Friday, March 29, 2013

This Lovely Evening

 I stepped outside about 8:45 pm last evening, wanting to have a final look at Comet PanSTARRS. I've seen it twice and thought of this as a final farewell. With Comet ISON coming in the fall, and promising to be something quite spectacular, I won't have long to wait for another comet.

As I stood in our back yard, the sky quickly deepened from a rosy glow on the western horizon to a jet black above. Looking due west in this shot (just after 9 pm), the stars have begun to appear.
 Most interesting to me, however, was not what was above - what I came for, of course - but what was nearby. Tonight I heard the first chorus of spring peepers, tree frogs, bringing an orchestral sound to the chilly night air. To our north, the woods was alive with their tiny tinny, voices. It is a high-pitched sound, almost the sound of birds chirping softly, but higher in frequency. I love hearing it each year but am often not outside when they first have their spring roundup.

 To the southwest, Orion already prepares to set. It will be gone the summer long, only passing overhead during the day. It is my favorite constellation, so easily identified, and bright and bold with it's corner-placed stars of note.
 A little farther along in the sky, and higher, is the Pleiades:

 The Seven Sisters (M45) appears to my naked eyes as only a fuzzy smudge. I can recognize it still, even as my eyes age, but I can't make out individual stars. My camera certainly can. It is an open clusters, actually closely grouped, and 440 light years above Pinehaven. As poor as my eyes are becoming, I marvel and take solace that I can see that far.

 And Comet PanSTARRS? It is slowly retreating from our neighborhood, already a mere smudge of light. Last evening I used my tablet and its built-in GPS (and therefore compass) to point my camera at 304° with an elevation of 7.3° at 9 pm. Guessing at the elevation and using guide stars, I took this time exposure and found the comet in the frame.

 There is no longer much to see. The comet is dead-center in this cropped image, a mere hint of light. Looking very closely in a darkened room, the tail can be seen towards the top and trailing slightly to the right. That's all as it should be. And so, at last look completed. I will be cold dust along with it when (if?) it ever returns.
 I almost hated to come back inside. The chorus of frogs sounded brightly in the crisp night air, dipping from about 40° into the upper 30's while I stood under the stars. I don't know what time they put their instruments to bed but I called it a night and was beneath the covers by 9:30 pm, warmed by such sights and sounds as these.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Enough Snow Yet?

 For days we've been watching a late season "winter" storm (though surely, knowing the date, it is truly a "spring" storm) slide across the mid-section of the country towards us. By Friday we were under a Winter Storm Watch. Late that same day it was upgraded to a Winter Storm Warning.

 Yesterday, about noon, the first flakes of snow began falling when Mom and I were at the Miamisburg Taco Bell for lunch as is our usual Sunday habit. Within an hour the snow quit and all was quiet again for the bulk of the day.

 By late evening we began having freezing rain and sleet. As the day ended the snow began to fall. It was in earnest for a short while. I awoke during the night (3 am) and looked out the bathroom window. All was white. But I could easily make out the top of the well head so I knew the snow wasn't very deep. Like March 6, the trees were festooned with feathers of white, a surreal sight in the dark of the night.

 This morning I measured 0.54" in the gauge. The snow depth is a mere 3.5", far less than predicted (upwards of 10" was thought possible). But it was enough to bring out the snow plows and enough to close area schools and businesses.

 Our meadow, to the north of the house, is layered deep in snow which clings to even the smallest branches. I suppose the freezing rain, just prior to the snow, gave the snow a surface to adhere to. Though there is actually little snow, you could not easily walk through this jumble.

 To the west of the henhouse (and looking west), the pines hang heavy with snow. A week from today is the first of April. Does this seem possible when viewing this scene?

 The south side of Pinehaven presents a lovely contrast with the warm shade of brick and the cold white of the snow. I suspect I'll be mowing within another two weeks.

 Walking out to S. Clayton Road and looking across the field to the Shell Farm, corn stubble protrudes through the snow cover and all seems deep in winter slumber. The roads are clear, though, and school might have easily been held.

 Pinehaven is nestled in a blanket of white. That top window on the left is my bedroom window and I pulled the curtain aside at 3 am as a snow plow made a path, first south, and then returned north ten minutes later. I could see the trunks of the catalpas and I knew the snow was not very deep.

 Finally, here is "Dad's redbud". He loved this species and I thought when I planted this one, it would serve as a vivid spring memory of my father. The snow holds delicately to every branch; a breath of wind would dislodge much of it in mere minutes.
 So, here we are at the end of March with winter returned. As a side note, a year ago, from March 13 through March 23, we warmed every day into at least the 70's and topped out at 84°. A year ago yesterday it was 67°. Now this.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013


 Yesterday (03/12) and today were supposed to be the best times to view Comet PanSTARRS here in the northern hemisphere. Sadly, I've been watching the sky and I've seen nothing. Most nights the sky is cloudy.

 Last night seemed to follow that tired theme. But at 8 pm, I saw that there were a few breaks appearing in the west and I gathered up my Xoom tablet and my camera and tripod and trudged to the field behind our house. It was a cold evening with gusty winds and snow in the forecast. What hope did I have?

 At first the sky was heavily clouded, red with the setting sun's glow and wholly uncooperative  But later a thin opening moved eastward and for a short while both the moon (which served as my guide) and the comet were visible.

 Here's a telephoto view of the comet at about 8:34 pm. I could not see it with my naked eye. The camera, with a 5 second time exposure (ISO 400, f/5.6) was able to bring it up.

 When I first went outside, this is what I saw. Sunset's glow still colored the sky but a band of heavy clouds was overhead. I used a distant tree as a ruler of sorts, watching the clouds move up and east. I figured if I waited long enough, the moon (which I could not yet see) and the comet would become visible.

 I sat the Motorola Xoom on a stump and used a program called "PanSTARRS Finder" to locate the comet. I knew it'd be just left of the moon so I took this test shot to see if it might uncover the comet. But nothing! I decided that the comet had to be farther to the left and so I opened up the view.

 And so, here is my first view of the comet. It's on the far left of the frame. It was much farther south of the moon than I expected. While I could not see it with my naked eye - even after I knew where to look - the camera served the purpose well. A pair of binoculars might have done as well.

 I panned a little south for this shot. Amazingly, the only clearing for the entire sky was in the west, right where I needed it to be!

 Here's another full zoom of the comet (probably 20x). The coma glows a dim orange and the tail fans out behind it. PanSTARRS reached perihelion on Sunday and is now moving away from the sun, literally flying into its tail.

 And here's a wide panorama to offer some idea of the scale. Now that the comet has rounded the sun, it'll grow dimmer each night. It's moving a little higher in the sky each evening and to the north (right). I'll try to see it again if the weather cooperates.

Later: March 22 - The Long Good-bye

 I have tried for the past week and a half to see the comet one last time. Even the few clear days we've had have met with gathering clouds at dusk. I've walked back to the field some nights, merely looked through the second floor window on others and all I've seen are clouds.
 Last night seemed to offer better hope. I was at the edge of the field by 8:30 pm and stood watching as the glow of sunset faded and the stars began to appear. I saw no comet. As a last-ditch effort, I began taking photographs, scanning across the sky slowly, one section at a time, overlapping as I went. In all I took over two dozen photographs. I saw nothing on my LCD screen that indicated I had captured the comet.
 But, at 8:52 pm, one frame shows PanSTARRS for a last time.

 There at the bottom of the frame is the comet, it's tail now trailing off a little to the right (where on March 12 it was decidedly to the left), still ever pointing at the sun well below my horizon. Click on the frame for a higher resolution version (this is cropped from a full frame).
 And so, that's it, the last I'll look for Comet PanSTARRS. In all it was a bit disappointing here, never so bright as I'd have hoped and never a naked eye object for me.
 My attention now turns to fall when Comet ISON should grace our skies with a marvelous display, perhaps even history making. If the current forecasts hold, it will put this one to shame. And yet all comets are marvels, never to be missed.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Pinehaven Maple Syrup

 At the moment I suppose I should call it "Pinehaven Maple Sap" but that doesn't quite have the same ring to it. So, thinking positively, I'm going on the assumption that we'll turn this bucket of clear sap into something thick, caramel-colored and wonderful.

 But first an explanation  During this week's snowstorm, one of the results was limbs down everywhere. I've been cleaning them up every time I've walked outside, carried them to the meadow and added them to the brush pile I built there for that purpose  But there was one large limb, split halfway out from the trunk, whose fall was arrested by the ground itself. So there it hung.

 Until this morning. Bob visited and the two of us went out to breakfast and then returned for a game of cards with Mom. Afterwards I set up the ladder (which Bob steadied ... it was sitting in ice and snow) and I cut the offending branch off. We carried it in pieces to the meadow.
 But even before-hand, I noticed the wound was dripping quite profusely. Maple sap, though I, can be turned into maple syrup. Only one way to tell. So I hung a plastic bucket on the limb (see it just to the left of the ladder?) and left it there at about 10 a.m. I came back about 2 pm - a mere four hours - and found something well in excess of a gallon in that amount of time.

 Now, is this a sugar maple tree? I doubt it. So I tasted the sap and it is watery and ever-so-slightly sweet. It'll do ... if it doesn't poison me.

 So we divided it in half and began boiling the first part in a large metal pot. If I have a gallon (and I think I have quite a bit more than that), I should be able to produce a little over 3 ounces of maple syrup. There's usually a 40:1 ratio between the two so 128 / 40 = 3.2. This will require a lot of energy to produce a filth of a pint of maple syrup.
 But it will be Pinehaven Maple Syrup, a sweet unknown to the world until this time. Isn't it worth the extra electricity for that?

Follow up: The next day (03/10/13) ... Pinehaven Maple Syrup! It worked! We boiled the maple sap (about a gallon) over a 7.5 hour period. I predicted we'd end up with about 3 ounces of maple syrup. Instead, as the tree is probably not a sugar maple and the sap has less sugar content we got just a little more than 2 ounces. It's wonderfully sweet and absolutely maple flavored. Maybe we'll try it again next year ... but on a larger scale.

March 20, 2013 Follow-up:

 The sap seemed to slow as the temperature dipped. But today, which has only reached 34° and continues very windy, I saw that the sap was not only flowing but FREEZING. I don't think I've ever seen an icicle made of pure maple sap before, but here it is ...

 And here's a view later that evening and from a different angle:

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Late Season Snowstorm

 This is reminiscent of 1956. On this date (March 6) my brother was born and Mom remembers fondly getting him home; about three days later Miamisburg had a big snowstorm. "Dad took trash down to the back of the yard and Mrs. Weekly was there to help with Bob. There was snow everywhere," Mom said.

 That's a good description of now. When I went to bed last evening it was raining and I felt sure the heavy snow that was predicted had missed us, that the storm was spending itself out with rain before it got cold enough to snow. I went to bed at 9:15 pm.

 When I awoke at midnight I walked into the second floor bathroom, looked out the window and was astounded. The maple that's closest to the window was flocked with thick, heavy snow. I turned on my desk light (which flickered) and immediately drew a bucket of water in case the power went out. I walked downstairs to tell Mom about the storm.

 She crawled out of bed and hobbled to the south living room window. What a sight! All was quiet; all was buried in a deep blanket of white.

 I walked to the back door and turned on the garage light. This is what I saw.

This maple, nearest the kitchen, was festooned in thick white. It was snowing heavily. Later, when I got back into bed, the security webcam recorded the flakes falling (below).

 This morning all is a winter wonderland.

 This view is towards the northwest. Our pines are buried deep in snow and the branches hang low with the added weight.

 From a second floor window looking north, our woodpile is buried deep in snow. Luckily we do not use it much. It serves mostly as a back-up source of heat should our power be interrupted.

 While Mom did the breakfast dishes, this male cardinal visited the suet feeder hanging right outside the window. When the snow is deep, we've trained birds to be dependent on what we offer. Whether that's a good thing or not, I don't know.

 On our back porch, a close-up shot of a maple branch shows how deeply it is covered with snow. When the snow began, the branches were wet with the late-day rain and snow flakes stuck handily.

 This maple branch, outside the kitchen window, split with the added weight and is lying on the ground. Ah, more work when the snow melts.

 A view of the south side of Pinehaven (facing east) shows the maple by the bathroom window pressing up against the house. This is the tree I saw when I looked out the window at midnight. The heat pump's compressor is blasted with ice and snow, probably lowering its efficiency quite a bit. I'll go back out later and brush it off.

 Here's a view out our driveway, facing east towards S. Clayton Road. I suppose the car would run in the snow but there are plenty of low-hanging branches that will need to be moved (or cut) first. At the moment, we're trapped.

 A front view of Pinehaven might make a nice Christmas card next year. The two evergreens on either side of the fireplace chimney are pushed down by the weight of the snow. The one on the left, at the window where I normally sit, covers the glass. It's a bit startling to look up and see something standing there from inside.

 Will we have mail delivery? I doubt it. The mail box and the newspaper tube will probably go unused.

 From our driveway and looking southeast, another maple seems broken down by the added weight. The road, as you can see, has been mostly cleared of the snow. I heard a plow during the night and saw the flashing lights slide across my bedroom ceiling and walls and knew the necessary work was being done while I slept.

 Looking west along the driveway, yet another limb is down. Maples seem particularly frail when weight is added. There is much clean-up to do.

 Our DirecTV dish is so deep in snow that it won't work. I'll have to remember to go back out and brush it clear. It's almost hard to tell what it is.

 Looking up into a maple, it's a pretty sight ... but a deadly one if the weight breaks any more branches.

 First order of business this morning was to dig a path to my rain gauge and bring it in for a reading. The numbers are due at 8 a.m. and I take this job very seriously. I've been keeping daily weather statistics since April 1, 1974. I'm just a few weeks away from 39 years.

 The north side of our house, facing east, makes a pretty winter scene. It's hard to believe that two weeks from today, it'll be spring. Who'd guess that right now?

Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Weather Swan

 Every child finds himself gravitating to items found at the homes of relatives. My grandfather would regularly walk across Cottage Avenue in Miamisburg to the home of my aunt's, Belle Hinkle. There I found a tuft of grass on her west lawn, nestled beside a few concrete steps and protected by the shade of a maple tree, to be one of those items. As soon as we arrived at Aunt Belle's house, I'd have to stoop down and feel the soft grass tickle my cheek.

 Inside the house she had other items that I cherished: my Uncle George's tobacco stand  (the poor man dead a few years before), still smelling of pungent tobacco; I would open that tiny door and take in sweet lungfuls of the sweet scent. It's a wonder I did not become a smoker.

 On the other side of her dining room was an old tube radio. It had large dials which swung in lazy circles, controlled by ivory knobs and had various cities around the world affixed on its face. It took whole minutes to come to life.

 But most important of all was a hand-blown glass weather swan. I would always walk to the stand where it sat, look at the water level in its neck and listen to my aunt's prognostication of what we might soon expect from the sky. My uncle kept weather records and I suppose the swan was as much his, a sort of crude barometer.

 When Aunt Belle died in 1962 (she was born about 1870, only missing the Civil War by half a decade), the weather swan was given to me. Here at Pinehaven it sits atop another aunt's desk.

My grandfather, Elwood M. Schmidt, smiles down from a 1942 calendar.
Aunt Belle's weather swan silently reports atmospheric pressure changes ... still.

 A couple of days ago Mom was going about her dusting when she mentioned to me that the swan needed a good cleaning and the water replaced. That's a project in itself: the water inside the delicate swan must be shaken out, drop by drop. Then vinegar must be introduced to remove any calcification where the water has evaporated and a lime deposit left inside the glass. Finally fresh water (this time distilled) must be somehow gotten into the swan, through an opening so small a hypodermic needle would be useful.
 It took a couple of days to complete the project. I found that cold distilled water could be sucked into the swan by warming its body in hot water, holding my finger over the mouth opening and then submerging it in cold distilled water. Eventually, though, it took a more forceful method to introduce enough water to be useful: an ear syringe with a little muscle power.
 While a little food coloring would make seeing the water level in the neck easier, I did not add any, thinking it would dye the leftover calcium. Besides, Aunt Belle always just used plain tap water.

 I remember checking the weather swan every time I visited. Every now and then, when the barometric pressure was extremely low, water would drip from the swan's mouth. Low pressure, of course, causes water to rise in the neck. During pleasant weather (high pressure), the water level recedes down the neck and back into the body.

 There's something to be said for so simple a weather instrument. There's nothing to break (but the glass swan itself). I see these for sale yet today, often in the $30 range, but I cherish this one. I suppose it dates to Victorian times. And while I doubt it has much monetary value - surely there were too many made - I value its connection with my aunt, gone now more than half a century; the link to my uncle, forever unseen; and the chain that binds me to my grandfather, who's genes still ebb and flow in my own chromosomes, steadier than the weather.

 And while none of those cherished people have survived, the swan still sits on the same glass base I saw as a child, water softly, silently sliding along that tiny glass neck, responding to mere air pressure, making the invisible seen.