Category Archives: Nature

The Bichon Frise of Snows: Enjoy, then Beware!

Three days ago we had more snow in Northern Virginia.  We were treated to the Bichon Frise of snowfalls:  pretty, petite, very fluffy, and generally non-threatening.

It frosted tree branches and fence railings with crystals of sparkly white.

Accumulation was minimal, only about two inches, so clearing walkways was an easy task.  No snow blowers required.

At my mother’s house, the fluffy white of the tree branches anticipates the cherry blossoms that should bloom in a few months.

When I walked Kiko on Tuesday evening, the snow had ceased and the temperature remained pleasantly frosty.

But the bitter cold was on its way.  The polar vortex, which has relentlessly gripped the middle of the country in its icy iron fists, has extended its reach to the east coast.  On Wednesday, temperatures were falling.  The TV weather people talked breathlessly about the extreme “feels like” temperatures we were to expect, due to wind chill.  And sure enough, the wind was soon rattling the windows of our old house and making ghost-like moans, such as can be heard in Scooby-Doo episodes.  As Kiko and I walked that afternoon, the wind caught up the fine dry snow and tossed it along the road, looking like white sand whipping across a Florida Panhandle boardwalk before a thunderstorm.

Even on grassy areas, the snow looked like beach sand carved by a fierce wind.

Kiko glanced up anxiously each time a car passed, slowly negotiating the frozen surface.  The sounds made by tires shattering glass-like ice chunks were improbably loud, akin to fireworks or gunshots.  The sweet little Bichon that appeared on Tuesday is turning mean.  Seeking revenge for being left out in the cold, maybe?

Wednesday morning, when we walked around 8 AM, the wind had died down, but the temperature was 3.  Of course, that’s balmy compared to the sub-zero deep freeze that the mid-west has been experiencing.  (No need here yet to set the train tracks on fire as they’ve been doing in Chicago.)  I wore my dog-walking layers and several creatively tied wool scarves.  (My hair actively rebels against every cold-weather hat I’ve ever tried.)  Kiko’s lush, cashmere-like undercoat has grown back after his summer molt.  This year my senior dog has become content with a shorter walk when the weather is less comfortable.  On days like today I’m grateful that he is no longer compelled to traverse the entire neighborhood on frigid mornings.  Until recently, we put in at least a couple of miles no matter what the weather.  (See Baby, It’s Cold Outside! from January 7, 2014.)

This morning, a light snow is falling again.  The temperature has warmed up considerably, to 17.  I let Kiko persuade me to venture out of our immediate neighborhood to the stretch of old country road where we begin our usual walks with the pack in decent weather (when schools aren’t delayed or canceled, as they’ve been much of this week.)  The roads didn’t look particularly threatening, and there would be less traffic with no school.  But before long, I realized our error.  Kiko slipped on an icy patch hidden by new snow.  He recovered quickly and didn’t appear to be hurt.  His preference is to walk in the street, and it’s always a struggle to keep him safely on the grassy shoulder.  Today it was an absolute necessity.  Several times I almost went down.  Kiko knows what it means when I yell “Slow! Slow!” in my most authoritative pack leader voice.  He doesn’t like it, but he understands, and he even obeys.  He lives in the moment, so I kept up the commands each time we were forced to cross a street or driveway.  Under great emotional duress, we made it to Kiko’s favorite nearby park and back without physical mishap.  It was, to say the least, not an enjoyable outing for either of us.  It’s also an understatement to say that I had dressed far too warmly.

A reminder to everyone this winter:  beware the worst threat of the cold:  ice lurking beneath fresh powder.  The lesson of the Bichon Frise of snows is this:  enjoy its congenial, lap-dog charm.  Bask in its pure white fluffiness.  But don’t be surprised when, a few days later, it turns nasty.  It will still look beautiful and easy-going.  You’ll think it’s your old familiar friend.  But without warning, it may have unleashed the ice-veined coyote-hyena hybrid that dwells within.

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For an earlier post about adventures on snow-covered ice, see Before the Blizzard, A Treacherous Drive, February 4, 2016. 

 

Mid-January Snow, Beautiful and Seasonally Appropriate

Our first big snow of the new year arrived like a polite and thoughtful visitor:  with plenty of advance notice and on a weekend, allowing time to prepare.  We even managed, for the first time ever, to put two cars in the garage.  Here in Northern Virginia, it was a modest, unobtrusive snowfall; the flakes were often so fine as to be barely visible.  But it was persistent, steadfast.  By Sunday morning, about seven inches had accumulated.  That afternoon, there was a brief lull, prompting my husband to break out the snow blower too soon.  Well into the evening, the flakes floated down, tiny and delicate.  Our final total was ten inches.  A perfect amount, it turns out, for Kiko to romp through with ease and zest.

After our cool, wet spring, the drenching, unrelenting rains of a warm fall, followed by an arctic blast and snow in early November, it was refreshingly odd to experience a taste of weather that actually suited the current season.  A deep but manageable snow in mid-January!  How quaint!  How so last century!  And how very pleasant!

It was the perfect snow.  The only thing less than ideal was that our daughter, who appreciates frozen precipitation in every form, couldn’t be here to enjoy it with us.  She was home for nearly a month, but the winter break had drawn to a close, too quickly.  On Saturday morning, well before the first snowflake appeared, she was on her way back to Charlottesville to begin the second semester of her second year.

I’m thankful that my furry child completed his formal education years ago (a few weeks of puppy training, which had a negligible effect on his behavior) and remains home to keep me company.

And Now, Winter in November

Winter, it seems, has lost patience with Fall’s indecisive performance.  Citing erratic attendance, lack of enthusiasm,  failure to fulfill responsibilities, and a prevailing aura of general ineptitude, Winter has pressed for, and now accepted, her predecessor’s letter of resignation. Fall admits that her heart just wasn’t in it this year.  

And so on this November 15, the Northern Virginia area is experiencing our first “Winter Weather Event.”  A mixture of frozen precipitation has been falling since the pre-dawn hours.  Schools were first delayed, then soon cancelled, as the snow-like substance continued to fall, and to accumulate.   

In this season of confusion, unexpected sights:  snow on roses and red maple leaves, and autumn leaves on snow. 

Several hours ago, the snow turned to rain.  The neighborhood streets are rivers of slush.  My boots, it turns out, are no longer waterproof.   

From an undisclosed, pleasant-all-year location, Fall looks up from her Guava Colada, lays aside her Kindle and remarks with a wide smile, My, my, could Winter be having second thoughts about starting work five weeks early?  Now who lacks enthusiasm?       

Fall, Offered Sparingly

The look and feel of fall has been slow to arrive in Northern Virginia this year.  The brilliant hues of autumn, in skies and foliage, have been largely absent.  Thanks to persistent and soaking rains, the landscape is washed in the dullest of grays and browns, like those of an old trench coat.  Like the one that hangs in my closet, ugly but utilitarian.  And during these frequent fall downpours, too often worn.  It’s only within the last week or so, now that many trees have lost their leaves, that others are finally beginning to show some color. 

When the sun does emerge from the clouds and lend its brightness for a while, we’re not accustomed.  Above, Kiko appears bewildered by the glowing golden vision ahead.  Below, a few images of fall’s all too rare and fleeting glory.

Yesterday Kiko enjoyed the unusual luxury of morning sunshine on my mother’s deck.  Today the rain is back, and a winter-worthy chill is headed our way for the weekend.  Gather ye sunbeams while ye may.  And hold on to that old coat, or pass along to someone who needs it more than you.   

That Satisfying Sameness on Shore Road

Shore Road, Route 6A, is our Main Street while we’re in Cape Cod, and I walk it nearly every morning.  As in our little cottage complex, major changes along the road are refreshingly few and far between.  Its scenery is almost as familiar to me as my childhood back yard.  My Shore Road walks serve to further sustain the illusion of timelessness in Truro. 

Fence-hugging hydrangeas, for example, which thrive in the moist salty air, are always bountiful and glorious.  

Typically, any changes along this thin ribbon of land by the bay are so subtle that they serve to reinforce the unchanging nature of the place.  Most of the homes and cottage groupings appear largely the same, year after year after year.  Routine maintenance, not extreme renovation, is the guiding principle.  The small structures of this condominium complex, above, continue to be nestled snugly amid the roses, much as they have been for nearly two decades.  Hours of diligent pruning, no doubt, keep the surrounding plantings looking luxuriantly abundant but not overpowering.

Nature can easily get the upper hand, if left unchecked, as it has above.  Each year, untamed, weedy foliage encroaches a bit more around this small, sagging, cupola-topped cabin.  Considering the high value of real estate along the bay, there are a surprising number of small Shore Road structures, some barely bigger than sheds, that exist in a state of ongoing gradual decay.  They appear to lack all creature comforts, but some show signs of sporadic human occupation.  This gives them an air of mystery that adds to their appeal. 

 

There are certain areas where the tug-of-war between nature and the attempt to subjugate it is particularly evident.  For as long as I’ve walked Shore Road, the large lot above has been occupied by a small semi-dilapidated cottage, whimsical bird houses on tall posts, and the occasional boat.  Some years, the foliage reigns victorious, as in the top photo, dating from 2013, where the cottage appears to float in a sea of tall grass and grapevines.  The following year, the weeds were mown and vines cut back substantially.  Flower boxes adorned the cottage’s front windows.  Near the road, a patriotic tableau had been assembled: a wooden bench painted like the flag, Adirondack chairs and a pot of geraniums

Since 2014, nature has been allowed its riotous advance.  Once again, the cottage is enveloped by high grass and unruly foliage.  The flag bench, its paint faded, appears to be sighing toward collapse, and the split-rail fence groans under a heavy tangle of grapevines.  The chairs have disappeared, and even the bird houses are in advanced decline.  The lighthouse is unrecognizable, and the caboose is little more than a façade.  (See Shore Road Scenes in Cape Cod, August 24, 2012.)  Next year, will the progression toward wildness and ruin continue?  Or will there be another effort toward taming nature and renovating the manmade?  I hope it’s one or the other, and not a dreaded third option:  a gleaming new structure that stands out starkly from the pleasantly worn and familiar Shore Road sights I cherish.      

I’m not averse to some instances of refurbishment.  Two years ago, for example, this rusty roadside owl received a coat of white paint and amber-colored eyes.  Such measured, unobtrusive alteration I can wholeheartedly support.  I appreciate it all the more knowing that it’s likely to be overlooked.  I enjoy thinking I know Shore Road the way I know an old companion.    

I can also welcome a unique addition that fits in well with that which already exists.  The gray shingled house above, with its American flag and rainbow banner bearing the word PEACE, looks essentially the same every year.  Several years ago I noticed an interesting vehicle parked in front, a small car colorfully painted with a variety of sea creatures in a folk art style.  This year the little car gained a sibling, a minivan painted with similar colors and designs: sharks, lobsters, fish and  sailing scenes.  A white plastic egret keeps watch from the roof.  The light-hearted, slightly eccentric spirit of these vehicles is in perfect sync with the PEACE house and with the Outer Cape.  (They remind me of the Key West Don’t Dredge on Me truck encrusted with sea creatures.  See Uniquely Key West, April 24, 2015.) 

It’s been five years since I last wrote about the Shore Road sights I hold dear.  As I began looking back and comparing this summer’s photos to those from earlier years, I was afraid that the idea of sameness might prove to be primarily in my mind.  Maybe my old friend has changed more than I’d like to admit?  

Generally, I don’t think so.  This narrow strip of land still seems to be largely immune to the accelerated pace of change that characterizes my former Atlanta neighborhood or the DC suburbs where I now live.  Every return visit brings this reassurance: the familiar sights of Shore Road, and its inimitable essence, they endure.  Perhaps I hope that through proximity, this immutability is contagious.  By spending time each summer in a timeless place, can I slow my own aging process?  Or at least feed the fantasy?  These days, it couldn’t hurt. 

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For more on this topic, see Back Again, on Shore Road in Truro, September 13, 2013. 

Those Rosy Roses

It’s been nine years since we transformed our concrete dessert of a back yard into a place where roses grow.  Every May, the vines burst forth in riotous profusion.  This spring’s long cold spell delayed peak bloom for about two weeks, but once the buds began opening, the flowers were as spectacular as ever.  The pale pink climbing roses on our garage trellis are subtle in color but especially flamboyant in abundance.  After their fabulous spring fiesta, they continue to bloom, but only sparingly, throughout the summer and into the chilly days of fall.  Even early December sees  a few persistent blossoms. 

 

The red double knock-outs along the fence stage their main event in May, as well.  They bloom throughout the summer and fall, with greater frequency than the climbers. 

Kiko’s good looks merit a handsome backdrop, but he cares little about the appearance of his surroundings.  This is, of course, one reason dogs are so well-loved by their people.  A dog is happy to be his human’s sweet prince, whether in a shack or a mansion.   

The battered appearance of our old garage doors didn’t hurt Kiko’s self-image. 

He could sit, proud and regal, on our old porch, even during the squalor of demolition.

But he hated the constant presence of a tether.  No matter how long, it typically stopped short of where he wanted to be. We revamped our porch and back yard not only to add some beauty to our little corner of the world, but also to give our beloved animal a space in which he could roam freely.  Our bounty of roses means even more to me because it represents the process that brought Kiko a greater measure of liberty.  My pursuit of happiness is tethered to his.  Everyone who shares a life and home with a dog recognizes this truth. 

May the roses keep blooming.  May my little dog continue to ramble from sun to shade, from squirrel to fox watching, in his pleasant domain. 

 

For earlier posts on our back yard transformation, see Up From the Concrete, Roses, May 12, 2012; and This is the Way the Roses Grew (And a Daughter, Too) Parts I, II and III, June 2015

And, it’s Official. Summer’s Here!

In the midst of spring’s big chill, which threatened to stick around interminably, it seemed as though summer would never come.  What was it like to leave the house comfortably without sweater, jacket, scarf and gloves?  To sit on our screened porch without benefit of a heavy wool throw, looking like a shipboard invalid in an old movie?  I couldn’t imagine. 

Now, on this first official day of the new season, it seems like summer’s been here for quite a while.  Intense heat and monsoon-like rains bid a sudden good riddance to the lengthy cold spell.  And having brought our daughter home in May after her first year at the University of Virginia, we’re enjoying the illusion of a longer summer.  This is a much-appreciated luxury.  Last summer was for our family one of the shortest, with D’s high school graduation in June and the start of the college semester in August.  Considering my mother’s relocation to Virginia, it was also one of the busiest and most stressful in my recollection.  How pleasant it is to know that this summer won’t require me to finalize the packing up of my childhood home.  My calendar is blissfully free of travel plans. 

Memories of the recent deep freeze still vivid, once the weather began to warm up, I went into gardening overdrive.  I wanted our daughter, upon her return, to be impressed by the beauty of her home environment.  She’d been immersed in the spring glory of the historic grounds of UVA, so the bar was high.  Nearly every sunny day meant a trip to the garden center for more containers, more plants, more soil.  After the frigid cold of spring, the colors of summer appeared even more spectacular.  Our fountain, newly emerged from its heavy plastic winter wrapping, looked bare and dismal.  (Every December that fountain is the bane of my husband’s existence as he drains and wraps it to weather the cold.  He did not want a “water feature” when we reworked our back yard ten years ago, but my daughter and I persuaded him.)  But with pots of bright impatiens clustered around the fountain, it reminds me of those in Charleston courtyards glimpsed through wrought-iron gates.  Even H says it looks nice. 

I’ve experimented over the years, but found that petunias and trailing vinca vines are the best choices to fill the bowl-like containers atop the brick piers along the fence line.  They flourish in extreme heat and sun. 

Our hydrangeas are blooming this year in amazing abundance and variety of color.  Perhaps it was the heavy rains of late spring that encouraged such luxuriant growth.    

Kiko’s favorite summer activity is baking himself in the hot sun on the flagstone patio.  He lies panting alarmingly for extended periods.  When it appears that he may indeed expire with his next gasping breath, he struggles to his feet and trudges to a patch of shade below the hydrangeas.  Before long he’s ready to bake again. 

Whatever your summer pleasures, may you be able to follow Kiko’s example:  seize the opportunity and enjoy! 

Frost in the Cherry Orchard

It is May, the cherry trees are in blossom, but it is cold in the orchard; there is a morning frost. 

–Anton Chekhov, The Cherry Orchard

This sentence referring to the setting for Act I of The Cherry Orchard has been snagged in my memory since I read the play during my senior year of high school.  A blandly innocuous description, it shouldn’t have been particularly noteworthy.  But we were reading Chekhov toward the end of the school year, when the Atlanta heat and humidity were especially intense.  The school lacked air conditioning, and the class was in the late afternoon.  In that stuffy literature classroom, the idea of a May frost sounded impossibly exotic and refreshingly foreign. 

Here in Northern Virginia, it’s not quite May yet.  The cherry trees are in beautiful bloom, but the weather continues to feel wintry, prompting me to dig out my ragged, heavily taped copy of Norton’s Anthology of World Masterpieces.  As I re-read The Cherry Orchard,  I found myself back in that hot third floor room at Grady High.  Over the roar of the oscillating fan, our teacher is asking my friend Tedd, seated in the desk in front of mine, which Chekhov play he’d chosen to read.  The name of the play, somehow, slips Tedd’s mind for the moment, and we all sit in uncomfortable silence.  Our teacher rolls his eyes and prepares a sarcastic zinger.  I know Tedd chose The Seagull.  “The Seagull,” I whisper to the back of his head.  “The Seagull,” Tedd replies, just before Mr. Moate can comment. 

Memory is capricious and contrary.  My recall of necessary day-to-day details of life management (where did I put my mother’s tax file, did I actually pay that bill, what is that password?) is often hazy.  When called upon, my seventeen-year old friend couldn’t recollect the play he’d read the night before.  I hadn’t read it, but I remembered then that he did.  And thirty-nine years later I still recall that largely irrelevant fact.  To this day, I haven’t read The Seagull.  But I know at least one person who has.    

As for The Cherry Orchard, it spoke to me.  That year, in Mr. Moate’s class, I gained a valuable bit of wisdom about great literature:  it endures because it offers a powerful expression of enduring truth.  As a high school senior, I was impressed by the surprising relevance of this nineteenth-century Russian play.  The self-absorbed characters, each engaged in his or her own, if frequently interrupted soliloquy, occasionally approach but rarely connect with each other.  I recognized this behavior.  In a margin, next to highlighted passages, I’d written: Yes!  This is what we do!  When we wander too long in the isolated wilderness of our own minds, we let the people and places we profess to love slip through our hands. 

It’s been many years since my first reading of The Cherry Orchard.  I still play the role of daughter, but now as a middle-aged wife and mother, living in an exotic foreign land of the future.  I’ve seen frost on cherry blossoms.  And I appreciate the sad, true absurdity of the story all the more.  Chekhov’s characters and their perpetual inner struggles still resonate.  And if they were to find themselves here in this icy Northern Virginia spring, bundled in their traveling clothes, they could join our dog-walking group and feel right at home. 

The Promise of Spring

On this first day of spring, the fourth Nor’easter in three weeks is menacing the east coast.  It’s been dubbed Winter Storm Toby, apparently.  A cold rain falls here in northern Virginia, likely turning to snow later in the day.  March, we are told, has been colder than February for the second year in a row.  It sure feels that way.  Every morning, as I check the weather on my phone in preparation for walking with Kiko and our pack, I’m dismayed.  Another frigid day, often accompanied by biting winds.  I’d hoped to have packed away the long underwear by now.   

The famed Nation’s Capital cherry tree blossoms are on hold.  The forsythia is making only a half-hearted showing, as are the daffodils.  I’ve seen only one crocus.  It looked lonely, bedraggled, and full of regret.  Not a trace yet of the grape hyacinths I planted two falls ago that bloomed so beautifully last year.  Very few touches of green have appeared on winter’s gray-brown palette.  Spring remains in hibernation.

March really took to heart that old saying about coming in like a lion.  At the beginning of the month, our area, like many parts of the east coast, was besieged by fierce gale-force winds for two days.  Uprooted trees and branches, snapped like toothpicks, wreaked havoc on power lines, cars and some homes.  A huge pine sliced through the roof of a home in our neighborhood like a sharp knife through a birthday cake.  It narrowly missed the little daughter’s bed. 

We were lucky. We were spared any property damage, and no family members were trapped on roads or in airports.  Our daughter arrived safely home for spring break to a dark and rapidly cooling house, but we had no cause for complaint.  (Why, I wonder, must the week of spring break always be among the year’s coldest?  Some of the few snows I remember from my college days in Athens occurred during spring break.)  

When the winds at last died down and we ventured out to clean up the debris-scattered lawn, I gathered some of the branches blasted from our maple and cherry trees, brought them inside and put them in water.  Many of the buds have opened now.  Bright green maple seedlings and delicate white cherry blossoms attest to the promise of spring.  I have the evidence.  The season of new life may be biding its time, but it’s coming.     

Spring knew best to wait.  The rain here has turned to sleet.  Ice crystals weigh heavily on pine branches, and white patches are visible around the bases of trees.  May this spring storm be winter’s last.