Saturday, January 29, 2011

A Winter's Day

 It is a calm day, finally above freezing. It is also a day to take a break from winter's fury. Though the day has been heavily overcast, there was a moment this morning when the sun shone. It occurred briefly, right about the time of sunrise (8 a.m.) and in the perfect place to allow the sun to light our house.
 I was sitting on the sofa entering the daily weather and I rose and saw the sun shining across the field. I quickly grabbed my camera as the sun's rays broke through the distant woods.

 I love the apricot hue of the early morning sky, the orange of the sun, the gray, black and white of winter. In the foreground are branches of our catalpa tree; the distant woods is along Venus Road; the corn field lies fallow and snowy.

 After breakfast at Miss Molly's Bakery & Cafe (Farmersville) I hurried out for the mail but stopped to look at the bales of straw that I pushed against the outside of the house, insulating the bathroom wall and the pipes therein.

 Above, the rain gutter overflows with snow and ice, now melting and dripping on the bales below. Here long icicles have formed. As cold as they look, I suppose they add insulation for the bathroom. The straw will not permit the wind through; the ice surely glues them together better.
 And then, while doing the lunch dishes, I watched this white-breasted nuthatch keep an eye on the suet feeder. Two downy woodpeckers were having their own lunch there and he was wary of them returning.

 This is a common stance for the nuthatch, seeming to defy gravity. Yet they often perch in this way, bend their necks, watch the world while blood surely swirls to their tiny heads. They launch themselves like boomerangs, are quickly upright and flying.
 A red-bellied woodpecker watched, too. He is far more nervous about visiting the feeder, apparently unaware of his own size. If I lift my camera, he is gone.
 Even with winter still in full swing, the natural beauty of the coldest month smooths the rough edges of this season. Too soon it will be hot and I'll think back to these days when I might cool down instantly by no more than opening my coat an inch.
 Now, nearly 2 p.m., the sun tries again. I see a shaft of light angle across my carpet as the temperature tickles 36°. It is still winter but it is so nearly gone that I can again be brave.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Nothing better ...

 There are some things in life that can't be improved upon. One of them is our Applesauce Raisin cupcakes. On a cold winter's day, the heavenly autumnal scent of apples and cinnamon is intoxicating. I can barely wait to pull them out of the oven.

 How I came to make them today was simple. Mom said she had extra raisins and cranberries which she had cooked (presumably to add to her morning oatmeal). She didn't want to keep them any longer in the refrigerator and thought I might make good use of them,
 Indeed! I can eat Applesauce Raisin cupcakes any day of the year. But a cold and windy day such as this is perfect and  I enjoy having the oven on for the additional heat it provides the back end of the house.
 After all the years of making these, I can pretty well mix up a batch without referring to the recipe.
 Why this is such a perfect combination, I don't know. But apples need cinnamon to be complete and this item brings the two together in a perfect sweet balance.
 Dad has a hard time eating nuts so I arranged three yellow cupcake liners to one end of the pan and added the batter sans nuts to these. Then I poured crumbled walnuts into the rest of the batter and filled the remaining cups.
 Now for the best part: eating.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Waiting in the Wings

 I've always enjoyed watching animals - birds in particular - and seeing their society is no different than our own. Take this female cardinal for instance ...

 While I did the lunch dishes on Monday, the suet feeder was being shared by a downy woodpecker and a chickadee. At times they were working the suet from opposite sides of the feeder at the same time. It is amazing that the tiny chickadee is not intimidated by the woodpecker but I suppose her appetite gave her the brave edge.
 This female redbird, however, found a spot between snowy branches of the maple tree and watched wistfully as the fat was being nibbled. She'd flit away and the come back and watch for another few minutes. But she did not approach the feeder, figuring it already taken. She reminds me of a young lady waiting to be chosen for a dance.
 In the poor bird's favor, two male cardinals were putting on quite a territorial display in the background, diving among the pines, showing their acrobatic ability. If she watched, I did not see her take notice.
 But like all young ladies, I suppose she did. Spring is around the corner and the dance may not yet be started but she, like me, certainly hears the musicians tuning up. As the temperature tickles freezing, those early notes of spring are already in the air.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Aching Beauty

 Sunset approaches as I step outside and am met with a chill that invades my coat as quickly as the door closes. We are in the depth of an Arctic cold spell. Though the day tickled at the bottom edge of 20, the crisp air seems to await sundown to draw any leftover warmth from my fingers.

 I have to step into the snow to find a spot that places the sun behind the pines, that silhouettes them darkly. The snow is alive with the last light of day; it looks positively warm with its orange glow. But is is 13 degrees as I stand there, find the proper frame and press the shutter.

 Without a wind, I've decided to walk back Sam's driveway as the sun sinks further. His lane, plowed by D.R. Coffman, is a two-track, twin thin black ribbons, black as the night that descends. A few clouds now litter the west, give the sun something to play against, brings the final rays to life.

 Another minute - two? - the sun slides through the distant branches and disappears. The snow, holding leftover corn stubble, will quickly reflect any of the day's leftover heat, skyward. The approaching night will suck it away.

 Now home, I turn into our driveway and look to the west, an achingly beautiful sight. The sun is wholly gone and night begins to rule. It is 11 degrees already and zero seems assured.
 Two nights ago, I decided to sleep on the,living room floor. Dad was apprehensive: furnace, pipes, the unknown dangers of another brutal night. By midnight I have not slept a minute. "Are you awake? Will you quit snoring?" I say. "I'm not asleep," he answers. "Then why are you snoring?" I counter. "I'm not," he says as the bedclothes rustle and he turns over.
 So to my own bed for a while - an hour, no more - and then I am back up checking. All's well. -12 on the thermometer.
 At 3 a.m., yet another check. The water in the bathroom sink runs fine. "It's all yours, Dad," I say. The thermometer reads -16 as I do a double-take to make sure of what I'm seeing. I climb the stairs for a last time.
 As cold as the nights have been, they are still beautiful. The recent full moon has lit each night and the snow has reflected it back into our windows. I watch the black tree branches silhouetted across the snow arc west to east as the night progresses.
 I cannot help but love the cold, even though it costs me dearly. At the same time, it pays me back a hundred-fold.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Gentle Blanket

 Slowly the snow began almost with the day's light and I have watched the gentle blanket being pulled across the landscape. It is unbelievably soft and is settling at a pace almost too slow to notice. And yet the inches are adding up.

 I have found my usual spot on the sofa, brought a cup of hot mint tea, spread an afghan across my lap and opened my book. It is a slow day for me, too. Every now and then a car or truck will pass the house, muffled by the snow on the roadway, inching their way somewhere. They are in no hurry, either.
 The local school closed its door before the first bell rang. North of us, that school district is dismissing two hours early. The Germantown Library closed at 2 p.m. The world is slowly preparing to go back to bed.
 When I pull the thin white curtains aside, the arbor vitae is gathering snow, cotton soft, about its outer branches. They are beginning to dip a bit under the weight. In the background the snow falls relentlessly but at so gentle a pace and of the sort that is so powdery and light to be almost a meteorological afterthought. It is not snowing in earnest.
 And yet where has the ground cover come from? It is that same languid pace from youth through middle age to the elderly. Who saw it happen?
 Tonight they say the wind will whip up and drift this light snow about. I'l marvel at the drifts in the morning, how something so little can become so significant. But mostly I will marvel that mere clouds, ephemeral moisture, can fall so gently and make a significant difference in but a handful of hours. Keep an eye out, I tell myself. It is all changing before my eyes. Pay attention to this lesson taught. Blink and it is a different day.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Where in the world is Brian Wild?

 All of you wonderful blog readers might be able to help me with this one: whatever happened to Brian Wild?

 Back in the 1960's, I had the good fortune or somehow finding a pen pal. We wrote for many years. Why we drifted apart, I'll never know other than it's common for growing boys to gain other interests than sharing letters with one another.
 Over the years, I've thought of him often. I could remember his name - Brain Wild - and that was about it. I don't even remember where he lived other than it being somewhere in England.
 How we met is now fogged over by time but I do know my mother wrote to his grandmother. His grandmother's name was Carmen. We have a Scottish plaid which Mom finished the edges of and which we use on our sofa to this day. The fabric was a gift from Carmen. I know the two wrote about knitting.
 So what brings the topic to light after so much time has passed? Some years ago I was going through boxes which were in storage in the barn. In one of them I found old photographs. Most are yellowed with age but all were important to me. When we moved to Pinehaven 24 years ago, the boxes were put into storage.
 I found the photos mostly mouse-chewed along the edges (see the middle of the bottom border on the one above for an example) and generally dirty. And yet I could not throw them out. I dusted them off as best I could, placed them in a fresh box and put them in my closet (indoors this time, at least). The other day I was going through the photographs and found two that Brian sent me.

 This one was perhaps taken behind his home. Ah, it's 1966 so the Beatles haircut is a requirement.
 Now the photos won't be recognized by anyone except Brian himself. And so I cast this net upon the Internet to see whether I might dredge him up.
 One more thing. The back of each photograph is similarly marked in this way:

 I see the word "Ilford" is slanting across the back of each picture. I'm guessing that the name of the photographic paper itself and doesn't note a location or a processor.
 So, Brian Wild, what's become of you? You'd be a man of about 60 and, like me, nearing the end of your working years (at least I can hope).
 We've got a gap of a lifetime to fill in.

1. Carmen Stokes was Brian's grandmother; his grandfather was Jack Stokes.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Light Snow Drifting

 It is a winter with lots of cold and enough snow to keep the ground white most of the time. And yet the snowfalls have been generally light.
 On Tuesday, for example, they predicted 3-5", and most of the area had figures along those lines. But here, I had no more than 2.5". Yet even with so slight a snow, the local schools closed. Then the wind picked up and took the light, powdery snow and piled it into drifts.

 Our back porch was a perfect example. At the edge of the concrete where it drops to another walkway by the garage, the airy snow was swept into marvelous drifts, a couple of feet deep. It certainly looked like the blizzard of a few years ago. And yet on the level I might have walked across the yard in no more than a pair of casual shoes.
 I must note here another example of our wonderful neighbor's kindness. D R Coffman, who lives a mile away, woke me a little past 6 a.m. when I heard an engine slow down before our house and headlights pirouette across my bedroom ceiling. He was plowing out our driveway. He made a pass back, carefully avoiding the overhanging pines and swept the driveway apron clean. I lay there and listened, snug beneath the electric blanket while he worked in the dark. When I finally got up, about 7:45 a.m., the driveway was clear and he was gone. What a great guy! He expects nothing in return, surely does this work for the pleasure it brings him alone. I cannot thank him enough. We are all getting old enough that having a clear driveway is a real blessing.
 Even today the snow continues to fly. It is now no more than flurries. But what a winter!
 If I look across the front yard, I see only an occasional mound of dirt poking above the snow. It is where moles are tunneling, proving the world is still active beneath the cold soil. I don't know if I should be happy or not.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

A Swarm of Fireflies

Many a night I saw the Pleiads, rising thro' the mellow shade,
Glitter like a swarm of fireflies tangled in a silver braid.

- Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 1837-8, Locksley Hall

The Pleiades, about 425 light years away, are also called the "Seven Sisters" and were once used as a vision acuity test. How many individual stars can you see with the naked eye? The record is 18. I see no more than a fuzzy spot unless I turn slightly away and peer at them with peripheral version. Then I seem to discern individual stars.

 Last evening I walked outside at about 6:30 p.m. and thought I'd go into the backyard and view the Pleiades, one of my favorite celestial objects. But I did not have to leave the back porch. M45, as it is also called, had risen above the roof of the house, almost due east at that hour and I had the favor of the garage to block the wind as I gazed at this otherworldly sight.
 A telescope would be a great enhancement but having none I can draw the stars apart with the camera lens alone. The photo above is shown at a full 12 megapixels and this frame is cropped from the larger image. Amazingly, this technique brings individual stars into focus. In fact it also shows some of the intervening nebulosity of that cluster.
 I could have moved the camera beyond the tree but I though the branches added a nice contrast. Besides, the night was cold and I was content in the shadow of the garage. Why move? The spot was nearly perfect.

Here then is the entire frame. It's reduced, of course, to fit better on a computer monitor, but it shows the sky essentially as I saw it. The Pleiades are about midway across the frame and just above the dark roof, nestled in among the limbs.

 The second constellation I learned as a child was Orion. It is so obvious with its three-star belt. It is just below the Pleiades but still down behind the house. The first constellation I learned? The Big Dipper, of course. I can remember my grandfather pointing it out in Bear Lake, Michigan. "Follow those two stars to Polaris - the North Star," he'd say. And I could never be lost again, neither in the sky nor on the ground.
 What great signposts are these stars! Nearly constant, they are a great comfort to me on any clear night, winter especially, when I can step outside anywhere and be greeted by these old friends.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Frosty Filigree

 I missed it yesterday - I'll admit it - but I won't allow it to happen twice.
 When I walked out for the Sunday newspaper, I found the most delicate white filigree lace drawn atop our black enamel mailbox. I stood there in utter amazement at the complexity of the frost, the delicate curves that etched the entire top. I grabbed the paper and ran inside the house for my camera. But when I returned - mere minutes later - I found the sun shining still coldly on the mailbox and the icy crystals evaporated into a delicate fog.
 I decided to try again. So this morning after a very cold night (the low was 13), I hurried with my morning shower so I could be at the mailbox with camera in hand as the sun peeked above the cut corn.
 And here is what I saw:

 The black background seems to enhance the pattern above. The orange glow of the sun, in the bottom right, is enough to evaporate this etching in mere minutes. And yet the air temperature was still in the upper teens.

 This shot (above) of the rear part of the mailbox exhibited particularly beautiful structures. Why does the frost often curl? It is probably the same influence felt by a developing feather. To think that mere moisture - no more than atoms of hydrogen and oxygen - can deposit themselves in such beautiful structures! Think of nature at work even on a cold night ... toiling, drawing.

 And finally the front of the box facing S. Clayton Road. Ah, the joy this time of year in having selected a black mailbox! Who'd have thought it would serve as such a winter canvas?
 As the sun rose ever higher, the ice began to melt. Look along the far right lip of the mailbox where the transformation has already occurred. It is ice one moment, the sun shines and a wisp of steam lifts and it is now no more than water.
 To be present at such events is the sort of miracle I seek. Plan ahead, be there, be ever awake.