Category Archives: Nature

The Lambs of March, Devoured by the Lions

In my last post I wrote of the lions and lambs of March sharing the field of play, taking turns. There’s been none of that good sportsmanship for the past few days. The lions seemed to have slaughtered and devoured the lambs.

The recent frigid weather rightfully belongs to January. Temperatures fall to the teens in the early morning hours and creep up to only just above freezing in the afternoons. Sharp winds gust with what feels like a vindictive malice, making it even colder. If you have to be outside, it’s best to move briskly. I think this, wistfully and often, as I stand, holding the leash attached to my sluggish senior dog. He may pace restlessly in the house, but once out of doors, Kiko tends to remain resolutely immobile, transfixed, his nose firmly planted in the grass, lost in a host of smells. A recent injury has slowed my fourteen and a half-year old dog even further. Our “walks” cover far less distance these days, but they’re more frequent, and we’re outside nearly as long.

The two tall central daffodils seem to be deep in conversation.

Gazing out from sheltered comfort, the landscape often has the appearance of early spring perfection. Daffodils nod their sturdy golden heads amidst green sword-like foliage.

The cherry trees were coaxed toward peak bloom last week by a couple of almost summery days. Their blossoms form luminous clouds of pale pink in the bright sunshine.

But a clear blue sky shifts in an instant to a burnished and ominous steel gray.

Clouds race in, seeming to herald an approaching apocalypse.

Bitter gales and icy rainstorms whip through suddenly and repeatedly, doing their best to drive all delicate petals into the ground. On Saturday, my daughter and I attended a local high school production of Annie. After the show, we watched from the glass-enclosed cafeteria as a light drizzle began falling on a courtyard planted with small, lovely cherry trees. The falling petals looked like snowflakes. As the intensity of the rain increased, we looked out onto a blizzard-like scene. And then, as though for a definitive finale, there was a prolonged and pounding hailstorm.

Just another March lion, strutting his stuff. Take that, you pathetic lambs!

Our world, like this month, has far too many lions.

The Lambs and Lions of March

Spring arrived officially on Sunday. Yet here in Northern Virginia, the gentle lambs and roaring lions of March continue to alternate play, as they have all month long. A day of languid warmth and breezes bearing the sweet essence of the Caribbean is followed by one of bracing chill and icy gales. Dim, mist-shrouded dawns give way in an instant to brilliant sunshine and cloudless skies. A late afternoon that would be unremarkable in June is followed by a morning straight out of January, complete with sudden, swirling snow. But of course, this is March, every bit of it: dramatic, capricious, impulsive, dazzling March.

Recent nights have been clear and beautiful. Around midnight, when I’m typically awakened by Kiko pawing at my bed and looking confused, the late-rising moon is relatively low in the sky, enormous, heavy and golden. Just before dawn, it’s high, cold and distant, casting its final shadows on our lawn. And there is Venus, in her usual morning spot, seen glowing brightly from our front windows. Our daughter, ever the stargazer (she minored in astronomy), texted last night that Orion was emphatically visible from her apartment porch. It’s comforting to know that the same moon and stars are shining on her over there in Maryland.

March marches on. We’ll soon say goodbye to this month of many seasons and lightning-fast about-faces. A few more winter days may well tag along with April. No doubt some flashes of deep summer will be summoned, as well. But with luck, the first full month of spring will bring true spring, in all its pleasant, more even-tempered glory.

Welcome spring. We need you.

Ukraine Sunflowers in the Snow

I’ve been struck by how much the Ukrainian flag resembles a field of golden sunflowers under a brilliant blue sky. Was it so inspired, I wondered? No, apparently not. The blue over gold bands were first used in the flag of the Slavik twelfth-century Kingdom of Galicia-Volhynia, located in what is now portions of Ukraine and Belarus. Sunflowers were a later addition to the landscape.

The sunflower, of course, is the national flower of Ukraine, and the country is one of the world’s leading producers of sunflower oil. Native to North America, the seeds were brought to the old world by early explorers. Ukraine’s general lack of humidity and its dark, rich soil make it an ideal place for sunflowers to flourish. Big fields of the flowers began to be planted there in the late 1700s in response to the Orthodox Church’s prohibition of the use of butter or lard for cooking during the Lenten season. There was no such ban on sunflower oil, and the golden fields became widespread.

Any image of a field of glowing sunflowers now evokes for me a vision of the Ukrainian flag. I felt moved to paint my own version of sunflowers beneath a blue sky. By the time I completed it, a late winter snow had fallen in our area, a product of the “bomb cyclone” that moved up the East Coast over the weekend. It seemed fitting to display the painting in the snow, propped against the ragged remnants of the old maple stump in front of our house. The Ukrainian flag, like a bright field of sunflowers, has become an emblem of hope in the midst of terrible adversity. As I watch the crisis intensify and become more tragically dire day by day, I feel helpless. I hear that line of the Lord’s prayer over and over in my head: Deliver us from evil.

May the sunflower-field flag of Ukraine continue to fly as a beacon of hope, and may the people of Ukraine be delivered from evil.

Ash Wednesday, Again

I wasn’t going to write about Ash Wednesday this year. I thought I’d exhausted the topic, never a crowd-pleaser, in years past. Didn’t I write about it just yesterday? See here for last year’s post. These days it seems like it’s always Ash Wednesday.

The pandemic has put us in a holding pattern of perpetual Lent. Just when we think the deliverance of Easter is about to arrive, it vanishes like a mirage. Perhaps, finally, the light at the end of the covid tunnel may no longer be that of the oncoming train. Could it be that this long, limbo season would at last be brought to a joyful conclusion? It seemed like a real possibility.

And then Putin began his invasion of Ukraine. Our Ukrainian brothers and sisters, anticipating the rebirth of spring, as we all do, are faced with the desecration of war instead. They must confront terrible choices: whether to fight or flee, whether to stay or to pick up hurriedly and go, leaving homes, businesses, farms and beloved animals behind. The enormity of the emerging loss must be confounding and overwhelming.

The path ahead is perilous and forbidding. For the Ukrainians most emphatically, and to a lesser but still substantial degree, for those of us who watch, anxiously, from afar. No easy solution is at hand, no matter how much world-wide support is forthcoming. There will be no feel-good, happily-ever-after ending to this crisis, which will have long-lasting global implications. Lives are being lost, and the losses will multiply as the conflict escalates. It’s hard to imagine any scenario in which Putin might back down.

These are dark days. But Ash Wednesday urges us to look, steadily and without flinching, into the darkness so that we can rediscover the grace of God that searches us out to lead us back into the light. It reminds us that hope remains, even during the darkest days. Even in death. Ash Wednesday tells us not to underestimate the power and persistence of love, light, and life.

Today I saw an interview with a Ukrainian woman sheltering in a communal space in Kyiv with her children, the youngest of whom was an infant, asleep in her arms. She said that the presence of her tiny daughter was a blessing to her and all the others there with her. The baby, she said, was living proof that innocence, that something good, something kind, still exists in the world. Ash Wednesday tells us that evil, despite its bravado and air of military might, is no match for true goodness.

This morning I came upon a patch of bright white snowdrops among the dead brown leaves in a friend’s garden. I hadn’t seen these humble little flowers in years past.

Their sweet, quiet beauty reminded me of the sleeping Ukrainian baby.

Snowdrops, like God’s grace, like God’s love, are persistent. They’ll be blooming before long in the forests of Ukraine.

Foggy Morning, Foggy Memories

Out with Kiko on a recent damp, cold, foggy morning was like being immersed in a grisaille landscape painting. The world was drained of all color. Branches were inky black against a silvery sky, and distant trees were soft smudges of gray.

I was reminded of the few months I spent in Cambridge, England as a grad student while researching my dissertation. I remembered standing on the bridge over the River Cam, watching the form of King’s College Chapel slowly materialize through the mist, and realizing that those blurry shapes nearby were cows grazing on the Backs. I recalled the sharp, bone-numbing chill of the wind that blew across the Fens. I will never forget that intense cold of a Cambridge November, which overwhelmed the meager heating system in my rented room in an old house on Panton Street.

That part of my past is so distant now that sometimes it seems like it no longer belongs to me. Perhaps it’s even more remote because of its contrast with the predominantly home-bound sameness of the last two covid years. Did I really live for a year in England in my twenties? Did I travel in Britain and Europe, examining Gothic illuminated manuscripts in ancient libraries, having adventures and staying in seedy, ramshackle no-star hotels? Was that young woman really me? I have photos to prove it, as well as assorted associated memories. But some experiences, no doubt, cannot be recalled; they’re gone for good. Others can be only glimpsed; they’re in the process of dissolution. And with every passing year, they become more tenuous, wispy and ghost-like, threatened by the fog of time.

I’m resolving to reclaim that past before it’s lost. This winter I’ll look back on those photos and re-read my dog-eared travel notes. I’ll need help to make sense of them, because my own haphazard archives will be insufficient. I appeal now to those friends who adventured with me during that long-ago year in England. Let’s reminisce and compare memories; together we’ll reassemble portions of some of those old days piece by piece. They’re too precious to be forgotten. There will be missing pieces, of course. And missing companions. Sadly, not all of us have survived. All the more reason to start the process as soon as possible.

A Snowy Start for 2022

The first two days of 2022, here in Northern Virginia, like those at the close of ’21, were damp, gray and mild, with temperatures reaching the mid-60s. There was talk of snow to come, but it seemed highly unlikely. The pattern of dull, sunless days had been established; it was hard to conceive of it ever changing.

But just as predicted, snow began falling in the early-morning darkness of January 3rd, accumulating quickly.  It coated the bleak landscape with glistening white frosting that piled up, and up, elegantly and artfully.

Our yard and house soon acquired the Christmas-card aspect they had been missing all during December.

Kiko’s first steps in the snow were tentative and uncertain. Mine were, as well. The older we both get, the more actively I work to avoid a fall. Our morning walk was slow and halting, as I tried to keep him off the many icy spots on the road.

Once we made it back to the fresh snow near the house, he embraced it gleefully. Seeming to regain his youth, he pounced like a fox through the soft powder.

At sunrise and sunset, sky and snow tend to take on a luminous pink glow.

On the night of January 6th, our old house gleamed as white as the snow. Now that all twelve days of Christmas have come and gone, our exterior illumination is history. I’m always sad to hear that final click of the lights as they go dark, not to shine again for another eleven months. I’ll keep the decorated trees up for a while. Their soft light will be a much-needed comfort in the winter darkness to come. For now, the brightness of the snow, visible through the windows, provides some extra consolation.

I can’t help thinking about how much our daughter would have appreciated being at home for this particularly lovely snow. A few years ago, she would have reveled in the luxury of a few days off school, with time to savor the glories of the surrounding winter wonderland. But she returned to Maryland on Sunday, and awoke the next morning, as we did, to the blanket of white. We swapped snow pictures. Her days of simply cavorting in the snow on a weekday are largely in the past. The demands of the job were calling, a job not well-suited to remote working. Her car, in the uncovered garage, would have to be dug out. It’s too bad that no one thought to send her back to her apartment with a snow shovel. She used a dust pan instead.

But hey, I’m impressed. I didn’t know our girl owned a dust pan. Clearly, she’s an adult now.

Return of the Live Nativity

The animals were back, after last year’s absence, at our church’s live nativity this Christmas Eve.  Joining us again were a burro, a small ox, a sheep, a goat, and, of course, a camel.  Because of ongoing covid precautions, no human actors were featured in the tableau. . .

. . .except for camel’s handler.  Delilah was the camel on duty this year; her colleague Samson was engaged elsewhere.  She was as friendly and patient as we’ve come to expect her to be.  

Kiko enjoys the live nativity primarily for the multiplicity of smells it affords. The animals responsible for them are of less interest. Our dog rarely looks up, and the camel’s great height puts her well out of Kiko’s radar. He seems oblivious to her presence.

Delilah isn’t especially curious about Kiko, either, but she never seems to tire of posing for photos with a parade of curious onlookers. If encouraged, she offers a welcoming nuzzle.

The furry little donkey has a cuteness quotient that rivals any dog’s.

Evidently the group had a busy holiday schedule. The sheep was drowsy, and the goat was sleeping soundly, until Kiko got close and woke him. The goat was startled, and Kiko was even more so.

One family brought along their big white bunny, whom they eagerly introduced to Kiko. The rabbit didn’t appear enthusiastic about the meeting; his air was more akin to that of a sacrificial victim. Our dog had never seen a bunny before, and he wasn’t sure what to make of this new creature. Should he consider it an equal, as he does the sheep, goat and donkey? Or is it more like a squirrel, something to be pursued? After several encounters, he seemed possibly inclined to think it was the latter. At that point, we made sure he kept some distance from the bunny, who was, no doubt, relieved.

Delilah opens her mouth for a big yawn. Her shift is coming to a close; it’s nearly time to get back into the trailer for the next gig. She wishes everyone a lovely Christmas Eve and a merry Christmas!

Tis the Season?

Christmas is five days away.  Every year around this point, I ask myself: how can this be?  How can Christmas be upon us?  But this year, more than ever, time seems slippery, unreliable, prone to eccentricity.  Yesterday seems like a month ago, yet wasn’t Halloween just last week?  Is it because of my advanced age?  Is it because of sudden and broad temperature fluctuations?  In a typical seven-day span, here in Northern Virginia, we experience weather appropriate for all four seasons, sometimes in a single day.  Is it because we’re approaching our third Covid winter, and the weeks and months are draped in a veil of sameness? 

It’s certainly not because I’ve neglected the usual Christmas prep. I haven’t, and it’s kept me too busy to write. The evidence of the season is all around me, but still, this mid-December has an air of unreality. Something just seems off.

After further reflection, I think it may be this: the back-of-my-mind awareness that our daughter will no longer be joining us for an extended winter break. The Christmas season, in recent years, has begun in earnest for me with her arrival home from college. Last year, it started with her final online exam, as she was already here. I think what I’m missing now is the anticipation of having her back with us for about a month. That extra spark of excitement is absent.

At this realization, I had a mental pep talk with myself. Our daughter will be coming home soon, for about a week. She can’t stay longer because she’s gainfully and happily employed. (I’ve never held a job that ticked both boxes.) She’s embarked on a career that relies upon her training. This is why she went to college. At least it’s why the time, trouble and expense of college can be justified. All those demanding classes in aerospace engineering and astronomy are being put to good use. And while she’s a Maryland resident now, she’s closer to home than she was in Charlottesville. When she first began applying for jobs, my husband and I both feared that she’d find it necessary to move to the West Coast. In the rare absence of traffic, she can drive home in about an hour.

So I’m a lucky mama. We should see our dear daughter in two days. And then Christmas Vacation will officially begin.

As my mother reminds me, having recently watched a PBS show about the medieval origins of the twelve days of Christmas, December 25 is only the first day of the festive season. I’ve got plenty of time to get that spark of excitement back. In fact, I’m starting to feel it already.

The spirit of the season is popping up in unexpected places. Here, for example, is a radish that resembles a little head in a pointed elf cap.

The halls have been decked. It’s time to savor the joy of Christmas.

This morning’s full moon, not long after sunrise.