Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Eve at Pinehaven

 Those of you who follow my posts - yet alone know me personally - know that we don't celebrate Christmas in the traditional sense, Even so, Mom insists on a small (artificial) tree, though last year we managed to discourage her putting it up at all.. Dad was ill and it seemed like too much so she dispensed with it. But not this year. I can tell you this: on Sunday she'll be putting everything away.
 That's not to say my attitude is entirely humbug. I enjoy a good light show as much as the next guy, just not so much of it and not so long. With decorations in full swing by Thanksgiving, I'm quite burnt out on the whole idea by the time Christmas arrives.
 On Tuesday evening I attended a New Lebanon council meeting for the DDN and I'll admit to standing outside my car admiring the lights beside the municipal pond. Their gazebo was lit with tiny white lights that glowed nicely in the cold night air.

 All alone there, I stood and enjoyed the lights as few minutes after the meeting concluded. Simplicity is the answer, isn't it? Had there been many colors and more lights they'd have not gained my attention at all.

 The community Christmas tree could not be more simple. Rather than wrap the strings of lights around the tree, a number of strands were dropped from the top. With the light snow reflecting the tiny bulbs, I couldn't help but enjoy the scene.
 We have no outdoor lights at all. Our few neighbors each seem to have marvelous displays but our house shines with three tiny candle lights placed in the living room windows. We'll keep two of them up throughout the year; only the one that is decorated with a Christmas theme will be put away in the trunk until next year.
 And so that is my meager celebration of Christmas comes to an end. I can acknowledge it briefly but no more.
 On to a new year!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Icy Fog

 Early this morning we left the house for breakfast at Miss Molly's Bakery & Cafe in Farmersville. I had not looked at the weather to any degree and was astounded by an icy fog that hung just above ground level. I didn't have my camera with me. Driving home from breakfast, traveling into the sunlight, I saw that the fog had not only lifted somewhat but was becoming lighter.
 Then, leaving for the grocery in Miamisburg, I made sure I had my camera along just in case.

 As we drove east on Farmersville-West Carrollton Road, still in Jackson Twp., I marveled at the wispy fog, rising off the snowy fields. It was still early enough that the sun had not completely destroyed its delicate nature. I looked for traffic and stopped in the middle of the road, rolled my window down and took this picture of a barn and its trailing fog.
 Had I time (I didn't) I'd have stopped and taken many more pictures, particularly of the weeds resplendent with hoarfrost. They gleamed in the rising sun like jagged diamonds. I figured as I approached the Great Miami River and Miamisburg, the fog would have thickened and offered more photographic opportunities. But no! The sky was nearly clear of fog.
 Last night's low was 5 degrees here at Pinehaven and our daily average a mere 16. Normal for today is 30.
 A week until Christmas and we already have the proper atmosphere for a very old fashioned one.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Downy Woodpeckers

 Each fall, we watch for the return of the downy woodpeckers to our suet feeder. We've found suet is the best attractant for this bird. There is a few day's delay after we hang the first cake of suet until a downy finds it. But from that point on, they are constant visitors throughout the winter.

 This downy (Picoides pubescens) is a male, obvious from the red patch on his nape. In his earliest visits to the feeder (such as this one), he's nervous and shy. The feeder is just outside the bay window at our kitchen sink, a place we spend a lot of time. Eventually the birds know we are there and cease to care. The food is much of a priority.

 This female came soon after the male. As the snow flew, she pecked at the fat and covered her beak with it. The female seems to remain more shy than the male, stays a little more skittish throughout the season.

The birds are small - about 6" tall and generally a sparrow-sized bird - and make a constant peep as they feed. Audubon describes the sound as "pik" but whatever it is, it continues between every bite. These are, by the way, the most abundant eastern woodpecker.

 Even on a dark day, when the wind is whistling from the west, the woodpeckers come for the easy handout. When this shot was taken, snow had filled the background and the temperature was quite cold (well down into the teens). As often as they visit, I am amazed that we are still on our first cake of suet.
 Other birds visit, too: common sparrows, titmice, nuthatches and the like. But they seldom stay when the woodpeckers arrive. It is then usually dining alone.

Jack Frost's Touch

 With the recent cold weather - twenty and more degrees below normal - and some moisture added at regular intervals, certain windows on the house traditionally receive Jack Frost's delicate touch. The window in Mom's second floor bedroom, which faces north, has the prettiest structures I've ever seen.

 These delicate icy flowers blossomed on the left side of the pane. They look like a white dove's feathers stuck to the glass. The structure is lacy and complicated. Have a closer look:

 What pattern was followed for this artist? Can't you imagine a fern's leaf? Certainly the structure uses mathematical fractals. If I could zoom further, I'd expect the pattern to reduce and yet always be the same. It is a crystalline structure, built upon some unseen seed, mere moisture at its heart. It repeats endlessly.

 And yet move but 18" to the right (staying on the same pane of glass) and that very same moisture has grown into vertical lines. The feathery whorls are gone, replaced by lacy lines. Why, so close, is the structure so far away? The artist scribbles, sketches, practices.
 These examples form, of course, on the outside of the glass. We are warm and snug inside. Only one other windows - a south-facing second floor bathroom window - exhibits similar icing. Perhaps these windows leak a little and the moisture I see is not so much from snow as from our very breath? In any case, I may watch Jack Frost work nightly, painting new patterns with his unseen icy brush. Who would have thought that mere water could be so pretty?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

First Snow

 Sunday [12/12] our first snow of the season began arriving with cold temperatures and a northwest wind that was bitter. Looking down from our second floor window at the top of the stairs is a favorite vantage point of mine. I can see the wood pile and the old hen house in the distance and gauge the depth of the snow by the way the pines droop.

Here (below) is another view as the snow was falling. The wind did a fairly good job of clearing the trees but between gusts the snow built up very nicely and gave my view a Christmas card feel.

 The following morning [12/13] the local schools were closed. Even so, the snow quit and the sun came out for awhile. Beneath the pines to our south, the long early morning shadows were cast across the pristine snow. It wasn't deep - perhaps no more than 4" on average - but it was enough to cause concern for the school buses.

 And finally, looking out our front window (facing east), the corn stubble across from us easily pierced the blanket of snow. S. Clayton Road was already scraped clean by the plows.

 Even today [12/14] the schools are on a two hour delay. I suppose many of the country roads are snow covered and dangerous. Much of the terrain west of here is hilly, too. I woke at 6 a.m. and turned on WHIO and heard that Valley View was delayed.
 Perhaps another reason is the temperature. It was 2 degrees this morning. The furnace runs non-stop but we are snug and comfortable.
 More snow late on Wednesday? I thought our winter was supposed to be more moderate than most and yet the first half of the month has proven to be colder and snowier than normal. Who can predict this ahead of time? We must always wait and see.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Christmas Flowers

 When we visit Stockslager's Greenhouse & Garden Center just west of New Lebanon on U.S. 35, we can't help but get a little more into the Christmas spirit. Once we open the door we're met with the moist scent of flowers. The greenhouse itself is an ocean of color, waves of reds and pinks as poinsettias are now ready for the holiday season.
 They even have blue ones this year. How is it done? I suspect white ones are dyed?

 Here's a close-up of the delicate center of a single poinsettia. How intricate the structure!
 As I stood there focusing for this macro shot, a sales person came by and said, "May I help you?" but she was probably checking on what I was up to. Indeed I "took" something, though no more than a photograph and lovely memories.

 The cyclamens, too, are blooming in a profuse rainbow wave. There are reds and brilliant pinks so bright they almost blind. This one seems almost too pink for photography! This is a delicate plant, somewhat hard to get to bloom again. And yet Mom had luck with one, year after year.
 This weekend (12/04) is Stockslager's annual Open House. We generally check them out before the crowds arrive. This year only us and one other customer were admiring the sights.
 I have a bit of a withdrawal this time of year as there's nothing blooming hereabouts and I must get my fix which must last until spring. Stockslager's give me a bit of a recharge.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Tree Trimming

 Mom's the one who wants a Christmas tree every year; Dad and I have almost nothing to do with it and couldn't care less whether we have a tree or not. My job, though, is to un-bag the artificial tree which has spent the last 10 months atop our potting table in the garage (bagged so it stays clean). I bring the tree indoors, plug it in and check the bulbs. The rest is up to Mom.

 So, this year it's Thanksgiving Day itself when Mom decides she has the time and the inclination to put the tree up. She spreads the boxes of ornaments on the dining room table and begins her work. Eventually she'll finish by adding flocks of cotton to the ends of each branch, giving the impression of snow.

 How does the finished job look? Here's the tree as I climbed the steps last night to go to bed:

 The tree sits atop an old trunk on the north wall of the dining room, right at the bottom of the steps. Mom would have preferred the living room but couldn't find a place she liked. One spot, by the fireplace, blocked my view too much. And so we placed the tree where there was room, not where we really wanted it.

 The decorating Mom does at Christmas extends well beyond the tree. She brought a pine cone snowman to my room and sat it on the floor, leaning against the chimney. A friend who now lives in Florida sent it to me many years ago and it is a decoration we still use annually.

 The large bay window in the kitchen holds a few Christmas trinkets, too. This nativity set is a special one to Mom, made of corn husks. The location is one we can enjoy often, as often as we cook or do the dishes.

 And here's a small collection of woolly sheep along with a pine cone we picked up on one of our walks. 

 We do not decorate outside, have no lit trees. I don't care to spend the money on electricity nor do I like the work of putting displays up and taking them down ... in January yet, the hardest month of the year to work outdoors. So Mom's entire efforts are concentrated on a few spots indoors.
 My own attitude is no better than tolerance mingled with a "Humbug!" or two. I do not have the Christmas spirit and have never had it. I'd rather go on day to day, as steady as possible and pay no mind to any of the holidays.
 Mom worked on this yesterday because she had a cold and we could not join my cousin's Thanksgiving gathering. We had a quickly planned meal but enjoyed staying inside on a very wet day.
 Last evening, about 9:30 p.m., the wind began to blow as a cold front passed through the Miami Valley, washing the rain along with it. This morning the rain was frozen in the gauge after a nighttime low of 22. Our pleasant fall temperatures are gone. The timing for Christmas decoration couldn't have been more  better.
 On January 1 - not a day later - Mom will say she's tired of Christmas and will take it all down. Dad and I will sigh and things return to normal.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Foggy Fall Morning

 It is late November and still we are without our first flake of snow. We've been as cold as 18 degrees, though. Last night melted into morning with an almost-full moon and when Mom awoke, about 5 a.m., it was shining brightly. A couple of hours later, she said she stepped into the kitchen and was met by a thick fog staring back.

 This view of Pinehaven, facing northeast, was taken just before sunrise and shows how we were enveloped in white. Many trees seemed to disappear into the clouds. It was cold - in the upper 20's - but the fog did not stick to many objects as might have been expected. I think the fog formed too quickly for that.

 Behind our property, my row of pines faded into the distance. The first deciduous tree you see (left) is a volunteer wild cherry and beyond it the field has gone to white. The corn stalks crunched beneath my feet.

 From behind the garage, Pinehaven lies hidden in the earth-bound cloud. It was a ghostly morning, ripe for spirits, but I shared my walk with no one. All was quiet. There was no traffic about and no dogs barked. It was as though I was alone in the world. If there was any sound, it was lost in the blanketing fog.

 At the front of our property, along S. Clayton Road, the pines stood silhouetted against the rising light. Still no sun at 8 a.m. and none at 1 p.m either. Though the fog has disappeared, the sky has remained cloudy, the atmosphere heavy and cold.
 These are the times, just before winter arrives, when I feel gratitude for a walk without wind and cold. The days are short now and I can feel the change coming. On mornings like these, when the fog mimics a gentle snow, my very bones begin to sense it, too.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Sky-High Steeple Work

 I got an email yesterday from Kim Izor, historian for St. Jacob Lutheran Church in Miamisburg, that work on the outside of their steeple had begun. The top of the steeple, originally a Fleur-de-lis, is about 150 feet above the ground and certainly not employment for the faint of heart.
 So today I drove by twice - once on the way to grocery shopping at Kroger's and again on our way home - and a single workman was moving around the steeple, seemingly unconcerned for his precarious position.

 Myself and another photographer were walking around the building and the workman was aware of us on the sidewalk below.

 I suppose this little "bucket" chair, attached to the end of a rope, is the comfortable seat one is to use while moving up and down the steeple. It would seem to me that it offers no comfort at all!

 The workman is located at the southeast edge of the steeple. Later he was traveling up and down the center line (south), dangling on the end of what must be a very secure rope. From my trip up inside the steeple a few weeks ago (read about it here), there us no way I'd go up on the outside. This work takes better nerves than I was born with.

 If there's something positive to say about the work, at least the weather was perfect: calm, clear, sunny skies with temperatures in the mid-60's. Amazing for November 13.

 If I had to find myself out on this roof, this would be the place I'd be most comfortable. Even so, the height is nothing to sneeze about and I think I'd avoid even this at all cost.
 The steeple work should be finished soon, just in time for winter. Let's hope this beautiful steeple is again weatherproof for many years to come.

Note: The pictures above are presented in higher-resolution. Click on any of them to see greater detail.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010


 It's close enough to the holidays - and who cares about the time of the year anyway? - to make gingerbread.
 Today I walked by the kitchen while Mom was stirring the dark batter and I knew what she was up to. We had a great lunch, and an even greater dessert.
 Mom tops her gingerbread with whipped topping and adds a sprinkling of black walnuts. The walnuts, in fact, we picked up nearby, dried in our garage and cracked here. That makes the dish taste that much better.


1/2 cup shortening
1/2 cup sugar
1 egg
1/2 cup molasses
1-1/2 cups white flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon soda
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon vanilla (optional)
1/2 cup boiling water

Cream shortening and sugar. add eggs and molasses; beat. Combine dry ingredients and add to creamed mixture alternately with water. Beat thoroughly. 
Bake in a greased and lightly floured 8x8" pan. 350 degrees (325 for glass pan) for 35-40 minutes. [Note: We often find this done in 25 minutes.]

Home Sweet Home

  I'm a Farmersville boy, through and through. I love the place, love the people. It is home.
 And yet it is Miamisburg where I was born and Miamisburg that holds a special place in my heart.
 I attended a board of education meeting on Thursday (10/28) evening and when I left, about 8:30 p.m., I detoured from my usual route home and was taken by the sparkling beauty of the downtown area at night.

 I pulled the car over, parked and got out on foot. Though I saw no other walkers, there was enough traffic to feel safe. I've never had reason not to feel safe. I was looking at the rear of the Market Square Building, now the home of the Miamisburg Historical Society. How many times did I go in there as a child when my Aunt Mary (Masters) had her Mary Ann Shop in that building? How many pair of hosiery did Mom send me there for? Either Mary or Alma Boiston would pull a flat box from a shelf, slide a hose from between the tissue paper and fold them on the glass counter.

 Looking to the northeast, there is the building that was Silberman's Drug Store. Mom and I would often walk down town on Friday evening and stand there Silberman's was the front building, located on Main St. It is the building at the middle of the picture. On that very spot, 50 years ago, Mom and I would stand with our backs against the wall, waiting often for my grandfather to pick us up. Or, more likely, we'd begin walking home again.

 Turn around now and look the other way (east). As a kid, the building on the left was Mutual Federal Savings & Loan. My grandfather worked there as an appraiser. As a young woman, my mother worked across the street (beyond the right edge of this shot).
 I love the warm lighting of downtown. I love how the city of Miamisburg is being revitalized.
 Miamisburg is no longer my home. But it will always be my beloved hometown.

Winter's Early Signs

 The past week has found us beginning our annual battle with winter. The first sign was found on the cap of our "burn barrel" at the edge of the garden on Saturday (10/30) morning before the sun rose. There, overnight, long fingers of ice had formed in the cold night air. It only got down to 25 degrees and the air has been quite dry but what little moisture was present was wrung from the air by the chill.

 This barrel is at such an exposed location that I use it as a sort of "frost sensor". I don't have to look for lightly frosted grass or dry leaves with a fringe of ice. I walk to the barrel and check this cap, have a look along the barrel's metal edge. It is all the proof I need.

 On a sadder (and more expensive) note, our heat pump wasn't defrosting properly (probably not at all) and a fringe of ice several inches high formed along the outside edge and on the coils. If the coils are covered with ice, they're insulated and insulated coils don't exchange heat efficiently. So we called the serviceman who had to replace a circuit board that controls the defrost cycle. We have a ten year warranty and he was nice enough to not to charge even for the trip.

 Looking across the field in front of our house, what we call the "Shell Farm" was enveloped in the icy fog and seemed to be a haunted house. It's Beggars Night so it's only proper that it should look a little scary before the sun rises. The cut corn has a fringe of frost along it's edge, too.

 Later the sun is up and the day is warming and my brother, Bob, has stopped by to cut down another dead pine. We're losing pines at a tremendous rate. I suppose our climate is changing too fast for the poor trees to adapt. Frankly, it's hard enough for us.

 The top of the tree looks pretty small - and it is - but the trunk is large enough that a chain saw is needed. We added the logs to our nearby woodpile and will use them in the years ahead. I hate to see the view changing so rapidly. Our privacy is being eroded by every tree that dies.
 And yet on this cold weekend, the sun shines and the air is fairly calm. There isn't a snowflake in sight. But winter is ready and I can sense that it is just over the horizon. Already an electric blanket feels good. The calendar confirms that we must be ready for the dark days ahead.

Baking Bread

 There's nothing quite like homemade bread, is there? The lovely feel of the warm dough, the yeasty smell when it bakes, the warm slices with butter and jelly.
 We use a bread maker to mix the actual dough and then we take it out, knead it by hand, rise it again in a warm spot and bake it in a regular loaf pan. That's a little bit hi-tech and old-fashioned all rolled into one.

 Here's the dough just out of the bread maker. We've tucked it into an aluminum bread pan and are ready to cover it with a light cloth. We used to dampen the cloth but found that it sticks less (actually not at all) if the cloth is left dry. Our house isn't very warm so I placed the bread on our south porch, warmed by the mid-day sun. The pan sits atop a small homemade rug for protection from the cool tabletop. In the winter I warm a small room with a space heater. About 30 minutes to an hour later (depending on the temperature and the quality of the yeast), the dough has risen out of the pan and puffs the cloth up like a tent. That's the sign we watch for.

 And here's the loaf, newly out of the oven, smelling just like fresh bread should! Mom adds a little margarine to the crust (using a paper towel) to soften it. That's an unnecessary step if you like your crust a little tough (I do; Mom doesn't).
 The recipe we used is this:

Classic White (one regular loaf)

3/4 cup water
2 cups white flour
1 tablespoon dry milk
1-1/2 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon margarine
1 tablespoon sunflower seeds (roasted, salted)
1-1/2 teaspoon active dry yeast

We place this in our bread maker (water on the bottom) and set it for "dough". When it's done, we take it out, knead it a couple of times by hand and place it in a greased loaf pan. We let it rise again (30 min. to an hour; the loaf should double in size in surroundings that are comfortably warm; I cover it with a dry cloth).

 Bake at 350 degrees for 30-35 minutes (until crust is nice and brown)

Friday, October 22, 2010

Shooting the Moon

 I've always enjoyed nighttime photography but I've never had the advantage of a telescope. So I always made do with a camera. My current model, a Canon SX20IS is perfectly suited to "shooting the moon" and I've been following the phases through the last couple of weeks. Now that we've passed full, I'll not be getting up later and later to follow what's ahead ... but it's not much different than what's behind.

 This moon is 3.2 days old. If you'd like to see how the "age" of the moon is figured, follow this link. There isn't a whole lot visible when the moon is this young but I like the earthy coloration at this stage.

 A 5.2 day old moon begins to cast some light and even with a camera and a zoom (about 20x), you can see some craters.

 I've opened the shutter up a bit and a 6.8 day old moon shows lots of pock-marks. The two "mares" (seas) at the top right are Serenity (top) and Tranquility (bottom). The latter is where the first moon landing took place in July 1969 (Apollo 11).

 A moon that's 8.2 days old shows a wide assortment of craters along the terminator. Hanging in a clear, jet black sky, the moon never fails to fascinate me. How lucky we are to have a moon! I watch its shadow creep across my bedroom walls many nights and I am happiest when I can see it.

 At 9.2 days, the moon shows its best face. I love to watch the craters at the lower left become visible and then begin to fade again as they are lit head-on when the moon is full. Unlike lovers, a full moon isn't of much interest to photographers; it's too flat and featureless.

 And a 12.2 day old moon is close enough to full that I begin to lose some interest. Only Tycho, the prominent crater at the bottom with the "rays" extending northward, shows much relief.
 Last night (10/21) I watched the sun set and the moon rise at the same time, proof of the moon being full. It's like a teeter totter. The sun presses down on the western side and the moon pops up on the east. It was a brilliantly clear night and the moon seemed a floodlight across my bed. A neighbor's dog loves the full moon and never ceases to celebrate it with his howls.
 Follow this link for a wonderful atlas of the moon.

A Day's End

 The air was still pleasant as I stepped outside at about sunset and walked across the field to our east. Because the moon was close to full, it was opposite the sun and was rising at the sun set. I was hoping for a few clouds to help bring the sunset shades to light and even looking east, through the mostly blue sky, I could see those slight wisps of moisture that promised to give the sky color. It is not perfection that makes a scene - that is boring - but imperfection that brings out the best of the world.
 And so, with a rising moon on one hand, I turned and walked back towards Pinehaven and looked to the western sky instead.

 There, above the cut corn, were the tenuous clouds waiting for ignition, ready for the fire of sunset. The ice crystal cirrus, common "mares tail" clouds, streaked the entire sky and began, as both the sun and the temperature dropped, to come alive with pastel color.

 Minutes later a jet contrail, one of many, coursed through the sky, a still-white plume in the sun's direct rays. But look below as the sky begins to glow with pinks, warm reds and oranges and gold.

 And but a few minutes more and the telltale red of the setting sun now casts that warmer light on the jet, too. The pure light of the sun is angled ever higher as I, down here in the field, stand in chilling shadow.

 Now the true colors of sunset take over. The sun is well below the horizon and the strip of orange becomes thinner. The blue above returns; the cirrus are lit by red as night approaches.

 But zooming in on the tree to the left, that sky is still afire. The embers are still alive; the sky is awash with gold.

 Moving back, the clouds and contrails do their job, offer themselves up to reflection. It is like looking at a golden plate, held to the light and almost too bright for mere eyes.

 At sunset's peak, the bright oranges fade and reds begin to appear. Night comes pressing down from above. The corn stubble at my feet darkens and my steps must be more carefully placed. The nighttime animals begin to stir while the birds take to their roost. All is silent.

 When I cross the field and again step onto my own property, I look back towards the sun, through our row of pines, and see night falling like a curtain. The pines become mere silhouettes.

 Finally, as I approach the house, the moon has grown brighter and competes with the maple for attention. In the day, the maple with its fire-engine leaves takes your breath away. But now, as it fades in darkness, the moon commands my last view.
 "Where have you been?" Dad asks as I step back into the warm house. I had planned no more than a short walk across the road to watch the sun set behind Pinehaven. But I had become so taken by the spectacle that time had slipped away. I pull off my jacket, put away my shoes and smile at my absolute good fortune.

 The world turns. Day slides into night. It is all good. Tomorrow it will all begin anew.