Category Archives: Nature

The Hydrangea: Summer’s Essence in a Flower

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No flower captures my idea of the essence of carefree summer quite like the hydrangea.  Once the hydrangeas are flourishing, the school year and its unforgiving routine have ended.  There is time once again for the leisurely enjoyment of a sunny morning. 

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The big, bobbing heads of hydrangeas feature prominently in childhood memories of my grandparents’ Kentucky farm, especially of July 4th family gatherings at the old house on the banks of the river.  And some of the most magnificent hydrangeas anywhere adorn the little cottage complex that becomes our home for a while every August in Cape Cod.  Hydrangeas mean summer, past and present.   

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Hydrangeas were among the first flowers we planted when we moved into our house eighteen years ago.  We added more when we undertook our backyard renovation.  The hydrangeas around our house remind me of the days when my daughter’s idea of a grand adventure was splashing in her little inflatable pool on the lawn.  Hydrangeas mean warm sunshine and happy, uncomplicated times. 

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I didn’t have much hope for our hydrangeas this year.  After the heavy snows of our frigid winter melted at last, much of the early foliage was black and shrunken.  The buds appeared stunted.  But as the weather warmed, the flowers rallied.  Right now, on this July 2, they are more beautiful, and more widely varied in color and depth of hue than I can remember. 

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Hydrangeas are likely to wilt soon after they’re cut unless given special treatment.  To prolong their freshness considerably, follow this method:

Immerse the stems in water immediately after cutting.  Heat a cup of water to boiling.  As you arrange the flowers, and just after you recut each stem to the chosen length, hold it in the hot water for thirty seconds.  Add the stem to your arrangement in a container filled with room temperature water.  The flowers should look beautiful for several days and perhaps up to a week.  

Could it be. . .Sunshine?

Rumors of sunshine today in the Northern Virginia rainforest prompted me to take a closer look.  Could they be true?  By all official weather reports, it’s been raining here forever.  Could it have actually stopped, however briefly? 

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Hallelujah!  Nothing wet is falling from the sky.  The gray world has color again.  Although much-delayed, our roses are in beautiful bloom.      011

Kiko managed to locate a sunny, less-sodden patch of grass for his morning squirrel and fox watch.  I think I’d better follow his lead and get out there. 

Thunderstorms are expected this afternoon. 

Spring’s New Box of Crayons

The onset of spring reminds me of one of childhood’s most satisfying pleasures:  a brand new box of crayons.  I picture a child, bored and frustrated because for months now only the most subdued colors remain usable: a few browns, some tans, a black, a white.  As for the happy, festive shades–they’re all broken, misplaced or eaten by the dog.  At last, a fresh new box of crayons arrives.  Time again to celebrate with color. 

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The greens are picked first.  Used with abandon, to color in a luxuriant foundation.  For lawns that will soon need cutting, for the first shoots of lemon balm that will grow to dominate the herb garden in a month or so.

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Even cracked gray pavement receives its ribbons of green.

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Next, pastels in Easter-egg shades.  For a redbud tree, delicate splotches of lavender-pink.  Palest yellow for the first dogwood blossoms. 

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Yellow-green for feathery sassafras blossoms.

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Bolder choices follow.  Unexpected tones of coral and red for new leaves on rose bushes and Japanese maples. Who said foliage has to be green? 

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Intense golden-yellow for forsythia. 

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For the Appalachian Red redbud at the corner of our house, how about a near-electric magenta?  040

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In the sudden sunshine following an afternoon thunderstorm, redbud blossoms take on an even greater depth and energy. 

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In that same light, the pines and maples framing our garage seem to glow from within. 

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And visible from our front lawn, that perfect gift of color and light:  a rainbow.  Isn’t it wonderful to have a new box of crayons? 

Spring Greening, Spring Nesting

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Despite fierce winds that brought wintry temperatures back to Northern Virginia over the weekend, the greening of spring continues unabated.  

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The vines of our climbing roses are lacy with delicate green-gold leaves sprouting from new shoots, reddish in color. 

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The bare winter vines atop the trellis, until recently a study in austere grays and browns, have become a mass of verdant green. 

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A determined pair of mourning doves has staked out a sheltered nesting spot under the eaves atop the trellis.  We watched, concerned, as they began to carry twigs and pine straw regularly through the treacherous vines.  My husband considered doing some strategic pruning to provide a more accessible entry point.  He decided against it, fearing that the doves might be alarmed and abandon the nest.  They seem to have an uncanny way of avoiding the thorns.  Or a strong drive to ignore pain in their instinct to further the species.  We’re pulling for them, hoping their valiant efforts will be rewarded.  As spring proves every year,  life goes on.   

Thoughts on Good Friday

 

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Our pale pink trellis roses will be flowering in gorgeous abundance in about six weeks.  They grow up from massive vines.  In stark contrast to the delicate, graceful flowers, the vines are rough-skinned, tough, craggy, crude, and studded all over with the sharpest of thorns.  Barbaric, like an implement of torture.  Barbaric, like the crown of thorns.  Barbaric, like the cross. 

The cross casts its long shadow on Good Friday, this darkest day of the Christian year.   Worshippers the world over pause on this day to mourn the death of a loving and sinless brother, the one who took our ugliness upon himself and carried it with him to the cross. 

Good Friday ends with the death of the Son of God.  But as this church sign in Providence, Rhode Island proclaims, death isn’t the end of the story. 

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No.  Not by far.  Easter’s coming. 

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For previous Good Friday posts, see Our Good Friday God, and Good Friday: It is Finished. Let Life Begin

Palm Sunday 2016

 

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It’s a gray, chilly first day of spring here in northern Virginia. 

It’s also Palm Sunday, which marks the beginning of the holiest week of the year for Christians.  On this day we look back to Jesus’s triumphal entrance into Jerusalem, when he was hailed as a hero.  The enthusiastic adoration of the crowd was with him, for the moment. 

Less than a week later, he would be dead. 

Next Sunday marks Jesus’s true triumph, of course, on Easter Sunday.  But before that, he faced betrayal, the cross, agony, and death.  It’s tempting for us today to skip from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday, from joy to joy.  But Christians are called to spend some time this week contemplating those exceedingly dark days between.  Not to do so lessens the power of the risen Christ.   

 

For additional thoughts on Palm Sunday and Holy Week, see this post from 2012:  Palm Sunday: Everyone Loves a Winner. 

White Snow, Blue Sky

Nearly two weeks after the blizzard, despite a recent warm-up and yesterday’s rain, sizable areas of snow remain.  The day is gray and dreary, like most of the persistent snow patches.  At this point, it’s hard to remember how beautiful the world looked on that Sunday morning after the storm, the fresh snow gleaming under a brilliant blue sky.  Some photos, taken that day, serve as reminders.  

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Before the Blizzard, A Treacherous Drive

In my last post I wrote about what was, for my family, quite a lovely blizzard.  But a sudden snow two days before the storm had less than lovely effects. 

All focus was on the massive, looming storm.  Forecasters noted, as an afterthought, the possibility of snow showers, perhaps a “dusting,” on Wednesday evening before the blizzard.  It was presented as insignificant, a non-event.  There seemed to be no reason to reschedule the planned Church Council meeting.  But by 6:30 that frigid evening, snow was falling in fat flakes and accumulating quickly.  My daughter observed, with some concern, that cars negotiating the sharp turn in front of our house were creeping along.  When traffic slows down here in Northern Virginia, we take notice.     

But I wasn’t going to overreact.  I was no longer a novice at snow driving.  I still tend to avoid it if possible, but I’ve had some practice and years of good advice from my Rochester-bred husband.  When I left for the meeting, I was surprised to find myself behind a line of cars moving at a snail’s pace.  Surely they were being overly cautious, I thought.  But before long, even at that slow crawl, I felt my car beginning to slide.  It was evident that the roads hadn’t been pretreated; there was not a trace of salt or sand.  The trip was just short of a nail biter.  All through the meeting I kept an anxious eye on the falling snow.  How much worse could the roads get?  It probably wouldn’t be that bad, I kept telling myself.

Just before 9, I texted my family from the slippery snow-covered church parking lot.  I would start for home, but I could tell it was going to be no easy ride.  It was only three miles, but over old country roads that were notoriously narrow, steep and twisting.  H and D both responded immediately.  From H: he could come get me if I’d rather not attempt the drive.  The roads were slick; they were bad on his drive home at 7.  From D: the street in front of our house was a sheet of ice covered by powdery snow.  Oh my.  I’d start out anyway, and see how far I got.  I was glad I’d worn my snow boots, dressed warmly and put a blanket in the car. 

Usually, I find that the worry over an anticipated event is far worse than the actual event.  In this case, the real thing was at least ten times as bad.  That drive home is best described as absolutely treacherous.  It was a combination of gridlock and out-of-control thrill ride.  Traffic inched along hesitantly, stopped periodically, then inched along again.  Maintaining momentum uphill was tricky.  It was difficult to adhere to one of H’s most frequently repeated snow tips: increase your speed as you approach a hill.  If you take it too slowly, you’ll get stuck!  Not sliding sideways downhill was nearly impossible, no matter how slow the speed.  Several times I considered leaving my car on a side street and starting to walk. 

At one narrow turn in the road, we were stopped for such a long time that I got out and picked my way along the side to see what was going on.  The car ahead of me was poised at the top of a steep, twisting hill.  The driver said she was waiting for traffic to clear, since her car handled badly in snow.  Two vehicles had been lodged at odd angles farther down the hill and were just getting disentangled.  Once back in my car, I watched as the driver ahead began her descent.  She immediately skidded sideways, but was able to maneuver back on the right track without too much difficulty.  Suddenly, she was gone.  She’d made it down the hill and up the next.  It was my turn.  My antilock brakes, fortunately, were in good shape.  Somehow I managed to avoid drifting into a ditch or a stranded car, of which there were many.  Thankfully, the car behind me gave me plenty of time to take the hill on my own.   

When I pulled into the driveway, my heart racing, H was outside waiting.  He’d been half-expecting my call for help. 

I was among the lucky ones.  My drive, though frightening, didn’t take very long, and I arrived safely, my car intact.  Many drivers in the area were stranded for hours.  The beltway was an ice-bound parking lot.  Hundreds of traffic accidents were reported.  City and county governments made profuse apologies.  They repeatedly promised far better road prep for the coming storm.  

Lessons were learned, it would seem.  Well before the first blizzard flake fell, roads were treated, and plows were at the ready.  Once the snow began in earnest, the roads were relatively quiet.  Most drivers heeded the message of Wednesday night and left work in plenty of time, or never left home that morning.  I’ve learned a lesson:  If snowflakes are falling on untreated local roads, I won’t be at the meeting.  Let’s just cancel that meeting. 

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This was the snow that caused all the problems. 

It doesn’t look menacing, does it? 

Assessing the Storm

An unaccustomed sight appeared throughout Northern Virginia today:  school buses.   Due to the blizzard and what should have been an inconsequential “dusting” that preceded it, schools were closed for seven days.  During the final two weeks of January, with the snow, the MLK holiday and a teacher workday, school was in session for one day only.  During times such as this, I’m especially thankful that I like my daughter.  And while it makes me sound cold and unloving, I’m glad she’s not younger.  How pleasant it is that my constant accompaniment for her every snow venture is no longer required.   

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Our family’s winter storm experience was, all in all, quite enjoyable.  As blizzards go, it was a good one, at least for us.  I know there were others who weren’t nearly so lucky.  It was forecasted accurately and well in advance, allowing plenty of prep time.  The snow began right on schedule, at 1 PM on a Friday.  I was back home after a second shopping trip for those “just in case” provisions.  School had been canceled, allowing my daughter plenty of time to meet friends for an early lunch.  She was anticipating not seeing non-neighborhood buddies for a while.  Even my husband arrived home from the office well before the snow started to accumulate. 

The snow fell according to plan, persistently and without a break, until the following evening.  This wasn’t a showy storm.  The flakes were small but steady.  Saturday brought some wind, but no howling gales.  And most important:  our area never lost power.  We had heat, light, hot water and all those interior comforts that are especially cherished when the weather outside is icy. 

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My husband was ready with the snow blower he’d bought just after the Blizzard of 2010.  He was told he’d probably never need something that big down here in Virginia.  He wanted it anyway.  Growing up in Rochester, he dreamed of owning a powerful, sleek snow blower the way some kids dream of owning a Maserati. 

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In this case, it was a dream worth realizing.  The big blower came in very handy.

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H cleared our long driveway.  He opened up walkable paths between our house and those of our neighbors on each side.  (If you’ve ever tried body-plowing through twenty-eight inches of snow, you know it’s not easy.)   He then cleared our neighbors’ long driveways. 

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He opened up a path on a side street that was untouched by plows for several days.  He continued up and down that street until he’d cleared a lane wide enough for a car to pass through. This photo, taken by my daughter, shows how the sharply cut snow sections resemble two huge layers of angel food cake. 

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Here he is, returning from a full day of snow blowing, the afternoon sun’s rays falling on him like a benediction.  You could say that all this work could have been accomplished by shoveling.  That might be theoretically true, but it would have required far more helping hands and strong backs than were available.  Plus many, many additional hours.  His work was all the more valuable because it would be several more days before the streets into our neighborhood would be approached by snow plows. 

With every gathering storm, I’ve always been grateful that I can ride it out with a snow management and removal expert by my side.  This was certainly true during the Blizzard of 2016.  A good boy from Rochester is indeed a good thing.