Whenever I go birding, I inevitably discover many other curiosities to photograph. Such is the life of a retired senior citizen.
On my most recent outing, I came upon this wild cherry tree that had been struck by lightning sometime last year. I hated to see the stately tree destroyed since it was one of only a few in this small state park. All kinds of wildlife depended on its flowers and berries for sustenance.
Since the tree is about halfway around the lake, pictured in the background, I usually pause my hiking for a rest here, admiring the beauty of the tree’s bark and splintered wood. This time, however, I noted something fascinating. Tender shoots of new branches were growing from the tree trunk, as seen in the foreground of the determined hardwood.
Such is nature’s way of producing life, where we humans see only demise. There is a lesson to remember here: No matter your situation, never give up.
It’s July, and you know what that means. We are already halfway through the year. How can that be?
It seems like only yesterday that it was cold and rainy, and folks from Florida to Ontario were all tired of wearing winter jackets. But here we are at the beginning of July, the year half spent like a jar half full, or is it half empty?
I suppose the answer is a matter of personal perspective. Given all that has happened in 2019 so far, I could respond either way. It’s been that kind of year.
The half emptiness comes from the loss of long-time friends, people who lived productive, generous lives of service. They meant so much to not only me but to so many others that they also touched so tenderly. Others who have passed on were much too young. Their deaths caused heavy, burdensome grief, and raised imploring questions and inquiries of the Almighty about life’s fairness.
The unruly weather caused miseries more disastrous than prolonged cold spells. Extensive record flooding indiscriminately inundated homes, businesses, fields, and overflowed the largest lakes.
Ohioans came to the aid of their waterlogged Nebraska compatriots. Weeks later, it would be the Buckeyes who watched and waited for their fields to drain. Crops that managed to be planted risked rotting in the soggy soil. Other ground may simply go fallow.
My wife and I have found that the half-fullness overflows with bounteous joys of exploring new places, meeting new people, having others reach out in friendly ways. To say we are grateful would be insufficient in expressing our appreciation for what life in the first half of 2019 has brought us.
In mid-January, a sun pillar brightened the already gorgeous sunrise over the Atlantic Ocean outside our snowbird rental. The ever-changing scene served as a reminder to breathe deeply and to embrace each moment as 2019 unfolded.
After a light late February snow, the sun strained through trailing clouds and turned the rolling Shenandoah Valley landscapes into a spectacular sparkling winter wonderland.
As delicious as it looks.
A pastel March sunset bid us farewell as we said our last goodbyes to the family cottage in Ohio. Generations of family and friends helped fulfill the dreams that my folks had had for their quaint lakeside-gathering place. But as that chilly sunset waned, we shed tears of gratitude and appreciation for the memories made and wished the new owners the very same.
Each spring, I had enjoyed the showy lavender blooms of redbud trees that adorned still barren forests and neighborhood landscapes. However, I had never noticed how each individual blossom so closely resembled tiny hummingbirds on the wing until a kind neighbor showed me in April.
A state bridge engineer directed us to a cascading waterfall we would have surely missed had we stayed on the main highway. In the quintessential New England town of Jackson, New Hampshire, Jackson Falls became one of the many highlights of our May vacation.
The same kind neighbor who pointed out the redbud hummingbirds brought over a couple of puffy pastries she had made using the sour cherries she had recently picked. Her tasty treats made this June day even better than it already was.
You likely have a comparable list. What challenges and surprise blessings are in store for us the rest of 2019? We really don’t know.
Like July is to the calendar, we encounter life’s happenstance experiences at the juncture of our half empty and half fullness. Our job is to be alert to explore and savor those serendipitous, joyous moments.
The holiday season is here. Thanksgiving Day has come and gone. Christmas, Hanukah, and New Years will be here in the twinkling of an eye.
It’s easy to get caught up in all the excitement, hoopla, and glitz of the extended festivities. After all, the big box stores, TV, radio, online ads, and printed fliers have been pushing their holiday wares for weeks now.
I try not to pay too much attention to all that holiday hype. In my retirement, I have, instead, come to enjoy each moment, anticipate the day at hand, and celebrate the unfolding daily events.
I have also learned that that is much easier said than done, given the state of the world, the conniving of greedy people and corporations, the unsettling of Earthly events, natural and otherwise. Still, we must carry on. So I did, and I do.
This particular day I joined a senior citizens’ hiking group led by a retired banker, a most trustworthy man. Our destination was Lewis Falls in Shenandoah National Park.
Our group of nine wound its way down the trail through the shedding deciduous trees, brushing against mountain laurel whose berries the forest birds and bears had not yet devoured. We crisscrossed several small streams, all of them rushing to plummet the 83 feet of Lewis Falls.
These cascading ribbons join just as they tumble into the Shenandoah Valley. We stepped gingerly across the last of the wetted stones and finally made it to the shaded overlook of the falls themselves. We refueled at that lovely sight on the snacks we each had brought along.
I climbed over the protective stonewall to get a slightly better view of the falls. It nearly cost me my life. I pitched the last handful of peanut butter cracker crumbs into my mouth and tried to swallow. I couldn’t.
I tried to breathe in. No air made it to my lungs. I didn’t want to die this way.
My EMT training kicked into gear. I got the attention of the nearest person and pointed to my throat. She asked me if I was choking and I nodded my head frantically. She hollered for the others and started to jump the wall to help me.
In these 20 seconds or so, I continued to try to swallow. I couldn’t speak. I thumped my chest with my fist twice, made a growling sound, and attempted to swallow again. Just as this courageous woman was about to apply the Heimlich maneuver, I felt the mountain air tickle my lungs. I took a swig of water, waved off my would-be rescuer, and spoke a few raspy words of thanks.
The woman was heartily relieved, but not nearly as much as me. As we backtracked up the zigzag trail, everything looked brighter, the colors more vibrant, the air sweeter. The trek back to the cars seemed much shorter, easier even until someone noticed that Herb was missing.
Cascades along the trail.
Always look up.
Enjoying the serenity.
Rich, vivid colors.
The tallest member of our pack, Herb had headed back ahead of the rest of the group. But he wasn’t at the parking lot. The retired banker quickly formed a plan, and once again my firefighter/EMT training instinctively activated, only this time for a search and rescue effort.
Though frustrated for nearly two and a half hours, the search ended happily. Herb was found safe and sound. We all headed for home in thanksgiving and wonderment of creation and life itself.
In the midst of all the mundane marketing and holiday cheer, I have a suggestion. Let’s remember to be thankful for life itself.
I hiked the short trail with one thing in mind. I wanted to find the old cabin and take a photo of its chimney if it indeed had one. As so often happens in life, discovering what I was looking became secondary in this trek.
I took my time on the trail, soaking in all the glorious sights and sounds that I encountered along the way. There was a lot to absorb.
Rock Spring Cabin was a short distance away from a crude hut built for hikers along the Appalachian Trail in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park. From the cabin’s covered front porch, the Page Valley played out in the patchwork patterns of fields far below.
The primitive log cabin did indeed have a stone chimney. I snapped my picture and headed for the spring of Rock Spring Cabin nearby.
When I arrived, I was stunned at what I saw. I stood there in both amazement and disbelief. There, high in the Blue Ridge Mountains, cold, clean, crystal clear water gurgled from beneath giant boulders as old as time. Human interaction, of course, had to plumb it with a PVC pipe.
Instantly, my mind flashed back to my childhood. I thought of the Old Testament Bible story of Moses striking a rock and water gushing forth for the assembly of disgruntled, thirsty Jews wandering in the desert. That ancient story always struck me as a blend of awe, mystery, and miracle.
I contemplated the moment. I couldn’t help but wonder why here at this spot, more than 3,000 feet above sea level did water run from rocks? The earth does fantastic, mysterious things. Explanations are not always required.
Still, I reckoned the answer to my rhetorical question. Clearly, the rock strata folded long before human history began and forged a channel for the water table below.
Water from a rock.
Cabin to spring.
Yet, there was something mystical about the rock spring, its waters trickling down the steep slope far into the valley below. I mentally traced its path from small stream to a creek that formed a tributary to the Shenandoah River. Farther north, it met the broad Potomac River at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, and then flowed east through rapids and placid waters alike, passing the nation’s hectic capital into the Chesapeake Bay and on into the Atlantic Ocean.
Noisy ravens awakened me from my lively daydreaming. Apparently, they viewed me as an intruder. Not wanting that title, I returned to the main trail, warblers, and thrushes flitting and singing in the leafy canopy high overhead.
I walked a short distance down the trail, and the raven followed me, swooped low, and continued its nasal banter. It was only then that I realized that I was not the target of its raucous concern.
A motion drew my eyes downward. Not 30 feet away a young black bear grazed along the forest floor. My head instinctively swiveled in search of the mother bear. I saw only trees, plants, and rocks.
I gingerly stepped a few feet down the trail where I could get a better view of the cub, likely in its second season given its size. One click of the camera shutter and the bear spied me and bounded down the hill towards the spring. Overflowing with wonder and joy, I headed in the opposite direction for the parking lot.
I went searching for a cabin and found so much more. An emerald forest. Water from a rock. Agitated ravens. A frightened bear cub.
I have a lot of time to think as I drive between our Ohio home and Harrisonburg, Virginia where our daughter and her family live. This trip was no different.
Thanks to superhighways, the folded, old age mountain ridges and their accompanying deep gorges and valleys flipped by like shuffled decks of cards. The leaves of their mixed hardwoods already blushed tinges of autumn’s arrival.
I thought about the lone, purple cottonwood leaf our six-year-old granddaughter plucked from a quiet mountain brook just a couple of days previous. She and I had spent an hour or more exploring, talking, questioning, and enjoying each other’s company in the shallow of a peaceful braided stream.
I found Maren’s inquisitiveness as inspiring as our rural, mystical surroundings. Our interactive discussion included but was not limited to geology, theology, erosion, evolution, earthquakes, gravity, rock formations, and bird migration.
I don’t know who was more perplexed, me with Maren’s significant, thoughtful questions or Maren with my confounding answers. Trooper that she is, Maren didn’t seem deterred. In fact, one response only led to another question, and another and another.
I had the time of my life, sitting on these ancient limestone outcroppings, their striations complementing their angular positioning. Maren graciously accepted my academic explanation of how they came to be standing on edge after having once been the bottom of oceans eons ago.
She’d continue her inquiry while simultaneously balancing along the exposed rock layers like a ballerina on a precipice. Patches of the early evening sky filtered through the broken canopy of the maples, oaks, sycamores, and cottonwoods that lined the rocky banks of Capon Run. Despite the string of scorching days, the stream’s clear, quiet waters were cold.
We watched water striders break the stillness of the mirrored surface as the spider-like insects foraged. Then came the leaf, a rich, royal burgundy that caught the quick girl’s eye.
Maren snatched it from its slow journey downstream, held it up, and asked what kind of leaf it was. I found its parent tree upstream and pointed it out to her. She nodded and released the leaf back to the placid water.
I remember remarking to Maren how different that lone leaf was in color compared to the thousands of green ones that still quaked on the massive branches in the afternoon’s warm breeze.
Maren liked that leaf, and so did I. I thought she’d keep it for its rarity. Instead, she let it go, enchanted with its slow twirling atop the crystal water, its impressive ability to avoid the creek bed’s rocks and sticks.
I thought about that leaf, those moments with Maren again as I joined a congregate of others to celebrate and mourn the death of my wife’s cousin. As loving words poured out for Pam, it hit me that she had a lot in common with that glorious leaf.
She, too, had lived a royal, purposeful life for her family, friends, and those whom she served as teacher, principal, and play director. For all who knew and loved her, Pam had fallen much too soon from the tree of life.
My wife and I are grateful for the creativity and joy our grandchildren bring to life. We are equally appreciative, like so many others, of Pam’s leadership and devotion to family, faith, and community.
Just like Maren’s mauve leaf, we had to let Pam go, too. Joyfully her journey ended more blissfully than that serene mountain stream setting.
When you spend most of your life living in the world’s largest Amish community, you tend to get a lot of flat tires. It just happens.
You see, when a horse throws a shoe, the nails holding the horseshoe to the hoof go flying, too. If they land in the roadway, which many are prone to do, passing motorists often pick them up as their tires pass over the sharp metal nails.
You know what’s next. The tire goes flat, usually when you’re already late for an appointment. I’ve learned to deal with it.
I change the tire and take the flat to the repair shop to find the leak. More often than not, a horseshoe nail is indeed the culprit. The tire is plugged or patched, and I’m on my way again.
Spike in sidewall.
Sometimes the tire can’t be fixed. I fork over $150 or more for another tire. What more could I do? You don’t have to live in Amish country to be able to relate to this scenario. In fact, there are times when you wish flat tires were all that had gone wrong.
An acquaintance recently shared how his father fearfully faced open-heart surgery. A few years earlier, his wife, my friend’s mother, had died during the same procedure.
I listened to my friend tearfully relate other details about how his mother’s death had negatively impacted his father’s spirit for the last decade. He didn’t want to lose his father the same way. To my friend, it was like all four tires had gone flat.
Others I know have lost spouses, sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, grandchildren. You get the sad picture. You might even be in the picture. Unseen nails abound in life, often puncturing us when we least expect it.
Some nails are more nuisances than they are painful. Canceled flights, broken heirlooms, sick pets all qualify as life’s flat tires. Those can often be patched. Everyone experiences some bumps in the road that flatten our spirits.
Yelling and screaming might make us feel better. But doing so won’t fix whatever problems we face. I often look to others as models for the way I should go.
My wife and I have twice run into a friend who recently lost her husband to cancer. She is ever so thankful that friends and relatives have been taking her places. The joy expressed in her smile shines brightly, dimming the sadness in her eyes.
As my friend Kurt and I walked the Survivors Walk in the Holmes County Relay for Life event last month, we met a young lady who had beaten brain cancer. She wasn’t going to let that nail in her tire deflate her enjoyment in attending middle school next fall.
Now that was the spirit, the key to living a positive life. This young woman radiated confidence and enthusiasm. It was an honor to walk with her.
Just like that darling teenager, it’s how we respond to life’s flat tires that can make all the difference. Mourning the loss, accepting the situation, and getting on with life as best you know how will help you get where you want to go.
As sure as a buggy will clip-clop by my house, I also know that it’s just a matter of time until I get another nail in the tire. When that happens, I’ll find myself back at the repair shop. It’s simply the way life is.
Avid birders love to do Big Days. Big Days are when a group of dedicated birders sets a goal of seeing as many bird species as possible in a span of 24 hours.
I had a big day recently, too. My big day was a kaleidoscope of activities, some bright and cheery, others light and muted, and a few dark and fearsome. Knowing that this day’s lively landscape would also be an emotional roller coaster, my faithful wife held my hand all along the adventuresome path.
My shifting pattern of colors didn’t involve any feathers, however. Rather, the palette I experienced involved people and their comparative connectedness to me.
After breakfast, my wife and I headed into Berlin, Ohio considered by default the center of the largest Amish population in the world. I surprised Neva with a brief stop at the local coffee shop for mochas. She got decaf, but I needed some caffeine to get me through the day’s busy agenda.
Slurping our coffee, we headed up the stairs to our financial advisor. He wanted us to make some tweaks in some of our monetary investments. But you can only do so much with a $1.95.
From Ohio’s Amish Country, we were off to my hometown, Canton, to see my urologist for a consultation. The previous week I had had a biopsy for prostate cancer. This meeting alone would have qualified as it’s own big day.
But being the thrifty couple that we are, we packed the day with a purposeful assortment of activities and conversations. My good doctor got right to the point. He spent more than an hour with us, mostly reviewing the several choices for treating my cancer.
While the kindly doctor clearly itemized the wide range of options and their side effects for me, Neva furiously took notes. All the while my head swam. We set a follow-up date for deciding which procedure would be best for me, and we were off to our next encounter.
The timing couldn’t have been better. Neva and I each got a one-hour massage. I could actually feel the tension ooze out of my body, and my mind stopped racing about what I had just heard and anticipating what was to come for me.
I had a brief but important business appointment just down the road. With my mind clearer, the meeting went well.
From there, we delivered some furniture we no longer needed to one of Neva’s cousins, who lived just a few miles away. We made our delivery, visited a little and were off to our next rendezvous, dinner with my older brother and his wife.
The date with Craig and Shirley was well-timed, too. A year and a half earlier, Craig had had prostate surgery similar to what my doctor recommended for me. Over absolutely marvelous entrees, we casually discussed my brother’s procedure and other various maladies that seem to be dominating baby boomer lives more and more.
We skipped dessert, and walked a few hundred steps to our son and daughter-in-law’s lovely New York style loft on the square of Wooster, Ohio of all places. Craig and Shirley, whose youngest daughter lives in New York City, were mightily impressed with the stylish apartment and its accompanying minimalist furnishings.
On the 20-minute drive home, the color wheel of events of my big day flashed before me. So did the fear and uncertainty of what lies ahead. But given the loving and colorful characters who surround me, I know all will be well no matter what.
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