Category Archives: Nature

Spencerport, the Picturesque

Over the Memorial Day weekend, my husband and I drove up to New York state to visit his family in the Rochester area.

We watched our young nephews play hockey, of course, in a very cold, very old-school ice arena.

But there was time for me to indulge in a favorite activity, walking interesting historic neighborhoods. H’s sister and her family live in Spencerport, that picturesque Eerie Canal village bedecked with Hometown Heroes banners. A charming, pedestrian-friendly town, it’s filled with comfortable old homes and well-tended gardens. Spring had truly sprung, at last, in the Rochester area. Lawns were lush, trees were leafy, and flowers were flourishing in the bright sunshine. After a brisk morning walk with my sister-in-law, I retraced our footsteps so I could linger and take many photos.

Spencerport may win the prize for the greatest number of Little Free Libraries per square mile. Their repeated presence is one expression of the town’s gracious, welcoming attitude.

Another is the multitude of cute rock critters peeking out from their dwelling places, to be discovered if one pays attention.

We missed the lilacs, for which the area is famous, but rhododendron, irises and peonies were near their peak.

It’s a town of lovely old churches. Above, from top to bottom, are the First Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church, and St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church.

Above, just a few of the village’s cheery old homes.

The stately edifice above, on South Union Street in the heart of town, next to the old Masonic Temple, now houses professional offices. Because of its Neo-Classical appearance, typical of bank buildings on the main streets of American small towns, I had assumed it was built as a bank. But its facade originally belonged to a grand home at 25 State Street, in what is now downtown Rochester. The house was demolished in 1923, and the bank, fronted by the saved facade, was erected two years later. Spencerport’s central district retains a variety of businesses that serve practical needs. In addition to a grocery store (with a handy parking lot), it has quite a few thriving restaurants, as well as a dog-friendly brewery which we’ve enjoyed, in the past, with our family and Kiko.

The town is dotted with verdant pockets of greenery, and two swift-running creeks wind through yards and between homes.

And then, further enhancing the town’s quaint aspect and running through its midst, there’s the Eerie Canal itself, to be discussed in an upcoming post.

For an earlier post on Spencerport, see here.

May, the Magnificent

Of all the warm-weather months, May is to me the most beautiful here in our little pocket of Northern Virginia. For our family, it’s the month of roses. All around our back courtyard, they burst into glorious bloom.

The profusion of flowers and foliage appears all the more fabulous to us, because we remember too well the area when it looked strikingly different.

Our “back yard,” before, c. 2005.

Twenty-four years ago, when we bought our house, there was no real back yard, only an expanse of concrete leading to an ugly garage. In the spring of 2009, after years of idle talk and months of actual planning, we embarked on a major renovation, which included landscaping, a flagstone patio, a wrought iron fence, and a screened porch. (See Up from the Concrete, Roses, May 2021.) With every year that passes, we enjoy our back yard refuge even more.

May is the most fragrant month here, as well. Throughout our neighborhood, there are patches of undeveloped land, property of Fairfax County, which remain pleasantly unkempt. In May, these spots teem with wild roses and honeysuckle. All year long, they offer sanctuary and shelter to wildlife. I’m grateful to live in a place where every last bit of acreage is not overly manicured.

Peonies add their perfume to the rose-scented atmosphere of May.

A new addition to my mother’s back yard is a Teddy Bear Southern Magnolia, which we planted in November. As its cuddly name suggests, it’s a smaller variety. Its creamy white blossoms should be sending forth their luxuriant fragrance well into June.

This May has been marked by dramatic, sudden shifts from clear blue skies to fierce storms, and right back again, just as quickly. On Mother’s Day, after a heavy downpour, we were gifted with a lovely double rainbow.

As spring turns to summer, as May cedes the ground to June, may you push through all your cloudbursts to find the rainbows!

Spring, in Full Swing

We’re in the midst of a gorgeous, lush spring here in Northern Virginia. Despite the perhaps more than unusually erratic temperature fluctuations, the season’s progress has been moving along at a consistent, stately pace. A fair number of rainy days have no doubt contributed to the luxuriance of flowers and foliage, and in contrast, the periods of sunshine have been all the more glorious.

Our Appalachian Red redbuds, marked by their brilliant fuchsia buds, were in peak bloom toward the end of April.

The lilac in our courtyard generously shares its delightful fragrance, so that we sense its presence even when it’s out of sight.

I love these mayapples, a gift from a garden-wise neighbor. Soon after sprouting, the plants resemble closed umbrellas. The leaves then unfurl, forming a flat canopy. A single white blossom grows beneath the foliage. After blooming, a small apple-like fruit forms, and its weight causes the plant to bow down toward the ground. Box turtles are attracted by the scent, and they spread the seeds (in their poop) along the forest floor. Like other native spring ephemerals, the mayapple is a humble beauty that may be easily overlooked.

Our azaleas, on the other hand, have been boldly emphatic in color and bloom.

Local Kwanzan cherry trees, past their peak, shower the ground below with their pink petals.

This towering jacaranda tree is an unusual one for our neighborhood. A native of South America, it bursts forth in late April with big clusters of fragrant lavender flowers, trumpet-shaped. Its seed pods break into neat halves, each resembling a small boat.

The edges of our courtyard and walkway abound with purple and white violets, bunched together like small, perfect bouquets.

So many of nature’s spring treasures, high above and on the ground below, are there for the seeking. I try to let each one remind me that even when so much of the world is caught up in conflict, animosity and division for its own sake, there is goodness, all around.

Let’s remember to search for, and to savor that goodness. And, when we can’t find it, maybe we need to embody it, to be and share that goodness. It abides with us, no matter what.

On a Snowy Morning, Pleasantly Dog-less

This morning started off snowy, just as the Capital Weather Gang had predicted.  It wasn’t the kind of peacefully falling snow that gently whispers “Winter Wonderland.”  It was the heavy, wet, swirling kind, powered by gusting winds.  The kind against which no hat, scarf, hood or umbrella offers any buffer.  It’s everywhere at once, especially in eyes, boot tops and inside jacket cuffs.  

And so it was a good morning to appreciate being without a dog requiring an extensive walk, no matter the weather.  I’m still up and out most mornings, but by necessity only briefly, to replenish the seed smorgasbord I offer the birds and squirrels.  And then, from the warm comfort of our playroom, I can watch the ongoing parade of wildlife, both feathered and furry, that flourishes just beyond our windows. 

Every once in a while I glance out and think I see Kiko. Occasionally there’s the briefest moment of panic, as I mistake one of the bold neighborhood foxes for our dear departed dog. There’s that lush red fur, those eternally pointy ears, the fixed, focused stare, the poised stance.

It’s as though he never left, but simply moved outside.

A welcome thought on this cold, blustery morning, when I can happily remain indoors.

Moon Glow (on the Second-to-Longest Night)

Yesterday, as I was anticipating tonight’s longest night of the year, I thought about our deep-seated human need for light and warmth. Scarcity drives demand, and the short, dark, cold days of winter require us to feed the need through creative means. We devise inventive ways to kindle the fire indoors, to bring the comfort of light and heat into our homes. And possibly, we hope, into our hearts.

For some reason, I stepped outside. I saw the moon. And it was spectacular. Against a dark blue backdrop dotted with small white puffy clouds, the bright half-moon was encircled by a halo of iridescent rings. It looked rather like a glowing opal hovering in the sky. Late last month, during a chilly night walk, my daughter and I marveled at a wide pearly circle around the moon. It was lovely, but it lacked the dazzling colors that I witnessed last night.

What causes a ring around the moon? I’ve often wondered, but never sought out the answer. Now I know. To put it very simply, in terms I can comprehend, it’s produced by light shining through ice crystals high up in the atmosphere, and therefore more likely to occur in colder months.

I almost didn’t attempt a photo. I knew it wouldn’t come close to capturing the beauty I saw firsthand. But I gave it a try, and the resulting images were better than I had expected.

As winter descends and night falls way too early, I’m grateful that many rooms in our old farmhouse will soon be glowing softly with strands of miniature white lights. The day has become cloudy; the sky looks like a white sheet. It’s doubtful that a magical, rainbow-ringed moon will be visible tonight, on this longest night. But, as the old year ends and a new one begins, the vision of that strikingly haloed moon will remind me to look up and out on clear nights. It will prompt me to be ever thankful for a message I treasure always, but especially during these short, cold days. It’s the hope and promise of Christmas:

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can not overcome it.

Gospel of John, 1:5

Snow? Yes, Snow!

After a mild day of rain, Northern Virginians awoke this morning to a sight not seen in over a year: snow! There wasn’t much, just enough to coat grassy areas, branches and foliage. But it’s more than we received during all of last winter.

The slushy layer of ice on stone and pavement made me appreciate not having a dog to walk.

The abundant fallen black walnuts in our yard were topped with little snow domes.

By now it’s been two weeks since we began decorating for Christmas. As usual, it doesn’t seem like the holidays should be almost upon us. But the snow provided an undeniable note of seasonal authenticity.

Against the snowy backdrop, in the gray dimness of early morning, the sparkling lights of the small tree on our back porch seemed to declare: It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas!

I guess it really is that time of year!

Return of the Skeleton Crew, 2023

Our dear family friend Slim awakened earlier this month, as is his habit, from his annual semi-hibernation. An ardent nature lover, he was delighted to greet the brilliant colors and balmy breezes of this alluring October. He spent his first few days wandering the garden and grounds, enjoying the unique botanical mix of summer and fall that has defined these recent days.

He and his pack of loyal pups lazed by the fountain on pleasantly mild afternoons, glorying in pumpkins, bumpy gourds, bright impatiens and fall foliage.

While stretched out on the sun-warmed flagstones, he and little Rocky appreciated the self-seeded petunia patch and squirrel-planted sunflowers.

He congratulated my husband on his near-complete triumph over the stiltgrass in the lawn of the back courtyard.

He marveled at this fall’s striking abundance of black walnuts and acorns. While walking across our yard toward our neighbor’s house, Slim remarked that he was reminded of the ball pit at Chucky Cheese.

After soaking up such a bounty of October sunshine, he was grateful for the shade of the screened porch.

Slim accompanied me to our church’s Trunk or Treat, as he has for the past several years. Never at a loss for the encouraging word, he bantered wittily with every small superhero and Barbie who came along for candy.

Slim brushed away a tear as he spoke of expecting his good buddy Kiko to emerge from a playroom nap in his leisurely, sedate manner. “I sure do miss the old boy!,” he declared. “He wasn’t a big talker, but he had a quiet integrity that I so admired.”

As usual, Slim, with his discerning eye for character, hit the nail on the head.

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I’ve been writing about our Skeleton Crew since 2014. For some earlier posts, see here, here, and here.

October Opulence

It’s been a particularly beautiful October here in Northern Virginia. I’ve been hesitant to post about the loveliness of these autumn days, considering the turmoil that currently engulfs so much of the world. Two wars rage, hostages suffer, families worry and grieve, survivors dig through neighborhoods reduced to rubble, atrocities are committed, revenge is sought, God’s name is invoked with righteous fury by rival parties, not just in battle-torn areas, but also here in the U.S., where our legislature has recently seemed more intent on sabotaging government than on governing. Under these circumstances, is it being trite and insensitive to say, “But aren’t the fall colors pretty?”

They really are, though. And maybe, because of all the ugliness that churns and boils around us, it’s even more necessary to cherish and give thanks for beauty wherever we meet it. I’d find it hard to let the season pass without a tribute.

Here, then, are some images of fall in the DC suburbs.

Early morning light shines through the leaves of maples and pin oaks, setting the field aglow.

This large flamboyant maple is a local star this time of year.

Red berries stand out on the pods of an evergreen southern magnolia.

One of the few touches of bright fall color in our front yard is provided by a small sassafras tree.

The sassafras is unusual for the variation in leaf shapes found on a single tree.

Some sassafras leaves are simple ovals; others have two lobes, making for a mitten shape, and others are symmetrical, with three lobes.

A gloriously golden tree is this towering, majestic hickory, one of my favorites in the area. It makes me smile every time I drive past it.

I love the variety of color and texture in this grouping of trees.

The word “red” seems insufficient to describe these brilliant, jewel toned leaves. Vermilion? Scarlet?

Against a cloudy sky, late afternoon light gilds the maples and white pines in our side yard.

Fall occasionally gifts us with an unexpected delight. This azalea typically blooms only in the spring, and its past blossoms have been deep, solid pink. These October flowers of variegated color are an especially pleasant surprise.

Our pale pink trellis roses continue to bloom sporadically well into the fall.

The October days are dwindling fast, and Halloween approaches. May you have access to autumn beauty while it persists, and may it bring you moments of peace and joy.

In the Lowly Petunia, Seeds of Hope

In my last post, I wrote about the industrious squirrels that have planted a lovely crop of sunflowers in our back yard.  Unfortunately, most of the other plants that pop up, unbidden, untouched by human hands, are not as welcome.  As the typical suburbanite knows,  a dizzying number and variety of weeds grow smarter and more determined with every passing year.  My husband, for example, is currently waging war against his leggy green nemesis, stiltgrass, which seeks to take over the lawn. 

But there is one self-seeding flower that I’m always happy to see: the petunia.   

I’ve known a few rather snooty gardeners who look down their noses at the petunia. They consider the flower to be too compliant, and therefore expected and ordinary. I’ve never felt that way. In the deep shade of old oaks and tulip poplars surrounding my childhood home in Atlanta, no sun-loving flowers ever lasted long. We tried repeatedly, but without success. I was elated to be able to grow mounds of bright, hearty petunias here in Virginia, on and around our sun-drenched back patio. They’re perfect in the big pots atop the brick pillars along the fence line. They bloom quickly and continuously, well into the fall, needing only light and fairly regular watering. I especially love this Queen of Hearts variety, above. With its red hearts separated by yellow ribbons, it pairs beautifully with a smaller red variety.

The petunias have been busy this season. They tend to choose appropriate and charming spots for self-planting. Last year I’d positioned a large clay bowl of the flowers atop the stepping stone by a gate. I used it for other plants this year, in a different location. But by June, petunias began sprouting up around the stone, never mind the thin, mulched soil. The seeds from the previous year’s spent flowers simply plant themselves, I’ve learned. And now, without any planning or care on my part, they’re flourishing.

And yes, the squirrels planted two sunflowers among the petunias. (Trying to emulate the practice of our small furry friends, I buried a number of sunflower seeds in July. None of those sprouted.)

If there’s a little room to spare, a petunia or two may move in. Easy-going, if uninvited guests, they’ll adapt to most any accommodation. This bright red petunia made herself at home with a spiky-stemmed Crown of Thorns plant, which bears small, similarly colored blooms.

Petunias are well-equipped for a challenge. Deep within each flower are those tiny seeds, seeds of hope. They’re the promise of new life that lies ahead, even when all might seem lost. The little plant above sprouted from seeds that searched out a smidgen of soil in the grout of our bluestone patio. It’s been sending forth a regular succession of fuchsia and white blossoms since July. When I’m tempted to see the world as a swirling mess of meanness, chaos and confusion, I try to think of this humble yet persistent patio petunia. Even in an inhospitable environment akin to bare, unyielding stone, seeds of hope are constantly being planted. I’ll try to look for the seeds, recognize the sprouts, and do my best to nourish them. Pay attention to the petunia. Like the sunflower, it offers powerful life lessons!