembled California chaparral. In America’s breadbasket, farm animals were sold off since feed and hay prices soared. By July’s end, two-thirds of the country was in some stage of drought.

Wild animals sought cooler climes, too. Groundhogs abandoned their normal burrows in hayfields and ranged outside their normal habitat for scarce food and water. A young one dug a hole under our back porch for protection from predators. It munched on our herbs and flowers, and boldly drank from our little garden pond in broad daylight.

Curled corn by Bruce Stambaugh
Field corn was so stressed from the heat and drought that it curled.

A pose of raccoons was more cautious. Being nocturnal, they regularly fished and splashed at night. The groundhog and seven of the masked bandits were captured in live traps baited with a gourmet meal of apple slices and marshmallows.

What really stood out though was how people seemed to adjust to the oppressive conditions. Sure complaints were lodged to nobody in particular. The only moisture to fall on some farmland was from farmers’ tears. Still I found people overall to be as congenial as ever. They seemed determined not to let the heat get the best of them.

One exception to that was on the highway. Drivers appeared more aggressive than usual, perhaps incited by the blazing sun and warm car interiors. In my various road trips, I noticed an unusually high number of vehicles, large and small, abandoned along highways or sitting with their hoods up. Their operators peered into the engines or talked on cell phones while waiting for help to arrive.

Brown grass by Bruce Stambaugh
Burned out lawns and parched flowerbeds like these were common all across the midwest part of the United States.

Trees and flowers, too, were stressed. Leaves turned yellow or brown. Some gave up the ghost altogether. When I walked to the mailbox to get the mail, the grass crunched beneath my feet like snow. Right now, I’d rather have the snow. Can’t we just skip the dog days of August and sashay right into a normal fall?

Given such a notion, maybe the heat has gotten to me after all.

This column appeared in The Bargain Hunter, Millersburg, OH.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2012

August is the quiet month

August sunset by Bruce Stambaugh
A typical August susnet in Ohio's Amish country.

By Bruce Stambaugh

I have always thought of August as a transitional month, the days between busy, boisterous July and the revitalizing September.

August is the stepping-stone from summer’s onslaught of activities into a pre-fall mentality. Vacations wind down for most people. It’s back to school and back to work.

If we take time to halt our busyness, our clamor to re-ready ourselves for the new school year at hand, we can take note of this calendar bridge from tilling to harvest, from clamor to order. In its intermediary mode, August seems to quietly take it in stride.

The songbirds no longer need to announce their territory or impress their mate. The young have flown the coop, or more properly stated, the nest, and bird life has returned to seeking daily subsistence. The American Robin precisely models the point.

From April to July, the Robins paired off, warbled their luxurious choruses almost continuously sunup to sundown. They pecked on windows, noisily flitted off their nests when disturbed and faithfully fed their young.

The Robins were ubiquitous in both presence and song. People often comment when they see their first Robin of the spring.

First Robin by Bruce Stambaugh
People often remark when they spot their first Robin of the spring.

Now, in late August, the Robins have all slyly retreated to their preferred nomenclature. They are more than content to while away the day searching for food deep in the recesses of the shade and forest.

Think about it. When was the last time you either heard or saw a robin? They simply and silently slipped away unnoticed.

If they haven’t already, other bird species will soon be disappearing from the area altogether. The Purple Martins, Barn Swallows and Common Nighthawks all heed their interior instinctive urgings and vanish unseen much like the Robin. We under-appreciate their massive consumption of insect protein until it’s too late to thank them.

Just as quietly, the multiple greens of fields and pastures have grown taller, richer. Chameleon-like, they have morphed into emeralds, tans and russets with hardly a rustle.

August harvest colors by Bruce Stambaugh
The colors of August change from day to day.

Farmers have taken in their wheat and most of their oats matter-of-factly, and now tolerantly wait the drying of the later cash crops, corn and soybeans. There is no mechanized clanking in patience.

Song Sparrow by Bruce Stambaugh
A Song Sparrow sings away.
The Song Sparrow still belts out an occasional composition, but nothing as regular as it had been earlier in the season. The House Wrens, once so noisy they approached annoyance, have taken to the underbrush, giving their last brood endurance lessons.

August’s atmosphere also has been quieter than the previous months, save for a couple of late night thunderstorms. The brilliant flashes and deep, rolling booms shattered my sleep like Civil War cannon fire might have. Midnight imaginations run wild when deafeningly jolted.

The few sounds of August we can count on are more monotonous and so commonplace we may not even notice their calls. Cicadas and crickets signal day and night. With windows thrown open to catch the unusual August twilight coolness, the insect symphony has helped humans settle in for sound sleeping.

Every now and then a ranging coyote howls from atop the neighbor’s pastured hill, if for no other reason than to drive the tethered neighborhood canines crazy. The feral call is one thing. The domesticated is another.

Now that school years in most locales begin well ahead of September, the playful echoes of children rollicking at recess again fill the air. It’s a timbre I love to hear over and over again, even if it does break August’s amazing silent spell.
Amish school by Bruce Stambaugh