Dawn Of An Indoor Day

We got several inches of snow overnight, and this morning our neighborhood looks quaint and pretty, like being inside one of those snow globes you had as a kid.

Alas, it won’t last. Columbus is right on the dividing line between the serious snowfalls to the north and rain to the south. We got snow — for now — but the temperature is rising outside and the freezing rain and then rain is going to start, leaving us to deal with a wet, slushy, mess that will disappoint hopeful sledders, motorists, and pedestrians alike. Even for a dedicated walker like me, there’s no pleasure in slogging and slipping through mounds of slush while being pelted with rain that leaves your stocking cap wringing wet and your coat covered with an icy crust.

Today will be an indoor day.

A Photo’s Worth Of Sunshine

One of Rodney Dangerfield’s memorable lines went that his family was so poor that for his tenth birthday his Dad showed Rodney a picture of a birthday cake. Rodney then tugged at his tie and admitted that he then spent the whole day trying to blow out the candles.

Like Rodney, I think a photo can make a difference. So in the midst of this latest Columbus winter, when the days are unrelentingly bleak and drab and cloud-covered and cold and dank, I’m going to look at this photograph I took last summer in Maine when we were on a boat ride leaving North Haven on a brilliantly sunny, warm day — and I’m going to remember that the winter will end one of these days, the temperatures will rise, and the sun will shine brightly again. Photographs can really be helpful in that way.

Just looking at this picture brings a smile to my face and retrieves a pleasant memory of a fun summer day and how that brilliant sunshine felt against my face. I hope it works for you, too. And if it doesn’t, consider going through those photos on your cell phone and finding a photo from a summer’s day that does.

The Winter Warmer

The weather took a foul turn yesterday, even by the dismal, gray standards of a Columbus winter. We got freezing rain in the morning that turned the brick sidewalks of German Village into a treacherous skating rink, and then more freezing rain mixed with sleet as the day progressed.

When one must endure such a cold, dreary day, it helps to turn to old favorites in the hot nourishment category. So, last night I prepared grilled cheese sandwiches and Campbell’s tomato soup made with whole milk for us. I grilled the sandwiches on our big skillet, lightly buttering some flax bread to get a good crust and using Kraft American cheese for maximum meltiness. (Technically, the classic version of grilled cheese sandwiches requires Wonder Bread, but I haven’t consumed a slice of Wonder Bread since, like, 1974.)

The soup was piping hot and deliciously creamy, the grilled cheese had a good crunch and great gooiness, and I cut the sandwich diagonally to facilitate the required dipping of the sandwich halves into the soup — because even though the soup and sandwich were each tasty on their own, they only achieve maximum home cooking greatness when the soup directly infuses the crunchy bread and melted cheese. The combination was washed down with a glass of milk, and it definitely hit the spot on a gray winter’s day.

After eating my soup and sandwich and thinking about the countless grilled cheese and tomato soup family meals we enjoyed at our kitchen table when I was a kid, I felt better. Warmer, too.

The White Stuff

Yesterday we got hit with our first winter storm of the season. It started as rain, but as the termperature dropped it turned into a wet, heavy snow. After the ground cooled, the snow started to stick, and this morning when I looked outside I found that everything was coated in this cold, slippery, white stuff.

Snow is weird. You can live your entire life in the Midwest, and experience the inevitable snowy periods every winter, but the first snowfall of the winter is always kind of a shock. It’s as if the brain uses the warm months to try to wipe out the memory of snow, and erase all of the snow-related reflexes that people acquire during the snowy months — like the kind of duck-footed walk you develop to try to minimize the risk of slipping on snow-covered sidewalks, or the downcast tilt of your head as you walk into the teeth of a snowstorm, or the best personal layering and bundling techniques to shield yourself against the chill.

And don’t even mention the notion of driving in the snow for the first time after months of a snow-free existence. The fact that people have forgetten everything they learned last winter and drive like idiots when the first flakes fall is a perennial — and accurate — complaint here in the Midwest. The only good thing to say about the coronavirus is that, with more people working from home and therefore commuting less, the number of fender-benders is likely to be dramatically reduced this year.

Of course, the fundamental reality of the first snowfall is that the warm weather days are gone for now, and Old Man Winter is here in earnest. With the calendar page turning to December today, we should have realized that, but the snowfall gives us a tangible, physical reminder that we’re in for three months of cold, frozen slop, and we’d better brace ourselves and get used to the idea.

Hue Do

There’s still a lot of fall color out there to enjoy. Bright leaves are hanging on to many of the trees and bushes, and multi-hued pumpkins and gourds decorate many German Village doorsteps, but the mums are the stars of the color display right now. They give a strong incentive to get outside and get some fresh air and exercise — while continuing to maintain appropriate social distancing, of course.

We’ve had perfect autumn weather in Columbus over the past few days — cool and crisp in the morning, and sunny and warm in the afternoon before sunset. Enjoy it, and the brilliant colors, while they last!

A Great Day For A Hike

The weather gods looked kindly upon us today, giving us one last beautiful day in Stonington before we head back to Columbus. The skies were clear, the sunlight sparkled on the waters of the Penobscot Bay, and the temperature hovered around 60. It was a perfect day to hike the trails of the Settlement Quarry and take in a breathtaking view — and we weren’t the only ones who thought so.

A day like this makes you sad to leave, but eager to return.

Ferns Go First

Up above, the leaves are just starting to change. But on the forest floor, the ferns are giving us a blazing preview of the upcoming fall foliage show. Their colors are so bright you can see the ferns deeper in the forest, like glowing campfires dotting the ground and lighting up the fallen trees and logs nearby.

The fall foliage season is a big deal around here, and this week will be the start of prime autumn color viewing. But the rule in the forest is inviolate: when it comes to changing their colors, ferns go first.

Where Autumn Comes Early

Today is August 31.  It’s viewed as the traditional last day of summer.  Mentally, we place June, July and August in the “summer” category, while September, October, and November are pegged into the “autumn” category.

Of course, not everyone agrees with this traditional cultural view of the seasons.  The scientists among us would point out respectfully that the fall equinox doesn’t actually arrive until September 22.  And in most parts of the country summer is still blazing on in full, shining force.  The high today in Columbus will be in the 80s, for example, and down in Austin, Texas they’re still dealing with absurd, extreme “fry an egg on the sidewalk” heat, with the thermometer topping 100 degrees.

Not so in Stonington.  Here, autumn seems to have come early.  The last few days the morning temperature has been around 50 degrees — which is a bit bracing, candidly — and from the wood smoke smell you can tell that some people are using their fireplaces already.  Our daily highs are now in the 60s.  Add in a hefty breeze when you take your night-time walk, and you’re definitely in long pants and windbreaker territory.  The leaves haven’t started to turn — yet — but there’s definitely that whiff of fall in the air.

For many of us, autumn is a favorite season, and in many parts of the country we bemoan its brevity.  Summer heat hangs on into October, autumn passes in the blink of an eye, and then we move directly into the winter doldrums.  It seems that things will be different in Maine, where fall’s early arrival suggests that it plans on staying for a while.

In short, if you like autumn, come to Maine.  And bring your sweater.

When It Rains In The Morning

I wore up this morning to the sound of falling rain.  It confused me at first, because the sky to the east was bright with the first signs of a sunrise.  But rain clouds had lumbered in from the west, the rain was starting, and I was hearing that familiar popping sound that raindrops make when they strike a hard surface — in our case, a wooden deck.

People often complain about the rain, but the complaints really aren’t about rain per se.  We all understand that plants and yards and farmers need rain.  The complaints are more about timing.  No one minds rain that falls overnight when you are sleeping and ends before you get up, so it serves its essential watering function while not disturbing your daily routines at all.  But Mother Nature is rarely so respectful of the puny interests of human beings and normally proceeds heedless of the impact on us.

I prefer my rain in the morning, right when I get up.  Rain around noon  seems like it is penning you up inside, and rain right before nightfall robs you of the sunset sky and seems to bring a premature end to the day.  But rain first thing in the morning has a gentler effect on the daily schedule.  You’re not going outside, yet, so it doesn’t interfere with that.  The sound of the rain is peaceful and relaxing.  If you open up the windows you get that rain-soaked breeze, with its heady scent of freshly washed air, to go with that first cup of coffee.  And in my case this morning’s rain means I don’t have to worry about watering the plants outside today — this persistent rain will give them all the moisture they need for now.

To be sure, I will need to take an umbrella on my morning walk today, and I’ll return a bit damper than when I began.  But that’s a small price to pay for the benefits of a good soak that will move through Stonington before noon and leave time for some afternoon sunshine and a chance to survey the results of a good soak on our plants.  Let it rain!

Red Sky In Morning . . . .

My grandmother had a poetic saying for every occasion.  UJ and I spent a lot of time with her during our childhood, and heard every one of her sayings multiple times.  They’ve become part of my permanent mental landscape and simply pop into my head, unbidden, from time to time.

Like when I saw this morning’s sunrise, shown above, with its striking red sky.  It immediately made me think of one of Grandma’s weather-related favorites:

Red sky at night, sailors’ delight,

Red sky in morning, sailors take warning.

To my knowledge Grandma never lived in a coastal community.  She didn’t have any close friends or relatives who were mariners, and I don’t remember her telling us any stories about receiving instruction from a grizzled sailor about his rules of thumb on the weather.  She may have been on a boat once in a while on her travels, but being on the open water wasn’t a regular part of her life in land-locked Akron, Ohio. 

Nevertheless, as a kid I believed that Grandma knew what she was talking about.  But these days I’m not so sure.  This morning the lobster fleet chugged out of port as it always does, without batting an eye about that red sunrise.  And my weather app indicates its going to be sunny today, with a high in the mid-70s.  Could Grandma have been wrong?

Or maybe the warning to sailors was about sunburns.

The Watering Circuit

It’s been blistering hot up here.  Of course, “hot” is a relative term.  “Hot,” by Stonington standards, means any temperatures above 70 degrees, and “blistering” means the thermometer touches 80.  (Given their sensitivity to heat, I don’t know what the good people of Stonington would do if confronted by a true Midwestern or southern summer, where temperatures in the 90s and above are commonplace.  Probably, they would be grateful they live up here, nod and say ayuh, and then stolidly retreat to these rockbound shores.)

But I digress.  On the days that promise to be hot and dry, I try to give our plants a good watering.  Because of the configuration of our yard and flower beds, that means using different watering devices and following a circuit.

I begin with the beds by our front door, where I can use a hose.  We don’t have a spray nozzle, so I use the thumb-over-the-water-flow method to achieve a sprinkle, and give the beds a good dousing.  They are on the western side of the house and won’t get sun for a while, so the water will get a chance to really sink in and do some good before the day heats up.  The hose water gets very cold against my thumb and helps me to wake up, and I do the watering while I’m making coffee so I can get a hot cup of joe when the watering is done and the hose is rolled up.

The next stop on the watering circuit comes later, after I’ve taken a walk and given the ever-hungry neighborhood deer a reasonable opportunity to eat more of the down yard flowers.  Because the down yard is in deep shadow in the morning, it can wait.  There’s no hose, so I need to use a watering can that I fill to the brim in our basement sink.  I carry the can down the steps and hillside and water three areas:  next to the outside stairs, where I’ve tried to transplant a lupine and set up a little flower bed, the flowers I planted in the crack between our two big rocks and next to the creek, and finally the vegetables we got from Russell.  It usually takes three trips and helps me to get my daily stair climbing in.  I also inevitably fill my daily quotient of obscenities when I survey the damage the deer have done to the flowers in the crack between the rocks, where we’ll probably never get the black-eyed susan blossoms — they always get neatly clipped off by deer teeth just as they are ready to bloom.  As I trudge back up the hill, cursing inwardly and trying to figure out some new, actually effective way to discourage the rapacious deer, I’ve become mentally ready to face the work day.

The last step in the watering circuit comes in the early evening, where I use a different hose to water the beds in the side yard and a little tree that has always struggled.  The side yard is starting to get shade by then, and the hose water feels cool and crisp after a hot day.  Watering, with its mindless back and forth motions to try to fully cover the relevant territory, is a good way to wind down after work and let the brain wander a bit.  The side yard beds also are a bit more uplifting to water, because the yard is fenced and deer don’t bother it, so the flowers are actually blooming rather than being consumed.  At the end of the day, it’s nice to see some fruits from your labors.

That’s my hot day watering circuit.  The deer appreciate my efforts, I’m sure.

A Good Soaking

It’s been dry up here — so dry that even the most taciturn Mainers have actually remarked on it.  We might get the light spritz from the morning fog, or a very heavy dew, but real rain has been rare over the past weeks.

Until yesterday, that is.  Yesterday, we got one of those long, soaking rains, where the clouds seem to be especially low to the ground and just hover overhead, content to drop their watery contents onto the ground below.  It was the kind of incessant, day-long rain that knocks a few leaves from the trees and produces big puddles on rocks and gravel driveways.  And today and tomorrow we are supposed to get more of the same.  

You can’t overstate the value of a good soaking for the plants.  Watering is nice, and even essential when it has been especially dry, but it is a limited form of relief from the dryness.  The best thing about a good soak is the continuous nature of the rainfall, with the earlier rain moistening the soil and making it more receptive to the raindrops to come.  That’s why a good soak always leaves the plants looking better than a passing thunderstorm that might deposit a lot of rain that simply sluices off the hard-baked ground.  With a good soak, you know the rain is really reaching the deeper ground and plant roots.

And another good thing about a good soak is that it means there’s no need for repeatedly filling up the watering can and hauling it to those remote places that are beyond the reach of your hose.

As a kid, I hated the good soak days, which seemed to unfairly cut into summer vacation.  Now, as somebody who’s just working from home anyway and is interested in seeing some plants do well, I welcome the good soaking days.  I’ll be interested in seeing how the plants have fared when the rainfalls end and the sun comes out again.

The Fog Bank Lurks

The fog bank is out there.  You can see it on the water, lurking and looming, just beyond the little island in the middle of the harbor.  The fog bank is so thick that it totally obscures all but the highest hilltop on Isle au Haut, wiping it clean from the photo.

It’s been pretty foggy here for the last few days, and for the native Midwesterner the speed — and seeming perverseness — of the fog movement is breathtaking.  You might see fog in the distance, and the next thing you know it has barged into town and your bare skin is covered in moisture.  On other days, the fog might wait out on the horizon, keeping its own counsel and deciding if, and when, to roll in and blanket the sun.  And on other days, the fog is simply gone, and you can see for miles out into the harbor without a hint of fog to be seen anywhere.

Dr. Science would tell you that fog is a natural condition caused by a process called advection, when warm, moist air passes over a cooler surface — in this case, the bracing waters of the Penobscot Bay and the Atlantic Ocean just beyond the islands in the bay — and water vapor in the air condenses to form water droplets that make the fog opaque.  That’s a very scientific explanation, but it doesn’t quite capture the almost human, unpredictable qualities of fog.

Because we know the fog is out there . . . waiting. 

Wildflower Maine

I’ll be happy if the flowers I planted over the weekend do well, but if that does happen It probably won’t have much to do with my gardening abilities.  The summer in coastal Maine is just about the perfect climate for growing flowers and other plants:  it’s not too hot, so the soil doesn’t dry out like it often does during a broiling Midwestern summer, it rains every few days (and often with real gullywashers) so there’s lots of water for the plants, heavy morning dews are commonplace, too, and there’s plenty of sunshine.  Basically, Maine supplies everything the native flowers need — if you just leave them be.

As a result, flowers seem to grow pretty much everywhere, on their own.  The lupines that are framing the harbor in the picture above are thriving In an untended area off the berm of a very busy street.  And the lupines and the other wildflowers in the photo below are growing in profusion in a huge area that presumably isn’t being actively weeded and watered by a human gardening crew.

So what does it all mean?  It means that if I can’t grow flowers here, I’m undoubtedly the world’s worst gardener.