Friday, November 28, 2008

Venus - Jupiter (again)

If you've read the blog from earlier today, you've watched Venus begin to overtake Jupiter as I photographed it last night. Here are photos taken just a few minutes ago. First (below) is a wide angle shot of the two planets in the southwestern sky, Venus below. They will be vertically lined in the next day and a half. Too bad my weather is not going to cooperate. This will probably be my last view of the conjunction, but sans the Moon.

Punching in a little telephoto and the two planets resolve a little bit. It was chilly (32 degrees) as I stood in the backyard and shot these. But it was pleasantly calm and clear. Just about perfect but for our neighbor, Sam, who chose this moment to drive out his lane. I knelt and enjoyed the view while I waited for his truck to pass and motor north on S. Clayton Road.

Finally, I wanted to have a closer look at Venus. This is a 12x shot with the camera alone; no telescope is needed to see that Venus is a disk and not a point of light like a star. Compare it, in fact, to the stars that share this frame. One star (just to the left of Venus) looks as though it will soon be occluded or perhaps grazed by Venus passing just above.

So much for this astronomical event unless the weather forecast is totally bogus. But what an excellent view, even without the moon joining in!

ADDED (11/30): Last evening I saw that it was still going to be clear so I went out again, camera on tripod, and took some more pictures. In the first shot (below) you can see how Venus has moved left of Jupiter and how, on the far right, the crescent Moon has joined the two in the sky. This picture, taken at 6:13 p.m., is just prior to moonset.

And this shot (below), taken from our back porch, shows the planets sandwiched in between our now-leafless Sycamore and a pine (that's the roof of the barn to the right on the pine).

And so that's likely the end of it for me. Clouds moved in overnight and it's been raining most of the morning. There's almost no chance I'll have another look at this conjunction.
On the WCPO (Cincinnati, channel 9) morning news, they mentioned how they had received numerous calls about the two lights in the southwestern sky. Doesn't anyone follow astronomical happenings any longer? What could be more exciting than the chance alignment of two planets, all visible from our own backyard?

ADDED (#2): Saved by Jerry Drumheller, a friend at Cornell University (Ithaca, NY), who took the shot below as he was leaving Carpenter Hall (the Engineering Library) and heading home for the day. He took this picture as he walked across the parking lot. Finally, a view of all three objects as they huddled closely. Thanks, Jerry!

Venus - Jupiter Conjunction

I have been anticipating all week the conjunction of Venus, Jupiter and the Moon. The trouble is, the three will come together in the southwest sky late Sunday and into Monday and we'll have clouds and snow by then. So my chance to see their progress is now.
Below is how the two planets were positioned on Sunday, 11/23:

And here (below) is the same shot without the text labels. This picture was taken from our backyard, aimed over the pines that line the southwest corner of the property.

Venus is 94 million miles away and clearly the brighter of the two planets; Jupiter is 540 million miles away. Seen from this perspective, Venus appears to be traveling slightly up and to the left. Given enough time (another week), Venus would be below and to the left of Jupiter. The crescent moon will add itself and make a trio, appearing slightly above and to the left of the two planets.

Moving forward four days (to 11/27), it's pretty clear how far left Venus has moved (above). It's still right and below Jupiter but catching up fast. It will be below Jupiter on 11/30 but I fear the clouds will prevent my seeing it.
This conjunction is not unusual except that it is so high in the sky and so clearly visible. This particularly close alignment won't happen again until November 18, 2052. It is also interesting that the three objects happen to be the three brightest objects in the night sky.
A particularly good simulation of how the three objects are coming together is available on YouTube and you can watch it by clicking here.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Freeze Up!

The pond is now frozen. Whether it stays that way depends strictly on the weather.

As we walked about the path today, it was 41 degrees and the breeze, slight as it was, came from the southwest. But two nights this past week had lows of 10 and 12 and it doesn't take many of those for a small pond to respond. What first was a thin layer of ice - so delicate it looked like it might be disrupted by a breath - has deepened and strengthened until we have today a substantial layer. The early ice has a particular gleam to it, a clean shine that it will lose when the first snow falls on its surface. Twigs and pine needles will tarnish the reflection, too. But right now it is a delicate blue, able to pick up the distant trees and still give a muted reflection.

Along the southern end of the pond, the cattails are blasted by the early cold and stand stark and dry. The insects are all gone, the frogs no longer call and today even the birds were silent. Even so, there is a certain warmth to this scene when the sun is low and late-day orange.
In another month, the ice itself will disappear beneath the snow and only the faint outline of the pond will remain. It might as well then be an open field. I wonder what the fish think, this gradual chilling and clouding of their world? Where has the sun gone for so long? When will a beam again pierce the darkness?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

ISS/Shuttle Pass Overhead

On Sunday (11/23/08) evening, just after sunset, we had an excellent pass of the International Space Station occur. I had received an e-mail from a friend in Pennsylvania about the evening prior, how beautiful and bright the ISS was as it crossed his sky. As these orbits come in clusters - passes will all be just before sunrise, just after sunset or not at all - I figured there would be another nice pass that night. I looked it up on Heavens Above and indeed there was.

When I first went outside, this is the view I had to the southwest. You can barely see it in this reduced shot, but both Jupiter and Venus hung nearby one another in a beautiful celestial display. The sky was fairly clear (and cold); there were just a few long, whispy clouds passing by.

The actual pass of the ISS began at 5:57 p.m. (10 degrees WSW). Below as a 4 second time exposure (the sky was still too bright to do extended exposures).

The ISS was highest in our sky at 6:00 p.m. (50 degrees NW) but I waited until it had passed towards the NE before taking more photos. This one (belwo) was taken towards the NE as it dropped lower and lower in the sky, seeming to come in for a landing in Dayton's glow. At the top right of the picture, you can see a jet enter the frame, it's lights blinking on and off.

Taking a closer look at the jet, there is enough detail to see the seperation between the white lights on either wing. I should have zoomed in and tried for even more detail.

Finally - with a tip of the hat to Heavens Above - here's the ground track for this ISS pass. When the odd directions seem deceiving (WSW->NW->NE), you need only look at the ground track to clear up the path in your mind.

This particular pass ended for me at 6:02 p.m. (11 degrees NE) when the ISS passed into the Earth's shadow. This pass, by the way, was one with the Shuttle docked there. I suppose it makes the object appear even brighter.
In any case, I was glad to get back inside because the night air was particularly chilling.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Fall Hangs on; Wintry Day

It is still fall, of course, but it is the temperatures which have have fallen off a cliff. Where we had a high on Friday of 62 degrees, it is but 36 as I type this only forty-eight hours later. When we drove through Kettering today, a snow shower dropped flakes at a significant enough rate that the roadway was momentarily covered. The wind whipped the snow around like it was a January day.
I have been admiring the color of an oak in front of the Germantown Public Library for the past couple of weeks but have never had my camera with me when I was there. Today I returned armed. I thought that the wind or the snow might have ruined the display but the old tree has hung tough, still holding its golden ruddy leaves high. I love how the veins have maintained their greenish tint.

Up close, the leaves are multi-shaded and as tough as thin leather. One year, when we lived in Miamisburg and had a Pin Oak (some French version that I can no longer remember), Mom collected the brown leaves at Thanksgiving time and used them as place settings, writing down names on each one with a black marker.
Our own oak at the end of the driveway, carried home almost 22 years ago, fools us with its display. The leaves - just like our Miamisburg oak - turn a lovely brown and taunt us with their tenacity. Then, with one particularly cold night, maybe followed by a rainy day, they all drop at once. I'd love to have an oak again that holds its leaves until the new ones are ready in the spring.

The other examples of oak we have here at Pinehaven were all collected from the nearby woods. They're natural to the area, offspring of the very trees that have been there for centuries, and they, too, hold their leaves until the last minute - until the weather gets too harsh - and then lose them all at once.

So what of the Germantown oak? It does the same. We watch a squirrel every year collecting acorns from this very tree and we saw him a few days ago putting away his last minute stores. The oak's purpose is more to the squirrel's benefit than it is to mine. I merely watch and enjoy; he dines.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Juniper Berries

Walking again at the pond, I've watched the juniper berries mature and now they hang in blue blankets against the green. It is a startling sight, this contrast of colors, and I can never let the sky-blue berries with their whisper of white dust go. For an instant the sun shone and the cold wind let me alone long enough to take this picture.

These berries are, I am sure you know, the stuff of gin. That seems foreign enough to me - and the bushes do, too - but it is that blushed berry that I cannot pass by. These berries are the foodstuff of winter animals so they are good for more than the looking. I have never tasted a berry but suppose that I should. I might then have a taste of gin tonic, without the gin, without the tonic.

This "Common Juniper" is not all that common around here. I've seen it numerous times at the Germantown MetroPark (not five miles away from our park). And yet it grows around here wild and will become quite tall (25' surely) if left alone enough years. It startles me with it's late season blue-ness, the color of chicory flowers beside the road or the hint of low-bush blueberries, coated with yeast, along the Appalachian Trail. In any case, there is nothing common about this bush at all. What gives us year-round green with such a gorgeous display of fruit so late in the season?

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

It's Spring at the Pond

Our usual walk at the pond today was met with excellent weather, very spring-like. It was 70 degrees and sunny as we stepped from the car.

This shot of the pines reflected in the pond may not speak of the pleasant temperature, but they do show how calm the air was. Actually. after I took this shot and began walking around the south edge of the pond, a sudden breeze blew up and ruffled the water so it wasn't nearly so pretty.
The weekend promises a little rain (how badly we need it) and much colder temperatures, as much as a 30 degree drop. So our pleasant walks sans coats are going to be limited soon.

Thank You America!

I have had an emotional day, one that began last evening and one that continues to the current moment. But it's all tempered, all made right, by the votes that I find totaled in the right column. We made history yesterday!
Coming home late from a meeting I covered for the newspaper, I sat myself down in front of the TV and began watching election coverage on CNN and ABC. Mom went to bed at about 8:30 p.m. and asked to be awakened when the results were in.
By 10:30 p.m., with Obama's lead grown to more than double McCain's, I thought it safe to go to bed. I took my iPod Touch along, plugged it into its AC adapter and turned on the clock radio, too.
By 10:55 a.m. I listened to a local broadcaster interview a journalist in Washington. The last question asked of him: "When do you think we'll know who won?" The answer: "Listen to Fox News at 11 p.m."
Of course the news was good: Obama was chosen our next president. History made in our own time. I looked at CNN on the web and they were still hedging their bets. The BBC, however, made the same announcement as Fox. It was over.
I walked into Mom's bedroom, woke her and told her Obama was the president-elect. Going downstairs, I informed Dad, too (he was still awake, said he couldn't sleep with all the excitement).
I listened to the radio for another hour. First McCain's touching concession speech and then Obama's wonderful speech from Chicago's Grant Park.
Even before I drove to my meeting I had walked out to Clayton Road and took down our Obama sign. It had been vandalized once (run over by a gray truck while I watched from the front window) and then wholly taken last Saturday night. But we had a second in the garage. Freedom of speech?
Could this thing even be possible? This was a perfect political storm: war, economy, a bright young man. Obama came along at just the right time and just as Lincoln set the stage with his 1858 debates with Douglas, so too did Obama with his convention speech four years ago.
I have a renewed sense of hope that the world's opinion of America will rise again, that our opinion of ourselves will improve, that our "can do" will return.
We did the right thing yesterday. We truly made history.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Pinehaven Apple Dumplings

It's fall and apples are in and we've been to Crossroads Orchard in Miamisburg twice. We bought the tart Johnathans earlier and now we have some beautiful Winesaps left. What dessert would fit the season better than our Pinehaven Apple Dumplings?
Actually, the recipe is pretty generic and is adapted from several Mom's been making over the years. I can remember these even when I was young. I thought they were too good to be true! My mother could make something like this? Of course, now so can I.

So you have some idea what the end result is going to look like, the apple dumpling pictured above was eaten by me earlier this afternoon (sorry folks). But I'll tell you what I'll do as compensation: I'll show you how to make them.

OK, one more look before we dig into the recipe. See that spoonful of apples on the right? Yum!

I should tell you right off that Mom prefers them less sweet and less spicy than Dad and I do. She adds only a sprinkle of sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg to the mound of apples before they're pinched into the dough. I'm quite a bit more liberal. I want them sweet! So, use the word "scant" if you like but the recipe shown probably is a little lighter than I go on the spices. I want these things to stick to my ribs!

Pinehaven Apple Dumplings

2 cups water
1-1/4 cups sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
4 - 8 drops red food coloring
1/4 cup margarine (that's 1/2 stick)
2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup shortening (Crisco)
1/2 cup milk
6 small apples (Winesap are great)

Making the syrup:
Mix water, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and food coloring.
Cook about 5 minutes, remove from heat, add margarine.

Making the dough:
Mix flour, baking powder and salt.
Cut in shortening with a fork, a little at a time.
Mixture will be crumbly.
Add milk, stir lightly.
On floured pastry cloth roll to a rectangle (about 12" x 18").
Cut into six squares (6 - 6").

On each dough square, place mound of apples.
Sprinkle with sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg, dot with margarine.
Bring corners of dough up and pinch to seal (they will be irregular).

Baking: (* can be frozen and baked later)
Place in pan (all six will fit in a 13 x 9 x 2" pan) but we bake in two
smaller pans.
Pour syrup over dumplings.
Bake at 375° for 35 - 40 minutes.

A Final Fall Walk at the Pond

Today was certainly one of the last walks at the park where we could enjoy the scenery without the need for coats. In fact, a jacket was too heavy. As we started on the south side of the park and went clockwise along the path, I decided to record the prettiest sights I saw.
I first came upon this crab apple beside the pond, its fruit bright red against the light blue sky and darker shades of water. This is certainly our Indian Summer: we've had freezing weather and now we're almost as warm as 70 degrees.

On the northeast side of the park, just beginning to walk with the sun in our faces, the red leaves of the trees (maples) were lit from behind and so bright as to almost require a squint. In another few days, the leaves will be gone and the picture painted here will be no more than a fond memory.

Nearing the pond again, this time on the east side, I saw a last-of-the-season dandelion gone to seed ... holding out hope for next spring.

The cattails, too, have been "burnt" by the cold nights. All their summer green is gone. Though the water looks inviting on this warm day but it is but an illusion: it would already be so cold as to be numbing.

I enjoyed, too, time in the yard. I dragged the last of the downed limbs to a pile in the meadow and raked where they have been stacked since the winds of 9/14. I also re-stacked one of the wood piles which had fallen over. I added wood that was cut last summer (see 7/12/08). It's been stacked right near where it was cut and it's bothered me every time I passed it. So, with warm weather and no excuses I could think of, I got that project finished before winter, too.

A couple of miles beneath my feet today, too, as I thought I'd better burn a few extra calories before the winter winds start blowing. It's so easy to eat (and sit) and so hard to exercise.

Following Mom's Orchid

Once Mom's orchid begins blooming (see 10/14), we know we are in for weeks of enjoyment. This first photo (below) was taken on 10/13. A flower has just opened but a cluster of buds awaits.

Here's a different flower (10/21, below) fully opened and as pretty as can be.

And finally a picture I took a few minutes ago (11/01, below) with the far left bud on the photo above opened. The flower you see above is beginning to fade and is off the frame to the right of this shot.

This orange/red Cimbidium always takes my breath away, with its depth of color and staying power. This flowering sequence has already lasted over two weeks and we have at least that long to go. Right now the vivid color is mimicking the last of the fall leaves. Or is it simply early for the Christmas season?