The long shadows of winter have begun

winterforestbybrucestambaugh

By Bruce Stambaugh

I was driving along a country road recently on an unusually beautiful day, especially for Ohio in December. The sun was shining. It was near 50 degrees and yet officially winter.

When I rounded an easy curve heading east through a stand of trees, I saw them. The long shadows of winter had arrived. With the sun at its most southerly declination, the naked trees cast long, dark shadows across the roadway and into the stark, fallow fields that I could see ahead through the glen.

Perhaps it was passing from the young woodlot into the open fields on either side of the road that caught my attention to this most common occurrence. Sun and shadows equal cause and effect.

The stand of trees was too big to be saplings and too small to be considered a forest. Proof of that came in their failure to deflect the brilliant afternoon sunshine. Instead, dark, irregular fingers splayed across the roadway, jumped the barbed wire fence and settled upon the elephant grass that had ransacked the helpless fields.

winterwoodsbybrucestambaughIt was as if I were driving over a corduroy road without the ridges. With the certain winter wind frolicking, the shadows used the tan clumps to wave to me as I passed by. I took notice, but didn’t return the gesture.

That moment in time got me to thinking, which isn’t always a good thing. I slowed down as I approached the next curve, also guarded by trees, lots larger this time. They cast much more impressive silhouettes, in part due to their size, but also because of their geographic disposition.

These virile hardwoods hung tight to the northern slope of a humpbacked hillside on the south side of the road. They impeded the blessed sun much more efficiently than the previous tunnel of trees. In all my years of driving, I have never enjoyed passing through alternating stripes of sun and shadows, especially when they cross your path for a quarter mile or more. I tend to slow down just to be safe.

At least no snow covered the ground. If it had, the contrast between dark and light would have been even greater, making it all the more difficult to navigate. Unless, of course, it would have been a starlit night casting softer, more poetic moon shadows.

I came out of my dreamy trance as the road straightened and the fields became productive once again. Corn stubble graced the left and pastures the right. The only trees visible served as fencerows, too far from the highway to trip me up.

treelinebybrucestambaugh

I pondered what potentially lay ahead for the New Year’s winter. Would we have a substantial, sustained snow cover or would the winter of the old year be repeated? Or would we simply have a little of each?

The answer of course was simple. There was no way to tell. We would have to take one day at a time, and accept the weather as it arrived. We like to control as much as we can in our 21st century lives, especially with all of our highfalutin technology. The weather, fortunately, eludes that realm.

The long shadows of winter are upon us. Whether on dry ground or crusty snow, one thing is certain. As the days slowly grow longer, their span will shorten, even if it is at the minuscule pace of minutes a day.

longshadowsbybrucestambaugh

© Bruce Stambaugh 2013

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

At winter’s end, it wasn’t much of one

Cold creek by Bruce Stambaugh
By Bruce Stambaugh

Here we are at winter’s end. Spring officially arrives March 20.

In reality, winter here in our area has hardly been winter at all, especially when compared to the past two. In case this mild winter has dulled your memory, the winters of 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 were bears, both fit more for polar bears than humans.

All of Ohio, and much of the Midwest for that matter, got dumped on. We measured snow by the foot instead of inches. Schools were closed, factories shut, roads declared impassable.
Patriotic snow by Bruce Stambaugh
Several snowfall records were set all across the Great Lakes region. They were winters of which children can only dream, and adults refer to, accurately or imaginatively, as snows like “when I was growing up.”

The snows were relentless. Once the snow from one big storm was cleaned up, another and sometimes bigger snow buried us again. Those winters never seemed to end. They began in November with below normal temperatures and above average precipitation and lasted into April.

Frozen crocus by Bruce StambaughEven the springs that followed were damp and cold. It really wasn’t until we had reached June in northeastern Ohio that spring’s fair weather had begun in earnest.

This winter, on the other hand, was indeed a different story. Old man winter never really showed his face. Yes, we had snow, but only a few times did it deposit enough to measure in inches, and even then, it was often a half an inch here and a quarter of an inch there.

Records were broken for precipitation this winter. The moisture was mostly rain, driven along by strong winds.

Those who cherish the winters of the previous two years had to hate this one. Snow skiing, ice skating, sled riding were all shelved for the most part. In Wisconsin, the vehicles of desperate ice fishermen sunk into a lake because the ice was so thin.
Birds galore by Bruce Stambaugh
The previous two winters brought birds galore to backyard feeders. This year, the birds were far and few between, preferring their natural foraging to human offerings. Sure the usual faithfuls appeared, but not in the numbers or frequency of harsher winters.

earlycrocusesbybrucestambaughThis winter was so mild that the first crocuses bloomed in February instead of March. The long slender stems of the weeping willow trees showed their pencil yellow early too. I even heard of one woman who planted sweet potatoes in February.

All the rain kept the dull, ugly brown of dormant yards at bay. Instead, lawns stayed some shade of vibrancy all winter long. From the looks of things, moles may have enjoyed the winter most of all. Their unsightly mounds dotted the prettiest of landscapes indiscriminately throughout the area.

Busy bee by Bruce StambaughAt my age, I was ready for an easygoing winter, although a weeklong cold snap would have been nice to help keep the insects in check. I’m fearful of the buggy consequences of not having a sustained cold spell. Perhaps the flycatchers, swifts and swallows will thrive if such an outbreak does occur.

I hear people saying that we may pay for the mild winter with a cold and snowy spring. That could happen, although the National Weather Service has forecast a warmer and wetter than normal March through May.

We’ll have to wait and see. In the meantime, we can rejoice that winter’s end is near, and that spring, whatever she may bring, is at hand.

It was hotter than _____ (fill in the blank)

Hazy sunset by Bruce Stambaugh
Hazy sunsets culminated the hot, humid days.

By Bruce Stambaugh

I have never written an interactive column or blog until now.

With the onslaught of the recent blast of extreme hot and humid weather that affected the country from The Great Plains states to the Outer Banks to Maine’s rocky coast, I heard and saw a lot of comments about the heat.

Some can’t and shouldn’t be repeated, much less printed. I took the prudent approach and attributed the more lewd orneriness to heat stroke.

Here are a few of the ones that can be shared. It was hotter than a firecracker on the Fourth of July. It was hotter than a pistol. It was hotter than two goats in a pepper patch. It was hotter than a cat on a tin roof. Not the most imaginative offerings I know.

Others focused on an end result retort about the oppressive heat. It’s so hot the chickens are laying hard-boiled eggs. It’s so hot I can fry eggs on the sidewalk. It’s so hot that the trees are creeping around looking for shade. These platitudes seem a little more comprehensible.

The interactive part of the post comes in here. Perhaps you have your own heat related ditty. If so, I invite you to complete the headline with your own personalized version or post it in the comments section.

With the lengthy duration of this very hot weather, there can be no doubt that summer has arrived in all its glory in Ohio and across the nation. The National Weather Service was proactive in advising the public about heat related conditions, and offered suggestions on how to avoid heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Both are serious illnesses with their own specific symptoms.

Hard work by Bruce Stambaugh
Outdoor work required laborers young and old to stay hydrated.

I felt for people who had to work outside. I was pleased to learn that many such workers were asked to begin work earlier in the coolness of the morning so they could finish up before the really extreme heat of the late afternoon. Some shops simply shut down for a day to save their workers from the oppressive conditions.

Those who had to labor out in the elements soldiered on, improvising ways to stay cool. Construction and landscape workers removed their T-shirts and wore colorful bandanas around their heads for protection from the sun and to soak up the sweat.

Popsicle days by Bruce Stambaugh
Taking frequent, cooling breaks is especially important on extremely warm and humid days.

Even though the National Weather Service warned the public with Heat Advisories and Excessive Heat Warnings, people still got sick. Unfortunately, several people nationwide died from difficulties brought on by the incredible heat. Most were elderly, who are the most susceptible to heat related health problems.

Taking the proper precautions can help avoid complications from being overheated. Keeping hydrated, taking needed breaks, and staying out of the direct sun as much as possible are the safest measures.

Horses in snow by Bruce Stambaugh
Last winter was an especially long and cold one for people and animals alike.

Besides the silly sayings, I didn’t really hear a lot of complaining about the heat. Perhaps the memories of the long, cold, wet winter and spring came to mind, and people just bit their lips and endured as best they could.

Much as I preferred not to be, I was out and about on the hottest days of the year. When I stepped from the refreshing and safe air conditioning into the outside elements, the heat overwhelmed me. It felt like I was walking into an oven. Getting back into the car after an hour’s meeting was no fun either.

I’m not complaining mind you. I’m just reporting. It was hotter than…?

A window with an ever-changing view

Ohio sunrise by Bruce Stambaugh
One of the many spectacular sunrises I've seen through my office window.

By Bruce Stambaugh

I’m glad I have a window with a view in my home office. That view is forever changing, sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically.

When our daughter flew the coop 13 years ago to marry the love of her life, her mother and I converted her bedroom into our home office. The room was just the right size to meet our workplace needs. The cheery double window to the outside world was an added bonus.

My work area occupies the space right beside the window on the east side of our east-facing home. My wife’s computer desk is to my right. The window affords me some periodic and necessary breaks from the long-term sitting I do at the computer.

I’ve seen a lot over all the years peeking out that office window. Keep in mind our house is built on an Amish farm on a very busy county road that cuts through the heart of the world’s largest Amish population.

Horse and buggy on CR 201 by Bruce Stambaugh
Horse and buggy traffic is common along Holmes County Road 201.

The surface of County Road 201 routinely carries an amazing array of cargo. If I were to create a catalog of the movements north and south along the road, I would have a pretty thick document.

The booklet’s index would include several categories. A random representation of the locomotion I’ve witnessed would include canoes atop buggies, bicyclists, strings of antique cars, wagon trains, tractor-trailer parades, tractors pulling wagon loads of people sitting on lawn chairs, speeding motorcycles and dedicated joggers.

Of course, not everything I have seen has buzzed by on the highway. We rejoice when we see our neighbors readying their equipment to head out for their work away from home jobs. Given the economy, that surely is a happy sight.

Hoar frost by Bruce Stambaugh
Hoar frost stuck to twigs on a dogwood bush.

Some of the prettier things we’ve observed through the window include incredible sunrises, spiny hoar frost stuck to everything it touched, and triple rainbows. I have watched as golf ball sized hail covered the ground. Blinding snow squalls prevented me from seeing the roadside mailbox.

I have seen some rather ugly images out that window, too. Auto accidents and insensitive people pitching litter from passing vehicles make that unpleasant list.

My favorite observations, however, are the animals I see. And just like the highway bill of lading, I have watched a variety of wildlife engaged in assorted activities in every season. Eastern Bluebirds have perched atop the lamppost positioned along the front sidewalk. Deer scurried for cover by taking a shortcut through the front yard.

Cooper's Hawk by Bruce Stambaugh
A Cooper's Hawk pinned its catch, a Mourning Dove, to the snowy ground.

After one of last winter’s heavy snows, I spied a Cooper’s Hawk pinning its Mourning Dove breakfast to the ground, feathers scattered in a broad oval around the crime scene. I shot lots of pictures through the window for evidence just in case the assault ever got called into court.

Recently, a curious flash drew my attention away from the computer, through the window to the greening yard. A Red-tailed Hawk had swooped down to claim a fox squirrel that had been run over on the road earlier that day.

Hawk and squirrel by Bruce Stambaugh
The dead fox squirrel was simply too heavy for the Red-tailed Hawk to lift for any distance.

As the hawk tried to roost in one of our Norway maple trees, it dropped the flattened rodent. Try as it might, the hawk could not fly away with its fortunate find.

Finally, the frustrated hawk left still hungry. I took pity on the poor dead squirrel, went outside and placed the mutilated carcass at the base of the tree trunk.

The next morning I discovered the squirrel was gone. Though curious as to what had happened to it, I was really thankful that was one incident I didn’t have to view out my window.

Bluebird on ice by Bruce Stambaugh
A male Eastern Bluebird perched on an ice-covered limb outside my office window.

Anticipating spring from on high

buggyandsnowbybrucestambaugh
Horse and buggies braved the weather no matter what it was.

By Bruce Stambaugh

I don’t know about you, but I am more than ready for spring. It’s been a long, long winter.

True, this year residents of Ohio’s Amish Country avoided the huge snowstorms of last winter, and overall we didn’t compile as much snowfall as last year. Instead, ice, as in freezing rain ice, predominated the snows. The nasty combination made the lesser snow amounts just as slippery and difficult to maneuver in as the previous year’s foot-deep accumulations.

Ice sparkles by Bruce Stambaugh
Ice sparkled in the morning sun.

Last fall, my wife and I made a major decision that we thought prudent. We had our home’s original windows and spouting replaced. Since the house was built in the mid-70s, both were overdue to be changed.

After all, building materials had greatly improved in the last three decades. Windows were manufactured to be tighter and more energy efficient. Spouting became seamless long ago. It was time we caught up.

With our rural property full of trees, and a dense deciduous thicket not far to the south and west, leaves and pine needles tended to clog our gutters and downspouts year-round. It’s amazing how much debris gets blown around long after the trees have dropped their foliage.

If a storm was forecast during any season, I would trudge to the garden shed, take down the eight-foot wooden ladder, grab the stepladder, and head to the roof to clean the gutters and downspouts. I used the bigger ladder to access the garage roof, and leaned the stepladder next to the stubby brick chimney to climb onto the house roof.

I really didn’t mind this labor-intensive exercise. Heights never bothered me either. I enjoyed my periodic roof excursions. The views were great. I could see the neighbor’s faded white barn a mile to the east. Belgian workhorses and chestnut buggy horses intermingled in the pasture with the Holsteins.

The north afforded the best scenery, a panoramic landscape of hills and valleys miles away. I peered over roof’s edge at the back of the house to spy on the school of goldfish swimming carefree in the little garden pond.

As I aged over the 31 years in this home however, I realized my balance wasn’t what it used to be. With safety in mind, I decided to quit the climbing and go for the new gutters with leaf guards.

The guards installed were u-shaped channels with tiny perforations that would allow the water to enter but nothing else, not even the thin, burnt orange pine needles. I was more than contented with this overdue addition until winter’s initial ice storm.

Icecycles by Bruce Stambaugh
Ice cycles hanging from the spouting were the first signs of potential problems.

The first glaze of ice sealed the pinholes of the gutter guards. With the freeze and thaw, freeze and thaw cycles of the storms, thick layers of ice easily accumulated on the new gutters. Ice cycles dangled the full length of the gutters on the front and back of the house.

When I realized what was happening, out came the ladders again, and back up on the treacherous roof I went. Given the series of storms with their mixed bag of precipitation that we experienced, I kept handy the rubber mallet and metal scraper needed to break loose the stubborn ice.

Icy gutters by Bruce Stambaugh
Ice clogged the gutters more than once this winter.

If for no other reason than saving my own neck, I for one will be glad when the vernal equinox says goodbye to winter and hello to spring. Just to be safe, I probably won’t put the deicing tools away until June. It is Ohio after all.