Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Fall's Stark Reality

With the corn all around us cut, it's a new atmosphere as we take our daily walks. In the summer I live in the bottom of a barrel, surrounded on all sides by high corn. Now, after the corn is cut, I seem to be on display.

Walking out into the corn field that was harvested two days ago, the corn stubble was cold and frosty in the early morning sun. I walked a few hundred feet into the field, turned back towards Pinehaven, and took this shot. You can barely make out the house for the trees.
It was a cold morning (30 degrees) and with enough frost to delicately etch the low sun into the grass and the roof. We still have not turned on the second floor heat so it was in the low 60's when I crawled into bed last night. I had two blankets, one turned back double on itself, and still was not warm enough at first. I've decided it is the energy I must expend to warm the bed before I can get comfortable. If I lie there a while and then turn over, the warmed spot is comfortable. Then, throughout the night I am plenty warm ... unless I push a blanket off.
But getting up is another matter! I hurry on with a robe, rush breakfast (the heat pump keeps the first floor at 64) and then climb the stairs to my bathroom where I quickly turn on a space heater. If I wait while the room warms - brush my teeth long before I even think of a shower - all is well. I can't even think of doing anything that would require getting wet before the tiny room has warmed.
And yet we are wimps! What of this house a hundred years ago when there were only two stoves to warm the whole of the place and not an electrical outlet in sight? What about the outhouse in the back yard? I should consider how lucky I am to be under a roof.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Final Harvest

While the fields to the south and west of us were harvested on October 4 (see that blog entry), the field across S. Clayton Road (east) and the one north of us was finally harvested yesterday. This is quite late in the season and I thought the corn crop might have been considered a loss. When it rained on Friday night, I expected more drying time would be needed before it could be harvested. But no.

By late afternoon, we heard a John Deere harvester working its way across the field. It is an unmistakable drone as it chews the corn, separates and blows the debris back onto the ground. This picture (above) was taken from our living room window.
At this time, the sunny and breezy day (high of 63) had begun to deteriorate and clouds began to blanket the sky.

And yet with the field half picked, the sun broke through and lit the scene a pretty burnished gold. This view is also facing east and shows the old Shell farm seemingly buried in the corn. There were three behemoths working the harvest: two harvesters and one bin.
The harvester, by the way, had a large revolving wheel on the front, which seemed to pick up the blown-down corn and deliver it to the machine. Much of this field was toppled by the winds of September and I expected much of it impossible to pick.

This shot was taken through a second floor window as a harvester passed the house.

And this shot - they are certainly not in order - is as the same harvester approached from the south, clouds of dust filling the air.
This is also a good view of our poor catalpa trees, trimmed by electrical line crews to keep them out of the power lines. They are a little contorted by the sheering which gave no emphasis on aesthetics, only on utility. But we appreciate the work just the same and hope the winter winds will not disrupt our power.
But last night, for some of the Miami Valley, that's what happened. As a cold front passed late in the evening, power was lost to thousands of homes, particularly east of here. Our warm day yesterday has been replaced by one where the temperature hovers in the upper 30's and a few snow flakes have been reported. The National Weather Service reported a gust to 45 mph, reminiscent of the remnants of Hurricane Ike a month and a half ago.
And so the harvest is now completed. The fields around us are stark and empty. There is nothing left to do now but wait for the snow.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

First Frost!

As expected, last night produced our first frost in Farmersville. My own records show the average date of the first frost is 10/06. Last night's figure didn't change that date. Throughout the night, I found a sheet and two blankets not enough. It got down to 30 degrees outside and 60 degrees inside.

The grass is the back yard was blanketed with white and a leaf was fringed with frost. When I first came downstairs (7:40 a.m.) my mother called me to the window to watch a raccoon amble across the yard, check out our compost pile and then drink from the pan we leave out for that purpose. He was thirsty enough - and probably cold, to boot - that the fact that we were watching through the lighted kitchen window didn't matter. He simply took his time, did what he came to do and then drifted back towards the woods. He walked tall, as though he was on tiptoes.

In the shade of the garage (west side), the henbit was lacy white. That weed is a scourge for us. A member of the mint family, it is impossible to discourage from its place in the lawn. Chemicals would rid us if it but only if they're put on amply and often enough. It's not worth the cost nor the environmental concern. And yet I am forever pulling henbit. The frost will be no more successful than I.

Beside S. Clayton Road, a last-of-the-season thistle seems to thrive. Winter won't bother it a bit. I'll find it on a pleasant January day just as green as it appears above. Because it hangs low in this rosette form, it seems to be protected from the winter's cold. When spring at last returns, it will have a jump start on the other weeds.

Taking a closer look at the thistle (above), actual ice crystals stab out from the leaves. The sun had just risen as I took this picture and even now, as I type this, the ice will be melted and the ground merely wet.

Grasses, too, hold their seeds high and are an attractive spot for frost to form. Their gorgeous yellows and browns are brightened by the ice and stand like jewels in the cold sunshine.

A closer look at the grass shows a sparkling ice fringe along every surface. For a few moments the sun will highlight the overnight work of the cold and then it will dissolve to dew and by afternoon be dry and fall-like again.

Above is a chart of our indoor temperatures* since the remnants of Hurricane Ike blew through this area on September 14. We have added no heat (nor a/c) in that time. This is the normal daily fluctuation of our second floor. The up/down gyrations are days when the sun was brightest (the two odd upwards-curved straight lines are missing data). Look particularly at the last few days. On 10/15 it read 77 in the house; this morning it read 60. I suppose that doesn't say much for our insulation. On the other hand, it's cost us nothing in heating cost the past week but only because we are willing to be colder than is comfortable.

Finally (above) is the outside temperature curve for the past 24 hours. The high shown on the graph is 61; the low is 30. So we not only had our first frost of the season, we also had our first freeze.

* The temperature data (as well as all weather data) is read automatically every five minutes with a LaCrosse Weather Station.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Germantown's Oktoberfest 2008

It's the last call for people to enjoy an evening outdoors. Germantown's Oktoberfest this year was met with partly cloudy skies and cool temperatures (upper 50's). The usual crowds showed up for the 3 p.m. start, especially for the car show. Pictured below is Center St.

Main Street (below) is where most of the vendors gather: food mostly! A number of Germantown restaurants had specials for the evening.

Darryl & The Desirables, a 60's era band, took center stage at 4 p.m. and played for a couple of hours. The guys range from 61 to 70. When they first formed, it was the British Invasion that changed musical tastes enough that they disbanded. Now their music is popular again: do-wop, top 40 tracks from the 1950'and 1960's. All of the guys hail from the Germantown & Farmersville area. Their pounding beat is infectious.

Looking west on Market Street, cars line both sides of the roadway. Good thing, too. It makes walking along and enjoying the antique cars much safer.

At the southeast corner of Center and Main is what used to be the Germantown Opera House, now Rudy's. They brought tables out onto the street and were serving good food when we walked by.

In front of the Germantown Public Library (right side of shot below), were more rows of classic cars. Actually some of them aren't that old but they're all well cared for.

Another band takes stage at 6 p.m. (Billy Myers 'Road Kill') and the festivities go on until 8:30 p.m. By then, it'll probably be too cold to walk the streets without a heavy jacket.

And so with this, the festival season ends for this year.

(Germantown's 2008 Oktoberfest was held Saturday, October 18)

Hunter's Moon

During the past week we had the Full Hunter's Moon of October. The moon was so bright as it rounded the house to the south that I could barely sleep. I'd wake, watch the shadow unfold a little farther west, and then drift off again.

On Tuesday (10/14) we had our full moon at 4:02 p.m. (EDT) and it was as bright as a winter's moon. And yet the weather was warm (high = 80, low = 60) and summer-like.
This morning as I walked to Hemple, I noticed the moon already swung to the west, not too many hours from setting. It shone through the trees in Sam Mink's woods, pure white against the fading gold leaves. The picture above shows it against the maples at the north end of the woods, hovering over the uncut corn field.

Then, walking home and peering through the woods. the moon seems to hang among the limbs. Today (10/18) it is Waning Gibbous, already reduced to 81% of it's full self. As the light fades to the left, the moon hovers 226,780 miles away.
Because of the clearing skies, tonight may give us our first frost of the season. My walk was cool (52 at 10:30 a.m.) and a little breezy. If it stays clear and calms, I expect the ground to be white when the sun shines again. We'll see. The average first frost date for Farmersville is 10/06 based on 34 years of my own records (partly collected in Miamisburg and Moraine and since 1987 at this location).

Friday, October 17, 2008

Pinehaven Applesauce Raisin Cupcakes

My favorite dessert - bar none - is a recipe for an applesauce raisin cupcake we've modified and enhanced over the years. I first remember Mom making it when I was a young kid. I was pretty taken with it then (though it was originally iced; a bad idea!). Here is the item as we know it today (and we know it pretty often): the Pinehaven Applesauce Raisin Cupcake.

Over the years, we've found the perfect ratio of ingredients and baking time. I make them larger than the originals. Here I am (below) a couple of hours ago pulling a fresh tray out of the oven. The aroma - apples and cinnamon - is a fall favorite and permeates the house at the moment. You're going to want to try these!

Pinehaven Applesauce Raisin Cupcakes

1/2 cup shortening (use one stick margarine)
1 cup sugar
1 egg
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1-1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
pinch clove (ground)
1 cup applesauce
1/2 cup raisins (we use part dried cranberries) *
chopped walnuts as desired

Cream together shortening and sugar (we melt margarine in microwave)
Add egg, beat well by hand (use a large spoon)
Add baking soda, salt, cinnamon and clove, stir well
Add applesauce, stir

Add flour, stir

Add raisins, nuts, stir

Place paper cupcake liners into a 12-cup pan
Spoon in enough mixture to almost fill each

Bake 25 minutes at 375 degrees
After removing from oven, let sit in pan for 5 minutes
Remove from pan and let cool

Makes exactly one dozen

* Raisins can be made more moist by microwaving them in a little water; pour off the water before adding to the recipe

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Nightfall in the country

As I was driving home from Miamisburg last evening (10/13) at about 7 p.m., the setting sun lit layers of clouds from the bottom and they took on a velvet sheen, purple beyond belief, but only for a few minutes. I was still miles away from my camera so I knew I had missed the peak. But in these shots you'll have some idea of the type of evening we enjoyed.

The picture above is looking west from our back yard, a row of pines edging the property. The tree on the far right is the double-ash that I wrote about in Pinehaven. It is really two trees and the southern one leafs out earlier in the spring and, depending on the year, looses its leaves first in the fall. It seems as though a single tree had been split up the middle.

Walking behind (west of) that tree and looking west across the just-cut corn field, the clump of trees a third of a mile distance (on the left) is on the property of our neighbor, Sam Cornett. I walk back his lane almost daily and use a point just back of that as a turn-around spot. It's a wonder I haven't worn the gravel out.

Then, turning left (south), I shot from behind the row of pines to a farm well to our south and on Farmersville-West Carrollton Road. The crops are in; we are only now awaiting cold weather and the start of another snowy winter. Soon I will not be able to see the corn stubble, deeply buried beneath the white drifts.

Finally, walking back into the yard, I shot Pinehaven (looking east) with a backdrop of a rising full moon. We had just driven in minutes before so the garage light is lit (it is connected to an infra-red sensor that "watches" over the driveway apron and not only switches on two lights but rings a chime in the house). It has its uses: we know when someone has driven into the driveway ... we know when a deer walks by ...and we know when the Sunday paper is delivered to our back porch at 3 a.m.

Colors of Fall (in and out)

Our Fall coloration isn't what we've come to expect most years. It's been too dry for too long. Still, one of the sugar maples I planted in a row to our north has changed to a lovely shade of red-orange and is almost startling against the plain green-yellow of the weeds.

I planted two rows of maples, actually - about 20 years ago - and these were to serve as my "sugar bush" in the distant future. Well, that time is here and the trees are still quite small, much too tiny to be tapped in the spring. So my hope of collecting sap, boiling it down to syrup and having maple sweetener for my pancakes has been thwarted by not-enough-time-left in my life. No matter! Someone will enjoy these and it will be me who they should thank.

The colors of fall are here all the while, just waiting for the chlorophyll to leave: carotenoids (yellow), anthocyans (red) and anthophylls (orange) now shine on the surface and give a last shout before the first frost.

On our inside porch, Mom's Cymbidium orchid is now beginning to bloom and it is with similar colors of the maple. I remember buying this plant many years ago at an orchid show at the Dayton Mall. I was attracted to it's unusual orange-red coloration. But I thought we'd never actually see it bloom again.

But here it is once again, as it is every fall, and I have Mom to thank for her tender care of this plant. She carries it out on the back porch each spring when the days grow warm and the plant responds at once, greening and looking particularly happy with the outdoor air. There it sits all summer, beneath the shade of the maple, happily soaking in the summer air. A few weeks ago she brought it back inside.

One day recently she came to me and said it was getting ready to bloom again (she can spot it almost before the plant knows it) and we've watched the buds swell. Now, one flower is open.

It is a natural proof that at all times we must look beneath the surface.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Taking a Closer Look

Back on September 14, after the remnants of Hurricane Ike blew through the Miami Valley with 80 mph winds, I found the oldest pine at the Farmersville-Jackson Twp. Park had been topped by the storm. Within a few days, someone came by with a chain saw and began clearing the limbs that blocked the walking path.

Yesterday when walking by the cut limbs which are still propped up against the tree, I noticed that sap had begun to flow from the cuts. Taking a closer look, I marveled at the beauty of the sticky flow. Beads of sap have coalesced on the cut and have something of the color of honeycomb.

Remember the story of how amber forms, how prehistoric insects were trapped in the goo - which later dried into golden gems - and carried the bugs through time? Here is the first stage of that epic unfolding at eye level. This is a time machine aimed at the future.

Below you can see icicles of sap - sticky stalactites - dripping from the cut. Since the sap is newly flowed, it is clean and pure and almost has the transparency of water. Here is a shot of the bright sky reflected in the oozing sap. Who could draw as beautiful a picture as nature regularly sketches with no more tools than time?

Finally, so you can see the whole cut I've included it below. I suppose this winter it will warm some stove. But in the meantime, I'm enjoying the jewels that have formed beside my walking path.

Mantids & Space Station

Every year at this time I have to watch for Praying Mantis when I'm walking at the park. In fact, that's the only place I see them any longer. They'll come out onto the walkway when the sun has warmed it and I suppose that is the real attraction. This first one was very pale in color, almost white as I approached. It looked up at me tentatively as I swung the large lens down towards it but it didn't budge.

The Praying Mantis's scientific name is just what you'd expect: Mantis religiosa. It's also commonly known as the European Mantid. Before 1899, you'd not have found this insect in the United States (it came over with nursery stock from Europe). The fellow below is of the more common coloration we see in these parts.

One of the reasons the bugs aren't very common, I understand, is that they are cannibalistic. You'd think natural selection would have none of that but I suppose there's another purpose: controlling their numbers.

As a child, I vividly remember capturing Praying Mantis's in glass jars and they were the greatest trophy of all (lightning bugs came in a close second). Watching a Praying Mantis up close is like coming across an alien: their head turning reminds me of the way a dog often responds to the spoken word. "Treat? Did I hear the word treat?"

Below are two cropped shots from a pass of the International Space Station over our area on Sunday (10/05). This first shot shows it approaching from the NW at about 9:42 p.m. This is a 15 second exposure. "Expedition 17" is aboard at the moment and making plans to depart; Expedition 18 crew members are set to launch Sunday.

The shot below is interesting because the ISS was scheduled to pass into the earth's shadow while it was well overhead my location. It finally faded from view at 9:44 p.m. at an elevation of 48 degrees (this shot is facing NNE). It would appear to be a meteor traveling to the left but instead it is fading as it moved right (east) in this frame.

It's amazing what we can see in the night sky if we take the time to plan ahead. I use the satellite predictions at: http://heavens-above.com because they are accurate to the second. I've wasted time with other web sites and I have yet to find an error in Heavens Above predictions. If you're interested in seeing the Space Station - or even the Hubble Telescope - have a look there.

Time spent in your back yard, if it's dark enough, will be time well spent.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Night & Strange Orbs of Light

Last evening after the sun set, I walked out into the yard to admire the night sky - crystal clear and of that azure blue that promises a cold morning. With the corn newly-cut. the open vistas draw me out again and again, to see old sights that seem new again.

In this picture above, taken from our back porch, you can see a mercury vapor light in the distance (far left). That's something we won't have. When we moved here, we had the barn lot lit with one of those but I found the security not half so pleasing as the dark. So I cut the line, added a switch and have let it turned off for ten years at least. I was never happy with the violet glow it gave to the sky nor the shadows it cast in the house. Give me a night that is dark!

In the foreground of the picture (look closely!) is the silhouette of the satellite dish (slightly left of center) which allows for something that passes for entertainment even here in the country. I wouldn't pay for it but for the fact that my father is nearly housebound and it passes the evening hours with some enjoyment.

The satellite dish is pointing just about where the moon is in this picture, way down in the southwestern sky. It's just picking out a point 90% closer than the moon.

Walking into the front yard and standing beside our main flower bed, I looked west at the north side of the house. The sun has long set but the orange glow hasn't yet faded from the sky. Our maple, at the edge of the kitchen, spreads its limbs far and wide. It's just beginning to turn and soon there will be nothing more than thin branches overhead.

At night, Pinehaven takes on an almost-spooky look. In my two decades here, I do not remember taking a nighttime photograph of the house before. Each evening we light two "candle lamps" in the front living room windows and leave them on until bedtime. Those two lower windows encompass the length of the living room, all twenty-five feet of it. When the house was built - about 1891 - there was a door where the fireplace chimney is and the living room was then two rooms.

I noticed upon taking this shot that there were odd circles of light floating about the scene. Above the house, even in this reduced shot, you can see two - one on either side of the chimney. What are they? The sky was perfectly clear and I saw nothing as I stood there. Could it be insects reflected in the flash?

Here are full-resolution views of these "orbs" - the shot below show what are actually two on the right and the last gives a full-res look at the one on the left (the edge of the roof is visible in that cropped image as well):

So, what have we here? We've known the Milkman (read the book!) prowls inside the house at night but what is this above the roof?

As we approach Halloween, I suppose it's the right time to make a discovery of this sort.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Corn Harvest

It all comes down to today. Back in May, when the seeds were placed into the ground, it was today the farmer was looking forward to. Throughout the summer, when the soil was first too wet and then suddenly turned too dry, it was today that was on his mind. And two weeks ago, when the remnants of Hurricane Ike blew through the Miami Valley, it was today he thought about. What would there be to harvest; what would there be to show for all the work?

So this morning, when I heard the harvester fire up nearby, I knew today was that day so long dreamed of, so long worried about. I first saw the machine coming east in the field to our south, bringing a load to the bins that sat along S. Clayton Road.

Here D.R. Coffman has finished a row and heads to dump the corn into a waiting hopper, where his wife waits eagerly.

As he pulls through the last of the row, you can watch the entire stalks quake and fall to the metal. How amazing to design a machine that knows the difference between corn, leaves and stalk. The trick is, I understand, the different weights of each and the ability to sort while still in motion. The waste is blown back onto the soil, the golden corn carried until the harvester can hold no more.

Here, Coffman unloads what he's gathered in a pass or two. Can you imagine the awe a farmer from the 19th century would feel upon seeing such a behemoth? How much time did they spend manually cutting the corn, taking the ears, stacking the stalks? It was a beautiful sight, indeed, but the work expended must have been enormous.

Now, of course, we have $250,000 machines and expensive fuel to consider but the efficiency of the operation is enormous. According to Iowa State University, the yield per acre of corn for the United States was 152.8 bushels per acre in 2007. Go back even to 2000 and the number was 136.9.

But drop back further still - to 1960 - and U.S. farmers managed only 54.7 bushels per acre. The yield has nearly tripled in less than 50 years.

Right now, 160 bushels per acre is achievable.

And so the corn flows and fills the waiting bins and D.R.'s wife might pull them to the grain bins while he continues to harvest. This is a two person operation, accomplishing more in minutes than a family might have traditionally managed in a day.

The low corn seems to be picked up by the harvester easily. I thought that the stalks, felled by the hurricane, might spell the end of the crop. Not so. It seems to be about easily collected as any year. D.R. has just adjusted for the height of the corn - low indeed! - but it seems no problem for modern technology.

The end result is the ear shown below. I walked behind Pinehaven while D.R. was still working the south field, and found the husks full and golden. The entire season comes down to those rows of kernels. And it all comes down to today.