Saturday, August 27, 2011

Time's Coin

 "Time is the coin of your life," said Carl Sandburg. "It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent."

 My time is often spent looking down at my feet; not just nature resides there. Because people regularly drop coins,  I as regularly pick them up. For years we've had a contest here at Pinehaven: who can find the most coins in a calendar year? We keep a sheet of paper in our top desk drawer and whenever one of us finds a coin, we place it on the ledger below our name.

 So, to preface this story, let me say, that I keep watching where my feet land, hoping I'll find another penny. Mom often laughs. "You'd knock me down for a penny, wouldn't you? Well ...

 Two days ago I was looking down as I got out of the car and began walking across a parking lot. As I opened Mom's door, I saw at the edge of the asphalt, where it meets soil, a blackish coin-like object. I picked it up, turned it in my finger and dismissed it as an old slug.

 "You'd better keep that and see what it is," Mom said. I tossed it onto the floor of the car. Frankly, I forgot about it.

 Today Mom was again sitting in the back seat (I call it "Driving Miss Mary") and she picked up the dark object. "This looks like some sort of coin to me," she said. When we got home, she brought it into the house and handed it to me. There by the kitchen window I turned it in my fingers and, when the light was just right, I saw a profile rise from one side. "It was a coin!"

 Here it is. My "find" is on the left and a reference is on the right (click the picture to magnify):

Time will bring to light whatever is hidden;
it will cover up and conceal what is now shining in splendor"

 I've slightly angled my find so that the light is coming from the upper left. It brings the limited detail into better relief. This coin is called an "8 Maravedis" which was minted from 1816 to 1839. It is a coin of the Spanish monarchy and the portrait on the front is King Ferdinand VII. This particular coin is dated 1818.

 Identifying the coin required a bit of detective work. Without Google it would have been impossible. I initially figured it was a U.S. coin but I looked through every one minted in 1818 and it was clearly not among them. Widening the search (using images) eventually began showing me similar coins. Eventually the proper one was displayed. It was Spanish.

 Ferdinand VII was king of Spain twice, for 48 days in 1808 and again from 1813 - 1829 (when this coin was minted). He was a contemporary of Napoleon Bonaparte. Ferdinand died in 1833 at the age of 48.

 The next question is how did a nearly two hundred year old coin show up beneath my feet here in the Midwestern U.S.? Perhaps someone lost it recently (more likely); perhaps it was dropped a century and a half ago and was stirred to the surface by a recent rain? Perhaps I came upon stolen property.
 The coin system in the United States is partially based on Spanish coinage and it's possible the coin was spent here in the early years of America. The Maravedis was also commonly used in Mexico and I have to remember that local soldiers fought there in the 1846 to 1848 time frame. Perhaps one of them brought home a souvenir of the war? The coin would have been only 28 years old at the start of the war.

 Does the coin have any value? Likely not. Though it seems made of silver to me, I have read where the composition is "probably not precious". An 8 Maravedis in well-preserved condition might bring $40 (2010 figure). A worn one might be worth $10. That's not much for something so old so I assume there were plenty of them minted and plenty still around.

But for one who finds Lincoln cents which have been run over by a car, it's unusual to find a coin that's so old and from so far away. It always pay to keep looking.

Friday, August 26, 2011

An Alien at the Door

 I have been watching for at least a week, knowing that this is the time of year for the Praying Mantis to be most prominent. I have seen one - and one only - as I was washing a second floor window. That one delicately scooted out of my way as I worked, holding on to the rough surface of the bricks, giving himself some safe distance from my work area.
 Last evening as Mom I were beginning a game of cards, myself facing the back door, I saw a large mantid walking across the glass and so I got my camera and took pictures both through the glass and outside with the wonderful insect.

 I can't help but think of these insects as aliens: triangular green heads, something along the lines of ET, arms and legs with jagged brown hooks, cannibals all. As I took my photos, this mantid kept moving away, making it difficult to frame and focus. He swiveled his head as any good alien might do, collecting data, addressing the dangerous situation, perhaps calling out "Danger! Danger!" as any respectable alien would do when encountering a creature as large (and ugly) as myself..
 The Praying Mantis (Mantis religiosa) hatched from an egg within a foamy mass (flat on one side and reminding me of dried tan insulating foam) last spring, perhaps had an awakening lunch of one of his fellow nymphs as they scrambled from their birthing area and has lived a solitary life all summer.

 Prior to 1899, no one in the United States would have enjoyed this view. That's when the insects were introduced into this country on a load of nursery stock from the south of France. While they eat harmful insects and might offer some help to us in that way, they are hardly plentiful enough to do much good. And yet they apparently eat their fill. Has anyone ever seen a malnourished praying mantis? They may be thin but each looks exquisitely healthy.
 Next year's eggs will soon be laid. Another foamy mass will overwinter on some weed stem, pounded by frigid winds. But next year I'll watch another crawling across my window pane as another summer draws to a close.
 The aliens may be rare but they are here, landed among us.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Let There Be ... dark

 I am finishing up yesterday, getting ready to turn the computer off and go downstairs and watch the TV news. That's when I notice the small light I have sitting on my desk oddly dimming. It fluctuates a few times, like a candle, and naturally I suspect the bulb is going out ... again.
 Then I realize that the line voltage could have dropped and I flip on a ceiling light, and then another, with the same results: the bulbs glow a dim orange. I quickly turn the computer off, switch the second floor air conditioning off and head down the steps.
 It is the same there. The CFL light bulb Mom has in her ready lamp burns about the same as always (why?) but every incandescent I switch on does the same thing ... it glows feebly orange. I turn the first floor a/c off, too and run to the bathroom where Mom is getting ready for bed. "Are your lights dim in there?" I ask. "Yes, I was wondering what was going on," she answers through the closed door.

 (for illustrative purposes only; this was taken 10/04/09)

 I run back upstairs and grab my digital multimeter. The power line voltage fluctuates between 101 and 102 volts. It should be close to 120. Because of the low voltage and the possible damage to equipment (including the TV which is still turned on), I switch off everything I can find.
 I then call Jeff Erisman, our next door neighbor and assistant fire chief. He's doing the same thing, particularly noting that compressors should be switched off at once. "We've lost phase," he says. "Farmersville is dark."
 Within half an hour, our power is cut completely.
 Now it is in the upper-80's outside and terribly humid and we have no a/c. Opening the doors and windows would make it worse. At least it's cooler inside than outside. But throughout the next few hours, I watch the temperature slowly climb and begin fanning myself with a newspaper. Once it is dark - say 8:30 p.m. - Mom has had enough and goes to bed. She covers her feet with a comforter!
 It's a quiet, dark evening at Pinehaven. I find my transistor radio (such a rare old thing ... but it works just fine at times like this; the iPod, the Xoom are deaf and dumb to the world) and lay down with ear buds and tune across the band, listening to Dayton, Cincinnati, Chicago and finally a station in Iowa.
 I shut my eyes and try to fall to sleep but my body rebels. It is too hot for that, maybe even a little too quiet. I count cars going up and down Clayton Road. They have blessed lights! I lay in the dark.
 The end comes - or rather the return to the modern age - at 11:30 p.m. Two earlier attempts at restoring power lasted but a second or so. This one holds. The house is lit again with every lamp I missed. I wait a few minutes anyway, just to make sure, and then I turn the a/c units back on and feel the cool, refreshing breeze begin again. Heaven! While the house begins to cool, I walk around, resetting clocks. Mom snores.
 In fact, it is so pleasant to feel cool air again, to have light flooding the room, that I pick up a library book and begin to read. It is 1 a.m. before I climb the stairs and crawl into bed.
 The house returns to darkness. But this time it is a chosen state and so the nervousness of the 19th century begins to fade. I watch as lightning begins to flash in the west, listen as thunder approaches. Will we lose power again, have two outages on the same day?
 No. I wake later to a mild storm passing mostly to the south, hear the gentle tapping of rain on the roof, feel the refreshing coolness of the air in my room, this time revel in the lightning which comes and go in a natural rhythm, thank goodness I am returned to my own age.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Eating Out

 While Mom and I have ample opportunity to eat out, we usually go to one of the small restaurants, the typical "greasy spoons". Every now and then we get a chance to dine at a place we love. Olive Garden fills that need for me.

 When I retired at the end of June, the village of New Lebanon gave me two gift certificates: one to the Olive Garden, the other to Applebee's. We visited Olive Garden back in July but had money left over on the certificate so we returned yesterday to use it up.
 Mom and I had the same thing: soup (vegetarian minestrone), salad and bread sticks. Each allowed for refills. I've always liked the atmosphere at Olive Garden and our waitress (Mary) was wonderful. It's just a treat to eat out somewhere other than the usual nearby places.

 We dined with my Uncle Charlie and Aunt Mae (Boyer). Charlie had the spaghetti; Mae had the fettuccine alfredo, my all-time favorite but a heavier dish than I was in the mood for.
 Afterwards, wallets nearly empty, we shopped at one of our downscale clothing choices: Goodwill. We might as well have shopped at the most expensive place available as we bought nothing.
 Then, back to Charlie and Mae for ... you guessed it ... a lunch!

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Riddle

What goes on four legs in the morning
on two legs at noon
and on three legs in the evening?

 That's the Riddle of the Sphinx, of course, and Oedipus solved it correctly, causing the Sphinx to destroy herself. It's a good metaphor for a man's life: crawling on all four as an infant, standing on two legs as an adult, and adding a cane as he reaches old age.
 I think of that riddle often as I walk in the neighbor's lane, the sun newly risen and low in the sky, casting my shadow out before me, doubling my height. I, of course, am already walking on three legs but I take the cane not so much for steadiness but for protection.
 As I was walking out of the lane the other day, Sam and Millie rolled down the window of their car and asked me why I was carrying a stick. "Are you fighting off wild animals?" they asked. "Beware of the wild buffalo," snickered Sam.

 This morning the sky is washed clear by yesterday's cold front. The blue atmosphere sparkles anew. The air tastes clean. The slight breeze, still washing across me from the northwest, whisks the heat away from my body. I arrive home still pleasantly cool.
 How many times have I walked this lane in my quarter century here? More than I can imagine. How many pair of shoes have I needlessly worn out treading this same gravel? Is there a single new sight for me to see?
 I walk this lane only superficially for the exercise but more for the experience. I watch the milkweed bloom and mature, now prickly pods hanging at odd angles on the stem. I watch ironweed erupt with a royal splash. I smile as Queen Anne's Lace expands its wedding-veil flowers.And in a month I'll watch the first frost take them all down overnight.
 When the first snowflakes fall, I'll still be walking this lane, perhaps ever-depending on that third leg a little more. But as long as the sun shines behind me, lights that delicious path ahead, I'll be looking at the old sights over and over again, forever new.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Lonesome Doves

 I have been to the scene of a murder but I have not found the body. On Thursday morning, as I stepped out the back door onto the concrete porch, I saw swirling masses of light grey-white feathers being whipped by the gentle breeze. Below our maple was a patch of leaves and twigs, too. I knew at once that a bird had been taken there.
 I do not trust the raccoons. A skunk could be the culprit, too, so perhaps my blame is too easy.
 Later, when I had gone into the garden to collect vegetables, I saw the remaining members of the shattered family nesting in the dry soil of a flower bed. Though Turtle Doves will nest on the ground, it is a last resort choice. This clearly was a mama and a remaining chick, making the most of a sad situation.

 The mama bird stood and walked away as I approached. The baby held fast to her dusty spot. Soon the mother bird returned, sure that I was not bent on harming her.
 Seeing a baby turtle dove is rare. I understand that they remain in their nests until they are indistinguishable from the adults. In fact, I have never seen one before. And yet turtle doves are common here and surely have nests about the property.
 I took this shot from a distance so as to not scare her and punched in some telephoto and added flash to light the flower bed where they nested. Here is a full-resolution crop of just the baby's head peering out from beneath his mama. Such a big, bright and dark eye he has!

 Throughout the day Thursday the pair stayed in this spot. When I went in for the night they were still there. But by Friday morning they had gone. There was not a trace of them. Thankfully, I also did not find any more feathers so I feel sure they have made it to a safer spot.
 Nature recovers quickly, goes about its daily work unaware of the past. When an event is over, there's no brooding on it. It's a new day. Move on with life. There are better days ahead.

Sunday, August 14, 2011


 I thought I had been let down. I thought that they had died or else the squirrels had gotten to the bulbs in a fit of winter-hunger and eaten every last one. In the past week as I've driven about the area, I've noticed surprise lilies nearly everywhere, even in unclaimed ditches beside the road, gathering no care at all.
 So where were mine?
 Then, last evening, I was walking around with the hose, watering the gardens and a few select flowers, when ...

 Beside a pine stump upon which I have placed an old metal washtub filled with marigolds, I saw the spikes begin to appear. I've come back twelve hours later and they have quadrupled in size. My Surprise Lilies have survived!
 I was given a bag full of bulbs several years ago by Donna Ney and planted them in two places, here and beside the hen house. Also known as the Magic Lily or the Resurrection Lily, I like better there more common name: Naked Ladies. They are known scientifically as Lycoris squamigera.
 I've enjoyed watching Donna blush when I tell her I think of her ever time the Naked Ladies bloom.
 In any case, watching them erupt for the ground twice each season is enchanting. First, along with other spring flowers, they send forth leaves which gather a quick soaking of sunshine and then die away. In no time at all they are wholly gone and the ground returns to bare.
 This year it has been even more striking with our lack of rainfall. I suspected that it was the dryness that has spelled their demise. But for the past two days, they have been building a long spire and are just now beginning to open their pick-lavender blooms.

 These by the hen house present a beautiful contrast to the worn appearance of the wood, something I have not painted in many years. I have decided the wood looks better natural and it requires no work to leave it that way. For a short week or so, the Surprise Lilies give the old hen house a look of splendor.
 There, nestled among the dried pine needles and rocks are these spires of deep green with expanding royal tops. Within another day they were look like purple trumpets, proclaiming late summer's arrival.
 So I have not been let down after all. Nature's clock still ticks and is unaffected, more than a few days, by the dryness. It marches on this year just as it has every year. I should have suspected as much.

 Two days later (08/16/11) here's how the blooms look ...

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Mower Woes

 Would you believe it? We have three mowers - two are lawn tractors - and only one of them is working.

 There they sit in the garage. In the foreground is the Huskee which I bought used last summer. It has hydromatic drive and is the easier of the two tractors to use. In the middle is our push mower, a Lawn Boy, which I ordered from a couple of years ago. And in the distance is Dad's White, purchased 24 years ago. It was a 1986 model, an end-of-season closeout, and Dad grabbed it while he could.
Yesterday I was doing my second day of my usual two-day mow when the White simply quit moving forward. I made sure it hadn't slipped out of gear. The blades were still turning. Finally, after examining it the best I could, I put it in neutral and pushed it back to the garage.
 I got the Huskee out and drove to where the other one quit. Suddenly it stopped moving. The exact same thing and almost the exact same spot. Throughout the day I tried numerous things but it failed to budge. Bob stopped by after work and we pushed it into the garage, too.
 I got out the Lawn Boy and mowed the rest of the yard by hand. I've called Mike Duff in Germantown for repairs but how can two dissimilar mowers fail with the same problem within minutes of one another? It seems like the beginning of a Twilight Zone story.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

An August Sunset

 It was nearly 9 p.m. and the sky had already darkened for night - or so I thought. That was when a brilliant orange glow encompassed the living room and bathed the landscape in fire.I grabbed my camera, found a pair of shoes and headed out into the back yard.

 There, behind the pines, the sun had broken through a section of clouds just as it was setting. This picture was taken at 8:34 p.m. and the last picture you'll see in this sequence was taken just five minutes later. Each is presented in the order they were taken.

 I walked to the edge of the soybeans and dialed in some zoom, targeting just the small slice of sky where the sun was dipping below the horizon. It looked like a great fire had overtaken Farmersville to our west.

 As the sun dipped further, the atmosphere took on an eerie orange glow, speaking of belching volcanoes and either the beginning or the end of time. It looked like liquid sunshine, sprayed across the horizon with a tool only some Vulcan would know.

 As the sun dipped further, the molten oranges were replaced with apricot and shades of pink, ruddy hues of brown where the storms were tearing themselves apart in turbulence from a cold front just passing through. The air began to cool as the breeze picked up from the west.

 To our north, thunder rolled and I turned in that direct and saw the storm that was sliding to the east-southeast, dragging a thin column of heavy rain underneath. The radar lit up red but we did not have a single drop.

 Turning my attention south, lofty cumulus receded there, too and carried any remaining moisture with them. I could hear thunder all about me but we slipped through a small break in the middle of the long, thin band of rain.

 This cloud commanded my attention as it was lit by the just-set sun and began fading through light pinks to a gray-white as I walked back towards the house.

 But I turned around for one final look at sunset before going in for the night. The pines were now dark and silhouetted with the sun already well below the horizon. The nearest storm was still north though now already east of here.
 The atmosphere quieted and cooled as I got ready for bed.

Monday, August 8, 2011

On Golden Wings

 Yesterday I watched as a small moth rested on the outside of our kitchen window. She was there for more than a day, unmoved. It gave me an ample opportunity to study her and to take a couple of pictures. Up close, what I marveled at most was her dual antenna, feather-like and full.

 Nature recycles her best ideas, time and again. These intricate antennae are certainly modeled after feathers. A closer view might show fractal branching, ad infinitum. The moth senses with these structures; a bird flies with something similar.
 The moth, I believe, is an Orange Wing (Mellila xanthometata).

 A wider views show the rusty striations, the fringe along the wing's edge, the earthen wings. Was she just-born and gathering her senses, drying those wings perhaps? 

My Mother's Hands

 This morning I was sitting on the sofa reading a book about the Alaskan wilderness and while concentrating on the words, I hear the constant click-click-click of knitting needles. Mom and I will visit my aunt and uncle soon and Mom wants to be able to say she's working on her knitting. It is a ruse somewhat.
 Mae (her sister) is a great help when Mom is bogged down in the complex instructions of this sweater. She's threatened many times to quit, tear it all apart and throw the yarn away. And yet there she sits, fingers delicately passing yarn around stitches that I cannot fathom (and which part of the time neither can she) but intent on making progress. She can honestly tell Mae "I am working on it" though this is the first time in a week.
 Back in March, I wrote about my father's hands. He had just two and a half months to live when I posted the words and I was thinking about that as I watched my mother's hands tend the yarn.

 "OK, you can take a picture of me working," Mom replies, "but what will people think of these old hands?" They are worn from years of use ... wrinkled, purple where she has knocked them against something or other, cut and thin to the very bone.
 I've thought of the meals these hands have cooked and how they stretch back beyond my own time. Oh, and the beds she's made, something she insists on doing daily. An unmade bed is a sign of laziness in her eyes. Say from age ten to now (nearly 86) if she has made a bed a day (my guess is that the average is considerably higher), she'd have smoothed out nearly 28,000 sheets. The meals? At three a day, surely from age 20 onward, that's over 72,000. The numbers are staggering.
 But books, that is where her hands have logged the most mileage. These fingers have turned pages beyond belief, surely numbering into the millions.
 These fingers, too, have dealt gentle touches and not-so-mild coercions. I love to hear them tapping the knitting needles yet. I love to hear them rattle sauce pans and cutlery. When I help her out the back door, steady her balance while she dead-heads her beloved roses, caution her on steps, she reaches out these petite hands, now cool to the touch, but still soft and mild.
 I know now, after losing Dad, that it is the loss of touch that hurts the most. When we say we have "lost touch" with someone, isn't this what we truly mean?

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Civil War-era Lap Desk

 Many years ago we bought this Civil War-era lap desk from a lady in Pennsylvania. I've always wondered what it was worth, what era it truly belongs to. Anyone have any idea? Contact me with your thoughts, please.

 Below is a shot of the bottom of the desk.

 Below are two views of the handwritten script inside the box which notes that it was repaired on June 22, 1868. The first view is just a photographic view; the second has been digitally enhanced to make the writing easier to read.

 If the lap desk was repaired in 1868, I'd suspect it was considerably older that "Civil War-era".
 I have never seen one just like it. I'd appreciate input.

Theophilus, Cyrillus & Catharina

 It is 9 p.m. on August 4 and I have walked out onto the back porch to see the moon. It is hanging conspicuously between two trees which stand beside the barn, as good a location as possible in that I can see the moon easily without stepping off the porch.

 That doesn't mean I won't round the garage anyway, just to have a look at the back yard, bereft of the sun for only a short while but grown dark enough in such short a time that I can feel winter in the sky even though the air is hot and heavy.

 Above me race bats, threading the opening, feasting on insects. I have never been able to determine ahead of time when I might find them there. Does it depend on the temperature mostly, the sky cover?

  Stepping back onto the porch, I have the camera on my Christmas tripod and I have it aimed roughly at the moon. I begin snapping a few shots and find this one to my liking.

 There, a third of the way up from the bottom is the prominent crater Theophilus. To the left is Cyrillus and swinging on to the lower left, Catharina. Each lies almost on the terminator when the moon is five days old (to be precise, this shot was taken at 9:27 p.m. and the moon was nearing 5.3 days).
 Theophilus is named after a 4th century Greek philosopher. The central mountain in this crater, quite visible in this shot due to the sun's angle, is 1400 meters ( 4593 feet ) high and actually has four summits. The crater itself is 4267 meters (14,000 feet) deep. It is amazing to me that it can be seen from Earth with no more than a digital camera (with a 20x zoom). Apollo 16 may have collected ejecta from this crater.

 Here, also, is an overview of the scene as I stood staring at the sky:

 The sky wasn't clear as I made the shots above but somewhat hazy, even clouded. Even when the moon was in the open, the sky was slightly fogged. I'm surprised the shots turned out as well as they did.
 Two barn lots dogs kept up their chorus the whole time I was out. One, just south of us, keeps an "oooooh" up through most nights. Another dog to the north, certainly on Hemple, seems to answer. The moon aggravates the noise but it compensates me this little while as I look up at it.