Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Orion !

Monday evening was cold and the wind was blowing from the west but since it is the time of Orion, I couldn't help but go out and have a leisurely look at the most beautiful of constellations. I walked into the driveway, sat my tripod and camera up there and let my eyes adjust to the dark. Orion is so bright - and the night sky was so clear - that this took no time at all.
A close-up (12x) of the "belt" is below (at the bottom of this page is a whole frame shot).

The three stars in the belt are Mintaka (top to bottom), Alnilam and Alnitak. Though they appear about equally bright, they are actually very widely spaced. From top to bottom again, they are 916, 1342 and 817 light years away.
The three stars to the right (pointing to about 5 o'clock) point out the location of the Great Nebula of Orion. It's pretty much centered there, favoring the bottom right. I hoped the camera would pick up some of the colors of the nebula in this 15 second exposure. But that is apparently not long enough.

In this wide view of the entire constellation, the four corner stars are well-known guides. Beginning on the left side of the screen that's Betelgeuse (427 LY) and then going clockwise: Bellatrix (243 LY), Rigel (772 LY) and Saiph (721 LY).
What appears a grouping of stars to us - with it's two distinctive straight lines - is actually an odd assortment of widely diverse stars. There is no constellation at all but from our vantage point.
Still, Orion is the first grouping I remember as a child (unless the Big Dipper came first) and it is the one I watch for each winter. I find nothing so endlessly fascinating as this brilliant group. It is the sign of winter.
There is a constancy in watching for Orion, a satisfaction that the universe goes on unperturbed. What historical figure hasn't admired these stars? What future generation won't look upon them with the same satisfaction as I?

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Deer That Got Away

I've found few things through the years that I hate more than hunting. I can't imagine why the human race eats meat, in fact. When I walked along the treeline at the edge of the field to the west of our house a few weeks ago, I was surprised to come upon a deer stand. Whose was it? When was it placed here?
I've watched through the trees during those weeks checking to see whether there was a dark form perched there. But, no, the stand has been forever empty.
It's a metal stand and attached quite firmly to a tree and I suppose it will remain there through the hunting season, however long that lasts.

As I approached the spot - wanting to see whether the stand was still there and camera in hand - I heard a crunching sound as two squirrels scampered through the leaf litter. Wouldn't it be funny, I thought, if there was a deer there, too, when the hunter was not?

That's when, just beneath the stand, two deer rose and stood not fifteen feet away from me! One bound into the field, ran to the west, stopped, turned and watched me from a distance (see above). The other deer must have run toward Clayton Road to the east or else stood still within the woods.

I put 12x into the camera and took the shot above. The deer stood there some minutes watching me attentively, ears scanning. When at last I turned and began walking away, she, too, relaxed and began walking back towards the woods.
What is there in human nature that would prompt us to kill one of these beautiful creatures? Or any creature? I've lived well on a vegetarian diet alone for 40 years.
I remember when we first moved here, hunters arrived on Thanksgiving Day and how I called the police and cleared them out. Perhaps they had permission - we only own a small plot - but they left just the same. Other times, when I thought hunters were about, I was sure to complete outdoor work, and do it noisily!

Friday, December 26, 2008

Miami Valley Moors?

We have switched our weather again, from bitterly cold and dry to warm and wet. It is 40 as I type and tomorrow we're supposed to see upper-60's. How is this possible?
Leaving for the grocery store in Miamisburg it was merely rainy. Returning we found heavy fog. The pines at the front drip constantly. Have a look:

Behind Pinehaven, the field is obscured by the moisture and seems to disappear right beyond our property, as the trees designate a transition to eternity. The land falls away in corn stubble and then there is nothing beyond but gray-white.

Coming upon the house from the south, beside the barn, the sycamore, too, drips constantly. The seed balls, once held high, have dropped in the wind and now cover the ground. One branch hangs between me and the house, as though barring my way.

In the past month, we've had over 4.5" of precipitation, almost all as rain. Our normal precipitation for December is just under 3". So we are ending the year with an excess of moisture. A day such as this makes the hair frizzy and the jackets hang limp. But at least it is a break; it is not cold.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Jack Frost's Fingers

I hope I can call last night a "worst case" scenario for this winter's weather. Actually, I hope that description fits for the next decade of so.
We had two Arctic cold fronts pass through in the past day. At 3 a.m. on 12/21 we were at 31. Twelve hours later we had fallen to 14. The trouble wasn't the temperature so much as the wind: it gusted as high as 43 mph giving us wind chills to -25.
Last evening we watched the thermometer continue its dive: by 9 p.m. it was 1 degree and the poor furnace, which tried nobly to hold our 64 degree setting, finally decided enough was enough. The thermostat in the dining room fell to 63 and the furnace - already switched to electrical back-up - ran without stop.

Time to do something! The "Pipe Brigade" - which I wrote about in Pinehaven - was called into action. We fired up two portable kerosene heaters, placing one near the bathroom door and the other at the north side of the kitchen. Each was turned low, just enough to add some needed supplemental heat. I put an electrical heater (upright, oil-filled) on the enclosed porch and turned the 600 watt switch on. I pushed two panels out of the ceiling so that some heat would rise into the pipes in the second floor bathroom. Finally, a trouble light and muffin fan were turned on beneath the first floor bathtub to keep those pipes warmed, too.

Both Dad and I were nervous about all the equipment running, especially the kerosene heaters, so I lay a blanket on the living room floor, got two pillows from my bed, pulled an electric throw atop me, and slept right there. The last time I slept in that same spot was the night of 12/31/86 when we first moved here.
At 2:15 a.m. I awoke to my alarm and checked the pipes. All was well. I climbed the steps and found that Mom had already checked the second floor plumbing. All was well there, too. By 5 a.m. Mom was awake and we traded places: she came downstairs and I went up to my bed.
So, what's the bottom line? Well, we used 241 KWh of electricity. At our current 9.6 cents/KWh the last 24 hours cost of $23.27. That's a lot of money but not quite as bad as I feared. I truly think this will serve as a worst case benchmark for electrical usage. We couldn't have turned much more on. Electricity costs will rise - and so will fuel oil - but I think we've now got a figure I can trust.
We bottomed out at zero. We should be getting up to about 39 on this date and as low as 19. So the 29 normal for this date can be compared to a figure I expect to come in at about 7 degrees for yesterday, 22 degrees below normal. This is December?
For my own notes, I've found that closing the door to the second floor allows the first floor furnace to cycle better, to have a rest. Since the second floor has its own furnace, there's no additional risk in doing this. With the door open, cold air seems to fall down the steps like an invisible ghost, blanketing the dining room and causing the thermostat there to keep the furnace running.
We'll have other very cold nights this winter but I'm hoping we've already recorded our worst.
By the way, the pictures I've posted are taken through the second floor bathroom window. Jack Frost's icy fingers have been busy there last night. The top picture is a higher-resolution image cropped from the second so you can better see the icy threads.
When I stepped into the shower this morning - not three feet from where this picture was taken - I heard the Fiberglas floor give an icy crunch. I think the bottom has a layer of frost on it where the wind made it into the west wall.
But given the conditions, we're pleasantly warm in Pinehaven this morning and the pipes are in fine shape. The Pipe Brigade is ever vigilant, of course, and that makes all the difference.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A Time of Ice

Tempus Fugit - time flies - I remember that from Dorothy Shattuck's Latin class at Miamisburg High School in 1964. But this sundial isn't showing how time flies but how it can drag in the winter, beneath a cloudy Miami Valley sky and a mist which has turned to ice for the past couple of days.

It is hard to get around outdoors. I have managed to stay in - except to get the mail, take out the trash and take these two pictures - working on newspaper projects that allow me to make do with phone calls. It's one of those rare times when people I call are home, too. But where - how - can they go?
I covered a meeting last evening for the paper and the drive home was slow. I covered the five miles (all in a straight line from parking lot to driveway) in about 15 minutes. A light mist fell but in the 24 degree air, it immediately coated all it touched with ice. One other driver - and I only saw one - passed me on the icy roads in a van. Idiot!
I was inside by 8:15 p.m. and that's where I've been since. There was little traffic last night. I didn't hear one car in the whole time I was going to sleep. Only toward morning did I again hear a vehicle pass. Schools, which were initially on a two hour delay, closed.

It doesn't look so bad, does it? Have a look at the shingles and you can get an idea of the icy coating. Grass blades stand stiff and brittle and crack as you step, Your footfalls immediately darken and your path remains etched for as long as it stays below freezing.
I first came outside when I heard the mail stop at our box. I walked to the window and saw him pass, deliver mail one house beyond and then I saw the little jeep leave the road. Soon I saw him backing up, going forward, backing up ... When he at last got back on the road, he was facing the wrong way. But, no matter. He drove back to the lane beside our house, turned around and tried again. This time he made it - slowly - beyond the fateful spot. "Neither rain nor snow ..."
It will warm again tomorrow, I suppose, and we'll be able to travel again. But for now it's good to be trapped. It's not so warm in here but it is sufficient but I am happy to have a roof over my head and a dry bed. These are the times that make me thankful for the least.

Friday, December 12, 2008

A Christmas Orchid?

Who needs a Christmas poinsettia when we have our own Christmas orchid?

Mom's Cymbidium, which I don't remember ever blooming during the holidays before, seems to have the Christmas spirit. It has managed the brightest reds I have seen from it and the timing is perfect. The picture (above), taken today (12/12) shows a couple of the flowers up close.

But there is a cluster of half a dozen flowers open at the moment. We keep it on the enclosed south porch which is not particularly warm (it was 53 when I took this picture, a bit cool for my liking). Apparently the orchid finds it perfect.

A few days ago (12/08) I took the shot above which shows the cluster of buds before they began bursting open. At that point we brought it inside for a few days and enjoyed it on the dining room table. But when the light was off, I worried that the spot was too dark and moved the flower back out to the porch.
This particular set of flowers actually began to show itself in late summer. By 10/14 it had put out its first bloom. Another round of blooms opened on 11/1 [note: both flowerings are noted on this blog]. So the actual blooming has now gone on for almost two months.
I eye the pretty poinsettias whenever I am at the grocery and then I think of the orchid and decide I don't need to buy another showy flower. We have all we need with this.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Flakes are Flying!

I love a woodpile and I suppose I grow even fonder of them when they begin to get covered with snow. Snuggled in that icy coat is the promise of heat. Thoreau (and others) said logs heat twice: once when they are cut and again when they are burned. As I cut these myself - along with my brother - and stacked them here myself, and will likely burn them before the winter is over, I know the true meaning of his words.

All the day the snow has been flying. It's light, to be sure, but it reminds us clearly that winter days are here. When we first woke, the ground was covered with a thin layer and throughout the daylight hours the flakes have been flying in fits and starts. It's a good way for winter to begin - a little hesitant. And yet the wind that carries these snow showers means business. It burrows beneath the layers of coats and causes you to rush to the next warm spot.

The pampas grass beside the henhouse had a short season to flower; it was quickly blasted by a heavy frost. And yet, protected as the spot is between henhouse and pines, this particular group of grass did manage flower heads and then seeds. Now those same flowers gather snow and shake it off in showers of their own when the wind finds them.

This ragweed hangs low with the snow it's collected and its days of bothering me with sneezing fits and runny eyes are over. Later in the winter, when the snow begins to melt, I'll cut the meadow with a scythe and it will start anew in April.
But that is a long way off and not quite in my ability to imagine yet. Walking from the car to New Lebanon's Christmas in the Village craft show at Dixie High School, proved difficult for the icy parking lot. Mom hung on to one arm and we counter-balanced the wind. Then a stop at the library proved equally challenging.
It's good to be inside for the day even though it's only 3 p.m. I'm already thinking of tonight when I can switch on the electric blanket and enjoy a warm bed. Such simple pleasures are made the more appealing by the snowflakes which are flying now.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Nippy Nights

We're off to a cold start for December. Last night we dipped to 13 degrees. I drove over to the pond today because it serves as sort of a real world thermometer for me. It responds slower than the mercury one and averages out the days and nights and seems to give me a truer picture of the weather.

I was overjoyed to find the pond's surface still clear but mottled by snow flakes, blown into tiny white clusters and breaking the surface up into a reflection you might find with a dirty mirror. The pines (above) along the western shore reflect beautifully on this mottled surface. better even, I think, than had it been crystal clear. It is not imperfect when it is more interesting this way.

And along the eastern shore, by the bridge where fishermen cast all summer long, the surface calls to skaters. They're not allowed, of course, but the call is clear just the same. When I walked near the pond a few days ago, it had begun to melt and the rocks thrown across the ice by children were dropping to the bottom one by one. Even a branch skidded across the surface rested at the edge of a break and threatened to submerge. Now it, too, is gone from view.

Stand beside the water and look down at your feet, half sunken in the slushy muck and then jump back a step or two to higher ground. Look into the water at the pond's edge and you will see clear to the bottom. The oranges of autumn are gone and replaced by winter's light blue and grays.
Often in bed at night, electric blanket turned high, I think of things outdoors. I listen to the rain patter upon the window, the drops turn to ice, the splash of a car passing Pinehaven. I think of trees being watered, the wind blowing snowflakes across the pond, its wintry surface a canvas for the night's weather. I think these things, appreciate the heat above me, pull the covers high across my head ... and smile.