Category Archives: Nature

Spring arrives. . .and time warps

These recent March days here in Northern Virginia have been cold, windy and sunny. It looks like spring but still feels very much like winter. This is the March I remember from Easter trips to visit my grandparents in Kentucky during my childhood. How different it was from March in Atlanta, where it usually had felt like June, humid and overly warm, off and on since February. I loved the Kentucky version. I remember the white and green speckled look of the slowly awakening grass, the clumps of daffodils dancing in the bracing chill, the fast-moving clouds against a brilliant blue sky. It felt exotic, yet it also felt like home.

And that’s why it feels so right to be here in Virginia during these frosty March days. As I sit at my desk, decades later, I look out on a landscape that evokes happy times long ago, of memories glimpsed and sensed, not fully seen. Much as when I look at my daughter and see both the little girl she once was and the young woman she has become, the co-mingling of past and present is especially tangible in the bright briskness of early springtime.

Spring in Virginia is typically slow-moving, a deliberate and measured progression. Each development can be fully appreciated in its own time. The first tiny green shoots among tangled vines stand out against winter’s dominant palette of brown and gray.

The aptly named Lenten roses have been blooming, amidst their lush green foliage, since February, impervious to the cold. With their bowed heads and subtle coloring, they’re the perfect floral expression of humility.

Crocuses, another early herald of the season, have been popping up for a couple of weeks now. Their small size and delicate appearance contrasts with their hardiness and stubborn determination. They push their way up into the light, through layers of dead leaves, and through the snow if necessary.

The first of the daffodils to bloom in our yard are always the tiniest ones. These spunky miniatures test the waters for their taller, grander sisters.

On a recent morning walk with our pack, we noticed a fresh, lemony fragrance in the air. The source was the yellow bell-like flowers of spiky mahonia, a plant I know well from Atlanta. By the time my mother relocated to Virginia, what had begun as a couple of isolated plantings in our back yard near the garage had developed into a veritable and formidable mahonia hedge. This is a shrub that requires no encouragement before seizing new territory.

Kiko enjoys these cold, sun-filled March days because they offer a wide variety of cozy choices for inside napping. This week I found him in a new spot. Until recently, the carpet beneath him had been rolled up in storage in my mother’s basement. For forty years or so, its location was the dining room of our Atlanta home. It was a favorite resting place of Popi, my childhood dog. (See here and here.) During family meals in the adjacent kitchen, Popi would lie on the rug, his head facing away from us, partly because we taught him not to beg at the table, and partly because he had too much pride to do so. Because I’ve noticed that Kiko, as he ages, tends to slip on bare hardwood floors, the carpet is now in our Virginia dining room. Seeing him lying there on that old familiar rug, I see sweet Popi, as well.

Popi in the dining room in Atlanta, December 1971.

The earth turns and tilts on its axis. Spring comes. The past is alive within the present. I can feel it outside in the chill of the breeze and the warmth of the sun. See it in the radiant grass around the old silver maples. Smell it in the fragrance of mahonia. And sense it in the calming presence of my sleeping dog. Is it 1971 or 2021? Somehow, it’s both.

Popi enjoys a rawhide from his stocking on Christmas morning 1970. Our family rarely took photos except at Christmas.
Popi, at his endearing best, 1970.

Thaw

February has been true to form this year. The snow that fell at the beginning of the month has been largely with us since, with periodic refresher doses every week or so. Sleet and freezing rain have made regular appearances, also, turning most surfaces into treacherous sheets of ice. Even grassy areas have been dangerous to negotiate. The white coating on our lawn was impermeable to a human boot-clad foot and as slick as a hockey rink. It reminds me of royal icing that dries to a rock-hard finish, the kind I used when making gingerbread houses years ago. Largely thanks to that icing, those houses are still with us, decades later, boxed up in the basement. This February snow threatened to be nearly as long-lived.

Rising temperatures were therefore very welcome when they arrived at the beginning of the week. Road surfaces gradually became visible again, but the shoulders only increased in perilous iciness. Morning walks with Kiko were difficult going. He seems to understand when I say “Slow, slow” in an urgent tone. So I repeated the mantra nearly non-stop as we made our way out and back (very slowly, of course. )

The snow retreated throughout most of our yard, leaving big frosted circles around the wide bases of the old trees. Fallen maple buds are all the more distinct on the white ground, assuring us that spring is, indeed, in the works.

Several days this week, we’ve had winter in the mornings and spring in the afternoons, a March specialty that arrived a bit early. On Monday, Kiko and I were out early enough to see the grass frosted to a pale gray-green.

My fastidious dog wasn’t sure what to make of the frost and snow combo.

We were treated to a couple of days filled with glorious sunshine that melted away all but the most stubborn traces of snow. The outside world appeared revived, refreshed and joyful, teeming with the essence of early spring. Robins dotted the yard and circled in the trees above. Beneath our bird feeder, gray juncos, cardinals and white-throated sparrows scratched in the pine straw. They mixed peacefully with doves, squirrels, (including Bobtail) and the chipmunk.

The bright early mornings were especially alive with the sounds of the birds. High in the trees, all around, the woodpeckers, drilling for breakfast, seemed to be engaged in songs of call-and-response.

The sun often got so warm on Kiko’s bed by the window that he became periodically overheated. Every hour or so he pulled himself laboriously to his feet, jumped to the floor and collapsed in the shade at the base of my chair, evidently too sun-saturated to move further.

The thaw continues this weekend, although less scenically, with gray skies and rain. I’m relieved to see that no snow is predicted for the first week of March.

God speed, Spring. We need you more than ever!

Back Again: Snow Season

It’s snow time once again here in Northern Virginia, as it is in many parts of the country. While 2020 brought much in the way of unexpected and unwanted developments, it brought very little snow to our area. What did fall was fleeting. It didn’t linger. The white stuff began here early Sunday morning, and it hasn’t stopped. Fine flakes have been floating down, without haste, but steadily, for three days now. We’re not used to it.

Kiko was understandably irked by the crunchy ice coating on Day 2 that collapsed with his every step as we attempted to cross our front lawn. After a few belabored attempts at progress, he refused to move, looking up at me plaintively. I had no choice but to carry him. After that, we avoided grassy areas. But the edges of the street are problematic, too, as the salt stings his paws, again stopping him in his tracks.

He’s apparently decided that the best way to enjoy the snow is from the comfort of his raised bed by the window. The local wildlife stands out distinctly against the white background, providing hours of comfortable entertainment for an elderly lounging dog.

It’s a pretty, puffy, fluffy snow, exuberantly frosting leaves, branches, and tree trunks. . .

. . .and dramatically coating the evergreens.

Other parts of Virginia were treated to a similarly beautiful snow. Our daughter, now back in school, sent this photo of the grounds of the University of Virginia. Because her coursework continues exclusively online, she needn’t trek through the snow unless she feels like it. A rare pandemic plus. We’re learning to appreciate these when we stumble upon them.

Will this be our last substantial snow of the season? Is there a blizzard, like the one from 2016 pictured above, bearing down on us soon? Will we have an early, gorgeous spring?

2020 taught us that many so-called certainties are not, in fact, certain. So whatever happens, through snow and snow melt, we’ll continue to look for pandemic pluses.

If winter comes, can spring be far behind?

–Ode to the West Wind, Percy Bysshe Shelley

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.