Category Archives: Nature

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. 

Once Again, Truly Big Snow



The last snowflakes of the Blizzard of 2016 (aka Winter Storm Jonas) fell five days ago, on Saturday evening.  According to careful measurements by my husband and daughter, we got about twenty-eight inches.  Most of the snow remains very much with us, in far less attractive configurations than the graceful, pristine drifts in which it fell. 


Last winter brought frequent snows to Northern Virginia, as my ten snow day posts of 2015 attest.  (See here and here.)  But we haven’t had a truly stupendous snow event  in five years.  In December 2009 and February 2010 we were treated to nearly back-to-back blizzards.   My daughter has been wishing for a similarly substantial storm ever since.  She likes her snow measured in feet.  She delights in tossing out the expected routines of daily life for all-consuming, all-day snow play and management.  To her credit, she pitches in with the digging out.  And the inconveniences that massive snows may bring: they’re simply part of the adventure.  What she recalls most distinctly about our loss of electricity during the 2010 storm was using the grill to melt butter for birthday cake icing. 


Here she is, barely visible atop a snow mountain at the Reston Town Center after the February 2010 storm. 


And, after the more recent storm, atop a snow pile in the parking lot of a local shopping center.  I guess she’ll always love to climb snow piles.   


On a snow mound at our house during the Blizzard of 2010.

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And two days ago, with Kiko on a similar mound in the same place, after the latest storm.  Big Snow, happy kid. 

Acknowledging that it’s December. . .


Once again, it’s December.  Too soon, as always.  Although the pre-Christmas busy-ness has been no more extreme than usual, the details have kept my mind too crowded to devote time to writing.  Or to much thought, in general, for that matter.  It’s hard not to let the post-Thanksgiving lead-up to December 25 become an endurance game of checking off never-ending lists.  Lights replaced on the playroom tree?  Yes. Whew. Cross that out.  One small victory.  On to the next task, with many more to follow. 

Last year I wrote about the fine line between reveling in the spirit of Christmas and veering off the deep end into holiday excess.  (See here.)  It’s an issue I guess I’ll grapple with until I’m physically unable to haul out the decorations.  But that might not stop me.  Will I be directing my daughter, or some kindly, younger neighbor?  I hope not.  But then again, no one else could do it to please me. 

Anyway, the wreaths are up on our house and on the old maple stump out front by the road.  The stump survived another year. This summer it played host to a thicket of tall green foliage. 

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As long as any part of the decaying tree remains, we’ll decorate it in December.  For me, it’s a reminder of the true spirit of Christmas: because a baby was born many years ago in Bethlehem, out of death comes new life.  That is the best antidote to holiday excess I can imagine. 

For my first post on this subject, see Deck the Tree Stump, posted almost exactly two years ago.      

The Red Tree and the Legacy of Eugenia Brown

Today is the day for that steady, late fall rain that washes much of the brilliant color from the trees.  In tomorrow’s sunshine, many branches will be newly bare.  Gutters and lawns, though, will gleam red, orange and gold.  One of the brightest patches in our area will be beneath this magnificent tree.  


Located behind our church, it’s adorned with some of the most vividly red leaves imaginable.  I’d always assumed it was a maple.  When someone referred to it as an oak, I knew that wasn’t right.  But in September, when Kiko and I were sitting in its shade for the Blessing of the Animals, I realized I was wrong, too.  This was no maple.  The leaves, still green then, were the wrong shape. And there were berries.  Bluish-purple berries, like elongated blueberries.   


What was this tree?  No one seemed to know.  But mention “that red tree by the church” and everyone knew exactly which one you meant.  I began an internet search.  Googling “trees with blue berries” didn’t provide a quick answer. 

Then I remembered my little tree book, which I’d recently brought from Atlanta.  As I mentioned in a previous tree post, a neighbor gave me the book when I was a child.  She encouraged me to look closely and appreciate nature as we saw it all around us.  She was Eugenia Brown, a Southern lady with a Southern name, a proud graduate of Decatur’s Agnes Scott College some decades before.  (Daddy thought she was too old to be talking so much about her Agnes Scott days.)  Mrs. Brown was a wise woman, and I’ve only recently begun to realize the impression she made on me.  She wasn’t particularly religious, but I can see now that when we examined leaves, acorns, pine cones, shells and flowers, she encouraged my sense of wonder for that vast and easily overlooked array of amazing little things God made.  His little creations–those unique, tiny masterpieces of design–they have always brought me joy.  For that gift, I thank Mrs. Brown. 



I found the book, and sure enough, I discovered the tree almost immediately, recognizing it from the handy close-up painting of its red leaves and berries.  It’s a Black Gum tree.  Also known as Black Tupelo, Sourgum or Pepperidge.  According to the concise text, “Black Gum leaves are smooth and shiny, turning brilliant red in fall.  The dark blue fruit is eaten by birds and small mammals.”  Bingo. 

Yet again, thank you, Mrs. Brown.  And thank you, God.  Had I not known Mrs. Brown, had she not given me the tree book, I might not be able to find such solace in the beauty of little things and the God who made them.  How wonderful it is that our God designed bright red canopies with plump blue berries to shelter and sustain His littlest winged and furry creatures!  To paraphrase that old hymn, His eye is on the berry, and I know he watches me. 




Fall: Still Here!

Early last week it appeared likely that the great beauty of the season had passed.  I hadn’t been looking, and I’d missed it.    

But my pessimism was unwarranted.  Just look! 


I understand how Ebenezer Scrooge must have felt, awakening after his ghostly visitations, to realize with elation that he hadn’t slept through Christmas.  Scrooge hadn’t missed that momentous, holy day, and I haven’t missed this spectacular season.  The sudden, gloomy cold snap didn’t last.  Fall is still here, at least for a few more days.  And recently, it’s been as brilliant and colorful as it should be.


I don’t have to drive to the mountains or down to the Valley to appreciate the show.  Fall is playing just outside my windows.  The view down the street, with the trees arching overhead, can hold its own next to any grand sight. 


You probably have equally glorious views close to home, too. 


Don’t forget to look. 


The show is on now, but it’s a limited engagement! 


Running Behind


It’s happening again.  Another season is flashing by, like a series of blurry images from a train window, beyond the grasp of my full appreciation. 

Summer and its dark green humid beauty came and went, without leaving much of an impression.  Was it hot?  I can’t really remember.  Now it appears I’ve almost missed fall.  I noticed today that the leaves of our little sassafras tree are past their yellow-gold prime.  Some branches are already bare, and dry leaves litter the lawn. 

Yesterday morning we awoke to a heavy frost.  Even though I had the presence of mind to search out most of my cold-weather dog-walking clothes, they weren’t sufficient.  Around noon, Kiko ventured outside and settled in a patch of sun-drenched pine straw by the fence.  He didn’t last long.  Soon he was back inside, in the warmest spot he knows, beside a heating vent beneath a sofa.  Like me, he seems perplexed by, and unprepared for the sudden cold snap.   


I’m not sure what has captured my complete attention recently.  Nothing of substance, apparently.  Mostly, I’ve been distracted by life’s tedious minutiae, which seems even more Byzantine than usual.  Passwords need to be changed, credit cards updated.  Familiar web sites are suddenly “new and improved.”  (I don’t want new and improved; I want old and understandable.)  Pin numbers, unnecessary before, must be created.  In my volunteer work, simple emails are being replaced by drop boxes, google docs and Excel spreadsheets I can’t access.  At every turn I need my daughter’s tech help.  She’s rarely here, due to her junior year course load, drama commitments and social life.  A trivial task that should take a few minutes somehow eats up most of an hour. 

I’m surprised to look out the window and see the sun low in the sky, the lawn in shadow.  I could go finish some project or other.  I should probably start dinner. 


What I’d rather do is cuddle up with Kiko, now snoozing warmly among the sofa pillows.  Maybe it’s a good thing that winter is nearly upon us.  Winter is the time for hibernating, and that strikes me as most inviting. 

Spontaneous Squash Garden

Squash 008This summer, the compost pile in the remains of our maple tree stump has found new life as a squash garden.  No planning or intentional planting was involved.  Last fall we deposited many squash seeds in the compost, and evidently squash loves compost.  The decaying wood of the old tree was quickly hidden by fuzzy, thick vines sprouting large green tri-lobed leaves.  Tightly curled, wiry tendrils of vine anchored themselves to the grass, gaining ground.  And then the bright yellow blossoms started popping up.  The last time the tree stump played host to anything this interesting, it had been a lichen extravaganza.    

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I wondered why most of the blossoms never bore fruit.  I thought it was something to do with a deficiency or an excess in our spontaneous squash patch. 


But that’s not the case.  I recently learned that squash plants produce both male and female blooms.  Only the female blossoms, if visited by bees carrying pollen from male plants, will develop into squash.  I noticed that the bees didn’t typically flit quickly from flower to flower in the squash patch.  They immersed themselves, heads down, in the depth of the blossom for long periods, seeming to luxuriate in an abundance of pollen.  Sometimes two or three bees would settle in at the same flower.  There seemed to be plenty of the good stuff to go around.  When they finally emerged, they moved lethargically, a bit like over-served drinkers stumbling from a bar as dawn breaks.  The dark form in the photo above is one such seemingly contented bee. 

It’s easy to tell the difference between male and female squash blossoms.  A plant produces far more male blooms than female.  The males sprout from long, thin stalks in the upper parts of the plant.  Female blossoms appear near the base of a thick vine.  They seem to grow from a small, bulb-like proto-squash.  These are partially visible in the two close-up photos above.


Two male squash blooms, one fresh, one wilting, appear in the photo above.   Now that I know I won’t be sacrificing future squashes, I might try harvesting a few boy blossoms to cook.   Although, maybe not, because I hate to deprive the bees.   

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I thought I recognized the big leaves in our squash patch.  They resemble those of the acorn squash the squirrels planted among our black-eyed Susans last year.  There are now two dark green acorn squash hiding under the foliage.  I’m hoping they remain overlooked by local wildlife so I can let them stay on the vine to ripen for a while yet.  As I’ve learned, stuffed acorn squash makes a tasty fall meal. 

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The photo above shows spirals of thin, pale green threads, like wire wrapped around a pencil, that sprout from the larger vines. 


There were two kinds of leaves in our squash garden. From a vine with somewhat smaller foliage, there has appeared an elongated oval variety I’d simply call a pumpkin.  It’s gone from white to pale yellow in the past week and is now about the size of a typical grocery store eggplant.  I’m hoping to see it turn bright orange and join us for Halloween. 

Of course, by that time, the compost may have something completely different in mind. 

This is the Way the Roses Grew, (And a Daughter, Too), Part III

By the spring of 2013, four years after planting, the red double-knockout roses along the fence had grown quite dense and bushy.   In early May, they were bursting into explosive bloom. 

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 By late May, the same was true for the pink trellis roses.


The trellis roses had become our favorite photo backdrop.  Above, our daughter poses in a high-low dress, a style that enjoyed a longer period of popularity than it merited.  At this point, D’s blink-and-you’ll miss it middle school career was nearing an end.  It had been an enjoyable and satisfying two years.  With her involvement in drama, she’d found her niche.  She loved performing in two musicals, both pretty good for middle school fare: Thoroughly Modern Millie (ensemble) and Guys and Dolls (at last, a small named role as Agatha the Mission Girl).  While she’d never been exactly shy, with all but her closest friends, she’d been more reserved than outgoing, a characterization that was no longer consistently accurate.  As for her core group of elementary school buddies, she’d drifted apart from some and strengthened ties to others.  Despite her ongoing tendency toward extreme procrastination, she managed her coursework.  She was on the cusp of high school.  At thoughts of the new school year, she was understandably a little anxious.  But she was ready to leave middle school behind. 

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Before the eighth grade dance (an event of far lesser significance than the sixth grade dance), our daughter sits with Kiko, who exhibits his typical nonchalance.

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In 2014, the roses were still denser and more luxuriant.  This is despite the aggressive pruning my husband gives them every year in late summer.  If he didn’t do so, the fence and garage might well be invisible by now.  They could, conceivably, pull a Sleeping Beauty’s castle number on us if we got very lazy.  Otherwise, these hearty, disease-resistant roses need little care.  From now on, the challenge will be reining them in.       

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As for our daughter, as with any teenager, we face a constant choice:  when to pull the reins, when to let her run free.  Like our roses, she’s easing quietly but speedily toward maturity. Once she began high school, it’s been one milestone after another, toppling like dominoes in quick succession.  I remember very vividly her concerns as the first day of high school approached.  Could she learn to navigate the confusing corridors of a much bigger school?  Would the coursework and homework be overwhelming?  She second- and third-guessed her decision not to go out for field hockey, as so many of her friends did.  Try-outs would have interfered with our sacrosanct vacation time in Cape Cod.  Would her participation in drama be enough to give her a sense of belonging?  All those worries proved unfounded.  Her freshman year brought  many firsts.  She took them in stride. 

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The summer after freshman year, right on schedule as she had hoped, she got her driver’s permit.  On Day 1 as a new driver, she attempted the most notoriously narrow, winding road in our neighborhood.  (I was cringing.)  She was determined to drive as often as possible so she could get her license on the very day she became eligible.  

Soon she was a sophomore.  There were more firsts.   

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On April 1, right on time, she became a licensed driver.  The day fell during our spring break visit to Atlanta.  D was able, at last, to take my parents’ iridescent gold PT Cruiser out on the streets legally; she’d been circling the church parking lot in it since she was eleven. 

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That day she drove us to Callanwolde, an arts center housed in one of Atlanta’s several historic mansions associated with the Candler family. 

Now sophomore year is over, too.  Our daughter is halfway through high school. 


This summer, more often than not, she’s out with the car, among friends.  It’s just me and Kiko at home.  His day is as full as he wants it:  a morning walk, followed by sleeping in the sun, moving to the shade, then back to the sun.  

And while our dog loves a ride in the car, he’ll never require his own vehicle.