Category Archives: Nature

Deck the Tree stump (2013) + Update (2020)

In 2013 I wrote a post about decorating the tree stump at the edge of our front yard with a Christmas wreath. In the course of seven years, the stump has changed substantially, as most of us have. I didn’t hang the wreath the past two years, but this year it seemed fitting to do so. The original post appears immediately below, followed by the current update.

Deck the Tree Stump (2013)

This December, we hung a big wreath on the craggy silver maple stump in front of our house.  It seemed like an interesting, if unexpected, spot for a wreath.  And by decorating the tree, we could send a message to those who might see it as a business opportunity, as well as to those who think the stump is unsightly and wonder why we leave it standing.  The wreath says, We love this old tree trunk, and we’re letting nature take its course.

Then I thought a little more about it, and the pairing struck me as even more appropriate in its juxtaposition of life and death.  The stump is the opposite of the traditional evergreen Christmas tree.  Firs and spruces, retaining the appearance of vitality through the winter, get the privilege of being cut down, hauled into our homes, strung with lights and ornaments, and left to wither and die.  It’s tough work, being a symbol.  Our maple, though, would be in no such danger.  If intact, it would be gray-brown and leafless by now, like its neighbors in our yard.  But of course, it’s a stump, a snag, and already dead.  Yet it harbors vast, unseen colonies of creatures that go about the business of breaking down lifeless material.  It won’t be long before nature’s course is run.  The stump may not be here next year; its center is soft.  All the more reason to decorate it this year.

My husband and daughter hung the wreath one weekend afternoon, as I was napping, trying to get over a persistent cold.  When I trudged out to the road to see their handiwork, a new insight hit me.

I like to think that God works with us for good, despite ourselves, despite our selfish intentions and our vanity.  I initially wanted to decorate the tree because I thought it would look pretty, if a bit odd.  In truth, it was a way of declaring a certain pride in being different, in having the ability to see beauty where others see ugliness.

But once up, the wreath reminded me of a greater truth, of the essence of my Christian faith.  Out of death comes new, transformed life. How better to say it than in the words of John 3: 16:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

And then the snow settled beautifully on the wreath and the tree, on the green and the gray, on the quick and the dead, like a blessing from above.

Update: The Remains of the Stump (2020)

The stump lasted far longer than I expected. But nature, human error, and cars have taken their toll. It’s in a vulnerable spot, close to the narrow road, on a particularly sharp turn that’s proven problematic for drivers time and time again. Several years ago one May morning we were awakened around dawn by a policeman at our door. He asked if that was our vehicle outside. “What vehicle?,” I heard my husband ask in a confused tone, after he’d finally made his way downstairs to the door.

“The one in the tree.”

“What?”

And sure enough, it appeared that a dark minivan had merged with the tree. While most of the stump remained, it must have been considerably weakened, as its decline soon accelerated.

Two summers ago while we were away on vacation, a little red Honda found its way quite forcefully into the stump, demolishing half of it. The section that remained no longer looked much like a tree, or even a stump. When that final piece gradually eased to the ground one day this fall, we barely noticed. Why not, one might ask, remove it, at this point? One answer is that, even as a pile of debris, it serves as a barrier for future wayward vehicles.

Last week, returning from a walk with the dog, I surveyed the battered remains of the once mighty silver maple. It, with five others, was planted the same year that our house was built, in 1920. (See The Silver Maples Say Welcome Home, April 2012.) Several large patches of ruffled pale green lichen had sprouted from the decaying wood. Even in its final stages, the tree continues to serve as evidence of the circle of life. (See Underfoot, and Easily Overlooked. . . October 18, 2013.) I thought of the big wreath hanging neglected behind the hockey nets in the garage. Why not, during this Covid Christmas season, decorate the vestiges of the tree as it’s in the process of transformation? The wreath on the ruins is, to me, a reminder that hope does indeed remain. We can have hope in human ingenuity and resilience during the darkest of times, proof of which is offered by, among other achievements, the development of highly effective Covid vaccines in record time. We can have hope in a divine and loving parent, who created not only maple tree and lichen, but also each one of us human children, unique in our blend of talents, strengths, weaknesses and inconsistencies. We were created for a life that increases in abundance as we love one another and rejoice in our differences. We were created for an abundant life that transcends the boundaries of this flawed and fantastic earthly realm.

. . .and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured out on us through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.

–Romans 5:5

Scenes from a Covid Winter Snow

The first snow of the season arrived yesterday. The flakes started out fat and fluffy, blanketing everything quickly in white. Even during a global health emergency, a mid-December snow is beautiful. Christmas-card worthy images of red, white and green abounded: cardinals on frosted evergreen branches, nandina and holly topped with snow.

In an ordinary year, our daughter might not have been home yet for winter break from the University of Virginia. But because of the pandemic, she’s been here since before Thanksgiving. As her social life has been drastically curtailed, a walk in the snowy neighborhood with her mother held far greater appeal than in years past. Her presence during this time has indeed been, for me, the best of Covid silver linings.

After a few hours, the snow turned to sleet, then to freezing rain, as it so often does here in Northern Virginia. Branches, foliage and berries were heavily coated in a layer of ice.

This morning, both porch doors and every outside gate were frozen shut. It was a perilous endeavor to walk from our house to my mother’s next door. Yet the sun shone brightly on each treacherous surface. Ice-glazed red berries and deep green leaves gleamed even merrier in the light.

But the perfect image of our Covid winter may be this: clinging to the tips of spiky brown branches of a dying evergreen, the oblong beads of ice, looking for all the world like frozen teardrops.

December 16, 2020 was our deadliest day of the pandemic yet, with 3,656 lives lost to Covid-19 in the US. The total number of American deaths from the virus approaches 310,000.

The Flamboyant November Sister

November is like two sisters, equal in beauty, strikingly different in style and mood. The younger one looks over her shoulder toward autumn, the elder anticipates winter. One clothes herself in deep, rich jewel tones, the other dresses in a subdued palette of white, black, and many more than fifty shades of subtly nuanced gray. Today, as the sun shines brightly on the last stubborn leaves of fall, a tribute to the younger, playfully flamboyant November sister.

She delights in autumn’s most brilliant shades. She sets the scarlet leaves of a row of sugar maples against a backdrop of perfect, cloudless blue sky.

She’s an expert in color theory. She knows that on a complementary base of glowing green, the red and orange leaves of a Japanese maple will appear even more distinctly luminous.

She enjoys a dramatic makeover. This pin oak at the edge of our front yard is an unintentional gift from a squirrel, a sprout from a forgotten acorn buried about ten years ago. Throughout the summer, its coloring blends with that of the neighboring pines. It’s not especially remarkable, and easy to overlook. But come November, the younger, whimsical sister does a spectacular fairy godmother turn, and endows it with a golden radiance.

She loves to accessorize in unexpected ways, often ignoring the rules of seasonal dressing. Cheerfully, she combines the concentrated yellows and oranges of maple leaves and the intense red of nandina berries with the deep fuchsia of summer’s roses.

She pairs the most delicate pale pinks of our trellis roses with the vivid red of rose hips. Somehow it works, especially when the surrounding foliage gleams in tones of green and gold.

As the day goes on, the temperature is dropping and the wind is picking up. By tomorrow, little of fall’s resplendence will remain. Soon the younger November sister will bow out gracefully, yielding to the more austere beauty conjured by her older sibling.

Serenity, still available (on a limited basis)

Last week, as I was considering how, when and where to go about figuratively hiding my head in the sand, I realized that, for the moment at least, I was already in a place of relative sanctuary. The house was quiet. I had refrained from checking the news online or on TV. My mother’s Washington Post was still baking in our oven (a half hour at 200 degrees, an anti-covid precaution we adopted in March). Kiko was snoozing in his bed after our walk. From the window adjacent to the table that has become my desk in the former playroom (now that my husband has taken over our home office), there was a swirl of constant motion as birds flocked to the feeder in the side yard. The morning had been foggy and overcast, but now the sun was breaking through.

The early afternoon light created a golden glow on the thick carpet of pine straw, and the scene was suddenly idyllic, like something from an old-fashioned children’s book. There were so many birds. The usual little ones–the chickadees, tufted titmice, sparrows and house finches, a downy woodpecker–were fluttering about. A couple of nuthatches were plummeting headfirst down the pine tree trunk. A pair of wrens engaged in loud, excited communication. Similar chatter from humans would be annoying, but from these compact, spunky birds, it was charming. Several cardinals perched in a row atop the fence, stately and dignified. Was that a hermit thrush? I think so. A red-bellied woodpecker and a bluejay took turns swooping in dramatically, wings extended, briefly scattering the smaller birds. A family of doves foraged patiently on the ground. They mingled contentedly with the squirrels and chipmunks, apparently unperturbed when the furry ones scampered in circles and popped up, as though spring-loaded. The bobtail squirrel was among the group, as confident as ever. I first noticed this particular squirrel in the spring. He clearly once had a tail, but all that remains is a bit of uneven fur, as from a bad haircut. I hate to ponder what sort of traumatic and painful event he must have suffered in the past. But he’s notably bouncy, and his fellow critters don’t seem to treat him any differently.

A view toward our front yard showed a spectacular blaze of orange and red as the tri-lobed leaves of the sassafras tree caught the light.

Atop the frame of our old swing set, next to an intensely red Virginia creeper vine, a bluebird couple eyed the ground for worms.

Despite the ugliness and outright evil that currently afflicts so many human aspects of our world, the beauty of the season, and of the natural world, remains. At least for a while. Serenity, if pursued, can still be attained. At least for brief periods.

And hope still remains. Every time the sun’s rays stream unexpectedly through a bank of leaden clouds and turn the autumn colors incandescent, I know this is true. I know it every time I see the bobtail squirrel bound lightly across the yard, able and undaunted.

Let’s keep hope alive.

Vote, if you haven’t yet done so. Vote as though your serenity depends upon it.

Raccoon Encounter

One recent evening, when my husband went to get our dog for his last walk of the day, he found Kiko in his bed by the window, gazing placidly at the fox that typically curls up under the maple tree around dusk.

Kiko and the fox have become accustomed to one another. Lately it’s part of their routine to stare silently at one another as the sun sets. It’s almost as though an invisible thread links each red furry pointy-eared critter to the other, one inside, one outside.

Glancing out another window, my husband spotted a less expected wild visitor. A plump and furry raccoon was intently pawing the ground beneath our bird feeder. Since we moved into our house twenty years ago, this is only our second raccoon spotting. My daughter and I dropped what we were doing and joined my husband to watch with interest as the raccoon staked out the territory around the bird feeder and explored available options. For a while, she* continued to use her little hands to sift the earth for sunflower seeds.

Clearly this method wasn’t yielding enough bounty. She ambled over to the pine tree, climbed up unhurriedly, and perched on the stump of a branch below the feeder. Last year’s dry, brown Christmas wreath, (which I hung on the stump in January when it was still green) almost caused her to lose her footing. After regaining her balance, she took her time to assess the situation. She appeared to consider a leap onto the feeder, but evidently decided against it. Another approach was in order.

Up until this point, the raccoon had appeared to be a slightly clumsy, slow-moving creature, an unlikely athlete. As she grasped the branch from which the feeder hangs, this all changed. Suddenly, she was the picture of fluffy agility, using all four feet to make her way easily, upside down, along the branch.

Once within reach of the feeder, she curled her white hind paws around the branch and suspended herself vertically, in the manner of a trapeze artist at the circus. She grasped the feeder with one front paw and used the other to fish out seed from an opening. She hung on like this for quite some time. The squirrels that routinely attempt to outsmart our supposedly squirrel-proof bird feeder are far less successful.

The raccoon then flipped gracefully and dropped lightly to the ground, where she continued feeding on the seed she’d spilled from the feeder.

And soon she began the process again. 

In our focus on the raccoon, we failed to notice that Kiko’s attention had been roused. He’d emerged from his bed and left the room. At first we thought he might have retreated upstairs for the night, as he often does just before it’s time for the last walk. But no. He’d pushed open the kitchen door to the screened porch, plunged through his doggie door and dashed out into the side yard. By the time we arrived, he was at the base of the pine tree, looking up at the raccoon high above him in the branches. See, I can still hunt, he seemed to be saying, as he looked at us, even more condescendingly than usual. And he, like the raccoon, can be surprisingly quick on his feet, should the need arise.

Seven years ago, Kiko had a brief encounter with a raccoon that also ended with the fuzzy masked visitor peering down at him from a tree. (See this post here from November 2013.) I wondered then if that would be the start of more frequent raccoon sightings. It was not. Will it be the case now? We’ve seen the memes promoting the raccoon as the perfect Covid-19 mascot: it’s a mask-wearing hand-washer, and the letters of racoon can be rearranged to spell corona. Our visitor returned the next evening, around the same time, and went through the same feeding process. We haven’t seen her since, but I’ll continue to look for her around dusk.

We could use the distraction. During the past four months, our family has rarely left the house. We’ve had no guests. No friends inside the house. (And therefore we’ve abandoned all but the most minimal efforts toward tidying up. The surrounding clutter encroaches daily. Chaos looms.) It sure would be pleasant to be able to count on visits from such a charming acquaintance. One who abides by the pandemic rules of social distancing, entertains us briefly with acrobatic feats, never expects to come in, and then quietly disappears. Unfortunately, it will be a while before we can expect to enjoy the company of any other kind of visitor.

 

*I’ve recently realized that I tend to refer to most animals I see in nature with male pronouns.  I know our most frequent fox visitor is a male because he lifts his leg to pee.  I have no evidence of gender for this raccoon, but I’ve decided to go against my instinct and refer to it as “she.” 

 

On a Gray Day, Some golden light

Looking through photos on this dreary, gray day, several from our early January snow stand out. During this unusually mild winter, we’ve had only one snow here in Northern Virginia. I’m hoping we can glide smoothly into an early spring without an icy blast to decimate the young buds that are creeping up and out all over. But early on that snowy morning of January 8, the glow of sunshine on the trees was briefly dazzling. While most branches appeared as though frosted with white royal icing, the sun’s rays picked out certain tree tops to gild with metallic brilliance. The result, against a quickly changing backdrop of blue sky dotted with clouds of white, pink and lavender, was a vision of spectacular luminosity. These photos convey only a suggestion of the radiance I saw on that frosty morning seven weeks ago.

Before long, the light shifted, the other-worldly glow faded, and the colorful brilliance seeped away. The snow-covered landscape, in clean tones of white, gray and black, was still beautiful, but it was a more ordinary sort of beauty.

Even ordinary beauty is a wonderful thing, of course. But these pictures remind me to keep a watchful eye. In the midst of the everyday, a sudden glimpse of the extraordinary (perhaps, who knows, even a glimmer of heaven?) is a possibility, if a fleeting one.

Maple Tree Shadows on the Moonlit lawn

Mid-afternoon on Tuesday, big blobs of snow suddenly began falling. Trees and grassy areas were quickly coated. An hour later, our nandinas were bent double, weighed down dramatically by the heavy accumulation. By early evening, the sky was clearing and the half-moon was bright. The shadows of the silver maples were sharply defined on our front lawn. This glowing, moonlit landscape, as I’ve written before, is perhaps my favorite view, ever and anywhere. (See here, in a post from 2014.) It’s certainly one of the aspects I love best about living in our house.

The vision always carries me back to the first winter we spent in our house. Our now twenty-one year-old daughter was just a year old. I spent many hours each night sitting in a rocking chair, holding my baby and looking out at the snow. The winter of 2000 was an especially snowy one, and our daughter resisted sleep with steely resolve. She required lots of rocking, lots of snuggling, lots of nursing. The first time I looked up from the face of my (at long last) sleeping baby and saw the dark blue shadows of the trees etched so distinctly on the lawn, I gasped. I expect such an image in a snow scene painted by Maxfield Parrish, but I didn’t think I’d see it in my front yard.

I’d assumed the vision couldn’t be captured in a photograph. But Tuesday night I thought it was worth a try.

These pictures don’t fully catch the magical effect I witnessed firsthand, but they give some idea.

As my daughter and I worked to chip away at the thick ice on our back walkway yesterday afternoon, I was briefly disheartened to think of the long stretch of winter yet to come. Then I remembered the spectacle of moonlight shadows on the lawn. The February Snow Moon will be here soon. May it live up to its name.

The Timeless Message of Christmas, with Hope for the Future

It’s January 7th, 2020. The Christmas season is officially over. For our family, it was a happy and busy one. We felt fortunate to welcome our daughter home from college for an extended stay, as well as to have my mother living next door. I didn’t find the time for writing more than one quick Christmas post. But the message of Christmas is one to live by every day. And the gift of Christmas is persistent. It waits to be received, regardless of the time of year. So, a look back on Christmas Eve, and a look ahead, with hope for the future.

The familiar, expected beasts were all there at the nativity on Christmas Eve. There was the furry, gray-brown burrow, always a crowd favorite. The humble image of patience, fortitude and forbearance, this little donkey reminds us of the one that may have carried young Mary and her unborn child to Bethlehem many years ago.

Two fluffy sheep quietly munched on hay. The two goats took more curious notice of the onlookers around them. They remind us that ordinary farm animals likely witnessed the holy birth.

There were a few dogs, including Kiko, who was fortunate in meeting a kindly shepherd girl who allowed him to wander at will among the other furry creatures. Maybe those original shepherds brought with them a sheepdog or two? I’m not certain where the scholarship stands on this point. No shepherd would benefit from a dog like Kiko, who lacks the herding instinct as well as any semblance of a work ethic. Come to think of it, our dog’s interest in other living beings is confined largely to the smells they leave behind.

Sweet Delilah the camel, on the other hand, seems to truly enjoy social interaction with her animal companions, as well as with her human admirers. This year, as always, she snuggled enthusiastically with kids and old folks, and posed for endless pictures.

With such a remarkable menagerie so close at hand, the human presence may take a back seat at a live nativity. But those wearing the costumes of Mary and Joseph remind us that God chose to send his son to be born not to the rich and powerful, but to a couple who counted themselves among the working poor. Those dressed as shepherds recall the lowly field workers who were the first to be summoned, and by angels, no less, to receive the joyful, life-changing news of a savior’s birth. The so-called Magi, like their camel, would not have made an appearance at the stable in Bethlehem. These wealthy pagan astrologers from the East arrived months or perhaps even years after the birth, when Jesus and his parents were living in some modest home, perhaps in Nazareth. But they’re included in nativity scenes to signify that this baby, born to obscure observant Jews of the artisan class, is God’s gift to all people, regardless of heritage or ethnicity, and to all generations.

The point of the Christmas narrative, of course, is this baby. In our nativity, the newborn Jesus is represented by a mere doll, which, in terms of purely visual interest, cannot begin to compete with so much furry, four-legged charm. This unremarkable doll is an inadequate place-holder not simply for a real baby, but for a miraculous union of the human with the divine. The baby Jesus is, according to the Gospel of John, God’s Word, the Word through which everything was created, newly manifested in human form.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son. –John 1:14

God loves us so much that he sent his son to live out the human experience as our brother and friend. Jesus pointed the way, through example, showing us how to claim our kinship with him and our inheritance as children of God. Jesus didn’t bring a message of complicated theology and countless esoteric rules to follow. The essence of his message, emphasized repeatedly throughout the years of his earthly ministry, is disarmingly simple:

Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples. –John 13: 34-35

The essential message of Christmas is simple, too. God’s great love breaks down all barriers, of geography, race, gender, of social and economic class. We humans are skilled builders of artificial and arbitrary barriers, but there is not one that can withstand the sheer force of goodness that is God’s love. God loves us all. And he wants us to love each other.

He has created us to do so:

In the beginning was the Word. The Word was with God, and the Word was God. He existed in the beginning with God. God created everything through him, and nothing was created except through him. The Word gave life to everything that was created, and his life brought light to everyone. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. –John 1: 1 -5

So therefore, the light of God is present in all creation.* I like to think I can sense the divine spark shining within every humble beast at our live nativity, as well as in all our animal friends. What are they, anyway, but God’s beloved creatures?

That seed of holy light has been implanted in every one of God’s human children. With the kindness and compassion that have their source in God our Father, let us do our best to kindle the divine spark within ourselves. Let us nurture and share the warmth of that light with our neighbors, near and far. With those who look and think like us, and with those who don’t. Let us resist quick judgement, avoid pettiness, and act with generosity of spirit.

Let us love one another. We were made for this.

*This idea is explored powerfully and beautifully by Richard Rohr in his 2019 book, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope for, and Believe.

October, Masquerading as May

This October has felt, and until recently, looked, more like late spring.  Our pale pink climbing roses usually bloom sparingly after their all-out blast in May.  But this year, while the foliage is yellowing and fat red rose hips are plentiful, the flowers continue to pop.     

It’s odd to see pink rosebuds intermingling with ripening Nandina berries.

Along the fenceline, our red roses are far more plentiful than is typical for late October. 

The deep velvety red of this petunia contrasts sharply with its dry brown foliage. 

These candy-striped and purple petunias endure while their leaves wither.

Even our lilac has been confused.    

I’m reminded of the unseasonably warm year I spent in England during grad school, when I noted with wonder that the roses slowed their blooming as winter approached, but never stopped. 

And I think of Keats’s ode, To Autumn, that season of mists and mellow fruitfulness:

. . .how to load and bless

With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run:

To bend with apples the mossed cottage-trees,

And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;

To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells

With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,

And still more, later flowers for the bees,

Until they think warm days will never cease. 

Spring’s Progress

After a sluggish and hesitant prologue, the phases of our Northern Virginia spring have been moving right along at a rapid and regular clip.  We still wake up to the occasionally chilly morning, but there have been no recent dips below freezing.  Spring now has a spring in its step. 

As the branches of the earlier blooming cherry trees were greening, the ground beneath them being transformed into a carpet of pink petals, the next wave of blossoms, darker in color, was peaking. 

The bright fuchsia buds of our Appalachian Redbud always take their good sweet time in emerging.  When they appeared, they were as brilliant and jewel-like as ever. 

Last spring, a bitter cold snap blasted the buds of the camellia that nestles in a corner of my mother’s house.  This year we were treated to a show of lush red flowers. 

Spring in three layers:  camellias and fuchsia blossoms against a backdrop of weeping cherry.   

In October I planted some sixty daffodil bulbs in a barren mulch patch beneath a black walnut tree in our front yard.  All winter I kept my eye on the area, watching for the first shoots of spiky foliage to emerge from the snow.  I love the optimism implied in planting bulbs.  It’s assuring to remember that even in the depths of winter, regenerating forces are at work, beneath the ground and even in the frigid air.  When I spot those first green tips, usually in early February, I never fail to be surprised, yet comforted by such faithful heralds of the spring.  The first daffodils to bloom were the smallest, the Tete-a-Tete miniatures.  As their golden heads bobbed in fierce March winds, they were the picture of cheery perkiness.   Following soon were the tall, bold Trumpet Masters, the type I remember from old Easter coloring books.  Next appeared some fancy double blooms.  With ruffled petals in shades of  apricot and pale yellow, this variety reminds me of Cinderella dressed for the ball. 

The last to join the daffodil band were several pink cupped varieties, simple but elegant with their delicate shadings and crimped-edged centers.   The mulch patch has plenty of room for more inhabitants.  This fall, if things go as planned, I’ll add another sixty bulbs. 

Wild violets tend to pop up fortuitously around the grape hyacinths I planted two years ago.  These kindred spirits pair well in mini bouquets.  

Our rhododendron is currently putting on an exuberant show. 

As are the azaleas.  In red. . .

White. . .

And pink. 

On this second day of May, our Japanese maples glow fiery red in the sun.  The old silver maples have sent forth their multitudes of angel-winged seed pods.  Our trellis roses will be budding any day now.  The air smells of lilac, laurel, locust blossoms and honeysuckle.  Spring’s final phase is at the ready.  The warmth of the morning anticipates summer, and Kiko, still in his winter fur, seeks the shade.