Snow

The woods are pleasant, dark, and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

–Robert Frost

 

[Our tiny forest. Our front yard. Photo is mine.]

I can think of nothing in nature more calming, soothing and tranquil than standing in a forest while snowflakes nearly the size of marbles drift slowly downward through the trees.

I’ve sat by gurgling brooks. I’ve felt the winds of the prairie whistle in my ears. With a mug of Oolong tea laced with local honey at my side, I’ve sat and listened to the rain fall, sometimes heavy and in waves…sometimes only a dribble. These are all transcendent. And you need only one good sense, hearing.

Snow, on the other hand is silent. You can’t hear a flake settle on a pine needle. A rainfall doesn’t lend itself to a visual experience, unless you count thunder and lightening. A snowstorm, in its aftermath, can leave you breathless…the absolute whiteness of it all.  Well, not all. A mere three weeks can separate the dazzling colors of late autumn to a black and white world where only a hint of dull green marks the presence of coniferous trees and a cluster of brown Aspen leaves that have not yet fallen from the mother tree.

But snow is a superb example of what could be a blessing to one but can be a curse to another. Yes, I appreciate the quiet solitude that snowstorms bring, but I can also see darkness that lies beneath the ten inches of the white fluffy stuff.

It wasn’t always like this for me. I skated when I was young. Tobogganed every hill around Owego, NY and skied Whiteface Mountain. I spent five summers living on glaciers of the Juneau Icefield in Alaska. I knew ice. I knew snow.

Then I aged. Snowshoeing became difficult. X-Country skiing became problematic and downhill alpine skiing presented its own set of dangers to my body.

Blame it on my Lumbar region (L4 & L5) for my falling out of love for the winter season.

[Me shoveling. You can’t see my L4 & L5, but I can feel them. Photo credit: Mariam Voutsis.]

SIDEBAR A few facts about snow.

It is a myth, often repeated, that the Inuit (Eskimos) have dozens of words describing snow. There is no way to determine the real facts here because of the multitudes of Northern Native People. Different country…different way of viewing snow. There are however, researchers who study snow and keep track of these sort of things. The latest list contains 121 different types of snowflakes.

Is it true that no two snowflakes can be the same? This is mostly true, but recently scientists have found ways to practically duplicate a snowflake pattern.

Most snowflakes that we are familiar with are hexagons. There are thirty-five common types in all. Here is a short list:

  • Stellaar Dendrites (pictured below)
  • Columns & Needles
  • Capped Columns
  • Fern-like Stellar Dendrites
  • Diamond Dust Crystals
  • Triangular Crystals
  • Twelve-branched Snowflakes.

[A Stellar Dendrite flake. Very common. Photo source: Google search.]

There is even a Field Guide to Snowflakes available. I tried to examine snowflakes one afternoon a few winters ago. I wore a dark jacket and held my geologic hand lens in my frozen fingers. A flake landed on my dark sleeve. But when I put the hand lens to my right eye and leaned forward to examine the flake, my warm breath melted it, leaving me to examine a small drop of water. This is something I could do in my kitchen. I learned nothing. I’ll learn the technique, someday, perhaps.

So, I believe it can be stated that there is a snowflake for every taste. It would be an understatement to say that snow is the engine that runs empires, so to speak. What would winter TV every four years be like if it weren’t for the Winter Olympics. Hallmark Movies? Who would know about Tanya Harding? (I’m including ice as a sub-set of snow). How could we live without the likes of Lindsey Vonn? If you’re old enough your heart stopped for a few moments when Franz Klammer won the men’s downhill in 1976. And of course, who can’t forget the aerial flights of Shawn White?

[Alpine skiing. Awesome. Photo credit: Google search]

I celebrate winter. I love snow. But, these days it’s a visual thing. I must leave you now to contemplate my winter landscape.  I’ve sat long enough. I need another heat patch placed on my L4 & L5 region. I will make another mug of Oolong tea and add a tad of honey.

[Winter on our road. Photo is mine.]

[All of the factual information about snow came from several Google searches.]

 

When Sand Turns Cold: Between The Seasons

[The Lake Colby Beach in Saranac Lake, NY. Photo is mine.]

This is an odd time of the year. The autumn colors are past peak (yes, there are a few places where the reds are blinding and the yellows can bring tears to your eyes)…but the peak foliage in its intensity is essentially gone until next October, or late September (depending on the summer rains).

It’s a sad time. The public beaches have hauled in the lifeguard chairs and the floating docks. No mothers wander about looking for toddlers, no cheerleader is working on her tan line. No quarterback is working on a Malibu bronze complexion. That’s all okay…it’ll all fade in three weeks time (unless they still use a bottle tan mixture like they did in the ’60’s.)

Still hikers take to the trails since most of the bugs are gone.  The kayaks are being put up in boathouses for the long winter. Year-rounders are stacking wood for the stoves in their cabins.

The skiers are busy waxing and sharping their edges at the local ski shops.

Sam Adams has come out with the Octoberfest brew.

Local micro-breweries are putting up the taps of the newest Pumpkin flavored IPA.

But the beaches are gone.  Sure one can go and wrap up in fleece and try to read a book…but’s its changed.

I have a distinct memory of jumping out of our family car in the parking lot of Golden Beach…sometime in the early 1950’s. We had a campsite, but none of my brothers wanted to put off the swimming. My feet, the tender feet of a child burned as I ran toward the water. I couldn’t make it. I ran back and jumped in the waiting arms of my father. He carried me, tenderly across the burning sands and gently put me down in the cool waters of Raquette Lake.

Summer is gone again. The first snowflakes are a few weeks away.

And, then the WINTER sets in. Sometimes until mid-May. I grew up in downstate NY, near the Finger Lakes. We had four distinct seasons. Up here in the North Country it’s more likely three seasons.

I live on Ibuprofen because of my back pain.

So, we are off to Portugal in mid-December for 2 1/2 months of warmth. It’s not Florida, but it’s cheaper.

I wonder what things will be like in five or seven years.

Will it matter?

Sitting In Another Cemetery

[Me gazing at the soccer game. Photo credit: Mariam Voutsis]

You, my readers, may think I’m a bit morose and morbid.  My last post was about Evergreen Cemetery, in my home town of Owego, NY.  But, if you think that I am very dark, you’re wrong.  Yes, I have a strong nostalgic mind.  But today I had a job to do.  I’m a volunteer photographer for Find-A-Grave.com.

That means that I get requests from people from far off USA, hoping somebody like me would take the time to go out to a country cemetery and photograph the gravestone of ‘Aunt Martha’. Whatever you may think, I consider it a great service to fulfill these requests.  (I get no monetary reward, nor would I accept one.)  I’m satisfied with the thank-you emails.

But, today.  Today I had some severe lower back pain.  It was difficult to walk the small churchyard.

I took a rest and sat on a boulder that was actually a headstone.  I looked over at a nearby athletic  field where Paul Smiths College was playing soccer.

I heard the shouts, the goals, the cheers and the young men yelling and encouraging. This is  something I did in my youth.

I sat feeling very isolated.  I couldn’t play that game ever again.  It’s a strange and powerful thought when you sit in a churchyard.

I kicked back a few soccer balls that had been hit into the cemetery.  I could still do something with my legs!

But my back still hurt and I heard a shout from Mariam.  She had found some memorial we had long searched for.

Now I sit in our screen-in porch and listen the the howling wind.  Our squash is in the oven.  Summer is ended and I must put the plexiglass panels back into place.

Time flies like the wind.

 

 

Are You Overly Concerned About Dinoflagellates?

[Bioluminescence at night on a beach. Photo source: Google search.]

You find yourself sitting up in bed at 2:30 am and thinking of dinoflagellates, the Valium hasn’t kicked in, your partner is in REM sleep and softly mumbling Bono Bono and your supply of Sleepy Time Tea has been deleted…you’re not alone.

I, too, suffer the same night terrors.  I feel your pain.  Several nights ago, sleep couldn’t find me nor could I find sleep.  It was 2:17 am.  I picked up a magazine and began reading an article about how to keep mud from getting stuck in the treads of your car’s tires.  I finished the lengthly piece and looked down at my copy of David Copperfield.

Should I pick it up and start where I left it three years ago, on page 346.  But it wasn’t to be.  My mind kept going back to dinoflagellates.

What brought comfort to my restless soul that night, I cannot say for certain.  But I decided to go down to my office and find a copy of a marine science textbook.  I went through book after book.  There it was…The Secret Life of Dinoflagellates.  I brought the heavy glossy-paged book back to bed and began to read.

It was so heavy, it left a strange imprint on my abdomen.

I was vaguely aware of the existence of dinoflagellates when I studied geology in college forty-six years ago.  That’s why I was vaguely aware, I had forgotten most of the facts I once knew.

To put it simply, dinoflagellates are two-edged swords in the form of a single-celled organism.  On the good side, they are responsible for bioluminescence, the strange glow-in-the-dark phenomenon of the oceans.  The eerie blue light is awesome to behold.  [See the lead illustration.] Sailors proclaim that a glowing sea on the darkest of nights is a sight they will never forget…something like seeing the bow of a freighter fifty feet away, coming straight out of the fog bank and straight at your boat.

On the downside of dinoflagellates is that they are the cause of the dreaded red tide.  Yes, the waves are tinted red.  The dinoflagellates are eaten by bivalves (clams and the like).  If you had ordered such a plate of these clams at the Ancient Mariner Restaurant and consumed it you would soon be begging for an appointment with Dr. Kevorkian…cause you’re gonna pay the piper…as the saying goes.

Here some advice about how to live with dinoflagellates:

  • Go sailing at night off some island in the Caribbean and be stricken silent with the beauty of the blue/green bioluminescence.
  • Avoid areas where the red tide is present.  Ask around.  Maybe go for the spaghetti and meatball option.

So, stop losing sleep over dinoflagellates.  Lose sleep over climate change instead.  That will bring on worse things that any single-celled organism.

[Some of the facts are from the June 22, 2019 issue of The Economist. The rest is just stuff I already knew.]

The Two Faces of the Summer Solstice

[Summer Sunrise over the Heel Stone at Stonehenge. Photo source: Google Search]

A short time ago a friend posted this on Facebook:

Hooray! Only 59 Days Until The Summer Solstice!

Most of us know that the Solstice marks the first day of summer.  It’s a moment when the sun rays are directly overhead at 23.5° N. Lat.  Where I live, this will occur at 11:54 am (EDT) on June 21.

[Diagram of the relative position of the sun (R) and the earth (L). Source: Google Search]

People think of BBQ’s, swimming, hiking and kayaking over seventy foot waterfalls.  Kites will fill the air at beaches.  Pyrotechnics are being prepared for the 4th of July.  Pom-Pom girls are practicing the baton tosses in their backyards while toddlers splash in small plastic pools under the watchful eye of parents, sitting in camp chairs, sipping bottles of Coors Lite.  Cans of Deep Woods Off are flying off the shelves at Target.  Tubes of SPF 65 lotion are in every picnic basket.  Big drinks with little umbrellas are served at pool-side.  The quarterbacks of the Fall flirt with the cheerleader/lifeguards of the Summer.  Sandcastles, surfing, hang-gliding, rodeos, NASCAR races, deer-tick bites and human pyramid water-skiing are the activities on any given day south of Manitoba.  (Actually, most of these events happen in Canada as well, but no-one goes up there this time of year to see for themselves.)

[This is how I spent my summer days at the lake. Source: Google Search]

And, in sunny England, the Druids are allowed among the Sacred Stones of Stonehenge to welcome the arrival of the SUN.

[Druids at Stonehenge on June 21st. Source: Google Search]

The Glory Days!  The Endless Summer.  Autumn is months away.  The Farness.  The Freedom.  The Freshness…it’s the eternal now moment everyone wants to be in and stay in.

And, best of all…it’s the longest days of the year!

[Allow me to muddy the waters a bit here.  The longest day?  No, of course not.  The length of the ‘day’ is and will remain twenty-four hours.  Can’t change that.  First day of Summer?  That depends on how you think of summer.  There are really two “summers”.  One is the Meteorological Summer, which traditionally is from June 1 to August 31.  This is when the thermal load begins to build in the Northern Hemisphere.  Hence, one can go swimming on June 7 because it’ll likely be warm enough and you are willing to hold your breath for twenty-three minutes underwater to escape the black flies.  But this post is mostly concerned with Astronomical Summer as described in the diagram above.  None of this seasonal stuff would happen if the earth was not tilted 23.5 degrees off the vertical plane in our relationship with the sun.  The planet Mercury has no tilt and therefore no seasons.  If you lived on Mercury, SPF would be your least problem.  The daytime temperature is approximately 800 degrees Fahrenheit.  Hot enough to melt your nail polish.  Hot enough to even…well, you wouldn’t have an arm to apply anything on.  It’s very difficult to rub SPF on a gelatinous mass of bubbling protoplasm.  But in the few seconds you perhaps survived, you’d need an SPF of 2,500.  I haven’t seen anything like that at Walgreens lately.  And, forget about a beach book.  The temperature is twice that of the burning point of paper.  You’d need a Kindle for sure.]

Back to earth.

And, there’s the catch.  Just when you’ve reached the peak (the Summer Solstice) you have to begin thinking about going down.

After June 21, the days begin to get shorter.

You may say that after reading this that I’m a glass-is-half-empty kind of guy.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  I’m the eternal optimist.  After all, in a mere six months, the days will start to get longer!

And then you have the Holidays to look forward to.

 

Languid June

[Languid June As Seen From Our Back Deck.]

Languid June.  Languid June.  The name has a certain ring to it.  Like Lay Down Sally, Calamity JaneBlack-Eyed Susan, Axis Sally, Typhoid Mary and Moaning Myrtle.  I chose the title of this post with care.  I do believe that I saw a Sad-Eyed Lady at the corner stool in a dusty bar in El Paso in 2013.  I do believe I heard the bartender ask: Same again, Languid June?

But, already I digress.

It’s that time of year.  We had a Spring, but I can’t tell you what day that was.  It certainly wasn’t March 21, the Vernal Equinox…there was still snow on the ground.  Now, it’s summer, only a few days before the Summer Solstice.  I sit on the living room sofa and look out toward the lake.  The leaves are out in full now, so we’ve lost nearly all of our view of the water.  It is uncannily still considering the wind storms we’ve been having.  The fresh new maple leaves flicker almost imperceptibly.

It’s quiet, so much so that you can hear the blood rushing in your ears (or maybe it’s my tinnitus again).  A man and a woman talk quietly as they kayak past our dock.  The crickets buzz on occasion.  The crows squawk away in the near-by woods.  The bullfrogs down at the lake never seem to tire of their amorous croaking.  Okay, sounds like a noisy place…but it’s not.  It’s quiet.  It’s lonely.  It’s languid.

I was a science teacher so I know that just beyond the frequency of our hearing range, there is a riot of activity, in our yard, in the nearby woods and down by the lakeside.  But, speaking only for myself, I can’t report a “riot” of anything going on in my brain.

When I look out at the motionless trees, the only term that comes to mind is Dog Day Afternoon, then I remember that’s a 1975 movie with Al Pacino. It feels like the Dog Days of Summer, but I think that happens sometime in July or August; I can’t remember and it’s not on my wall calendar.

Maybe I should ask Alexa.

The Robin’s Nest

[The nest after being moved from the lamp]

[American Robin: Turdus migratorius.]

I’m sure it was a Robin’s nest.  Every time Mariam or I would use the front deck entrance (with a screen door that slammed louder than the front gate of Alcatraz), a bird with a rusty breast would scold us from a nearby branch of a long-needle pine.

When we arrived home after our late winter trip overseas, neither of us noticed anything.  But one afternoon something caught my eye.  It was atop our outdoor light.  At first it looked like Rip van Winkle’s hat…leafy, twiggy and crusted with mud.  I chanced to pull out our kitchen stool and peaked inside…it was a birds nest, constructed with such engineering skill, it made a beaver dam look like a 6th graders science experiment.  I touched nothing, knowing the rules about birds and nests.

Nothing much happened for a few days.  No sign of any action.  Then on another afternoon, I was in the guest bedroom trying to find a clean flannel shirt for the day (It’s late May, so I get to level down from wool to fleece to flannel.)  I looked out at the lamp.  A mother Robin was tending the nest!  I moved the window shade ever so slightly and she took off to a nearby branch.

We had a family living above our lamp.  Life was about to begin on our front porch.  For several weeks we watched as the mother sat as still as a dead parrot in a cage.  We began to use the back deck for our commerce, avoiding the disturbance of the slamming screen door.  Mariam began to take a special interest in the birds welfare…she watched it from afar like a trained ornithologist…which was great to watch…since she, Mariam not the bird, is from Queens.

A few days ago, I was sitting in our living room reading David Copperfield.  (I’m on page 260…I have only 469 pages left…that’s good for me, I’ve only been at it for four years) when Mariam walked in and announced that she believed the mother bird abandoned the nest.  I thought about it for a few minutes and told her that I thought that the hatchlings had already taken wing.  She didn’t think so.

Today, she asked me to take down the nest as it was obviously empty, but she didn’t want to see inside.  So I went out and actually had to struggle to move the nest.  It was so firmly attached to the lamp that even the stormy weather we’ve had couldn’t possible have budged it.

[The original nest site…pretty good choice I think.]

It was a marvel of…well, nest-making.  But I found no signs of egg shells bits.

I believe the family is gone and the fledglings are fine in the parents care.  Soon, they too will be fully adult by summers end…and will migrate when the time comes…that time when their internal chemistry tells them it’s time to fly south, something I can relate to.

Watching nature’s cycles unfold from a window is a privilege.  This is what living in the North Country offers.

The next major event is black-fly season.  I’ll be watching that play out from the screened-in porch, thank you.  There are some things in nature I just don’t do…getting my blood sucked by anything with wings is not on my to-do list.