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Lightning in a Bottle: A Chronicle of Wonder

Entries in Seasons (10)


The Facts of Leaf

To the untrained eye, writing might look a lot like simply raking leaves. Then again, maybe they're one and the same.

Truth is, I spent a good part of this day doing a bit of both—whisking a motley carpet of leaves into piles, and then standing, leaning on the rake, and staring into the November sky. Rake. Think. Repeat.

The work itself is rewarding. It begins in chaos and ends in order and in between is nothing but near-silence broken only by the shuffling of the rake through the leaves. In other words, it stands in sharp contrast to the rest of my days.

And the leaves themselves are excellent companions. Tulip tree and maple, sassafras and sweet gum. Vivid bursts of yellow, red and orange after so many months of green—then always, ultimately, brown.

But here's the beauty part: Those glorious fall colors that rise and fall so quickly—too quickly—are not the result of some amazing transformation. Yes—the colors we see do change, of course. But the leaves are the same. It's not that an ordinary green leaf suddenly and spectacularly becomes a brilliant scarlet leaf. That scarlet leaf is inside all along, waiting for the cholorphyll to ebb in the chill and fading light of autumn—waiting for the green to recede and, at long last, let it shine.

I'd like to think that we're the same. We all start out tender and green and full of promise, yet our bodies will wither in the end. But maybe somewhere in between we, too, will have a glorious autumn—and I'll bet there's one hell of a beautiful leaf inside each of us, just waiting to be revealed.


Summer: An Apology

I'm fond of saying that fall, when it comes, apologizes for the summers around here. 

This summer, which did not go gently—the temperatures topped 90 degrees for the 90th time today—was one of the hottest in recent memory. Autumn is always welcome; this year, it may be even more so.

As I write this, the vernal equinox is just over an hour away, but a sultry harvest moon, full and round and pale yellow-orange, has long since risen to usher in the season—with Jupiter, closer to Earth and brighter in our skies than it has been for quite some time, to escort her. What an auspicious beginning!

So. Here's to the crisp, clear skies and cool nights ahead.

Breathe in, and hold it.


What's the Buzz? Cicadas.

The last few days, with slightly cooler temperatures and occasional rain, have given us a bit of relief from the slow-cooker that is Virginia in August—but there's still no mistaking the fact that the dog days are in full swing around here. Thoreau holds a dog-day cicada.Even when the heat is less than oppressive, the sound—the buzzing, whirring racket of cicadas—still hangs heavy in the air, adding to the lazy haze of late summer days.

The culprit? Dog-day cicadas, those big, bulky insects with wide-set bulgy eyes. If you haven't seen them, you might have noticed their "shells"—the weird, crackly exoskeletons left behind by the nymphs as they turn into adults—clinging to the sides of trees, posts or walls. (And, if you live where there are cicadas and still haven't seen them, you almost certainly will have heard them!)

Naturally, Thoreau is fond of them. Back in 2004, when the so-called "Brood X" periodical cicadas emerged by the millions, he collected them by the bucketful and made some pretty sophisticated observations for a 3-year-old—that some of the cicadas felt heavier than the others, for instance. (He was right; the abdomen of male cicadas is hollow, most likely to serve as a resonating chamber to amplify their high-decibel calls as they seek mates.)

The cicada hitching a ride on Thoreau's hand in these photos, taken yesterday, might not have made it to today. Once emerging as an adult, a cicada lives for only a couple of weeks—and this docile fellow didn't seem to have much left in the tank by the time we'd found him.

But though his time may have been brief, he did something I think we all can admire: he made a big noise while he was here.

Seeing eye-to-eye with a dog-day cicada.



Three Seasons in One Day

All dog walkers are astronomers at heart, I think—stargazers, at the very least. And, as someone who spends a fair amount of time under dark skies with a canine companion, I’m pretty well acquainted with the coming and going of the stars.

I’m happy to report that recently, as we slipped across the threshold of spring into perfect weather, the skies around here have been spectacular—clear, dark and dry, from dusk to dawn.

But about dawn: I’m no fan of Daylight Saving Time. Mother Nature grants us longer days perfectly well on her own schedule, thank you very much, and that sudden loss of an hour leaves me reeling for days. Even worse is to suddenly have to rise again each morning in the darkness that had been so reassuringly losing its grip to daylight.

So to start these days under a blanket of stars has been somewhat disorienting, especially when the constellations are as familiar as the faces of old friends. How strange to say good night as the landmarks of the winter sky—Orion, the Pleiades, Sirius—slip away to the western horizon, and to step outside into the twilight just hours later to find the stars of late summer—The Eagle, The Swan, The Lyre—already high overhead.

As I try to wrestle some larger meaning from that, all I’m left with are simple truths. The world keeps turning, and things are looking up. And that’s enough for me.


(The title “Three Seasons in One Day” is inspired by “Four Seasons in One Day,” a song by New Zealanders Neil and Tim Finn. It appears on the terrific album Woodface by Crowded House.)



Happiness is a Warm Puppy

I've fallen a bit behind lately; it's been more than three weeks since my last post here.

Not coincidentally, it's also been just over three weeks since we brought home Charlie, the little ball of energy and fur who's been filling our days with the highs and lows of puppihood.

This past weekend brought more snow—a surprise in that the inch or so in the forecast ended up as nearly five inches of light, fluffy powder. Here's Charlie, now eleven weeks old, exploring his first snowfall:

And here's a look at Charlie and The Bean, getting ready to romp in the snow together:

And, ever resourceful, Thoreau came up with a good use for the cardbox box in which Charlie's crate was packaged—a surprisingly efficient homemade sled. (That's my boy!)


Winter Wonderland

Talk about impeccable timing.  Winter break for Thoreau and The Bean began with the end of the school day on Friday, December 18th.  And, just a few hours later, the first of the snowflakes began to fall.  And fall.  

By the time we turned in for the night, our neighborhood was already feathered in white.  By the time we woke up Saturday morning, it was an alien world cloaked in at least a foot of snow.  And at the time this photo of our backyard and patio was taken, there were several more inches yet to fall.  Our best guess at the final total was somewhere around 16 inches—maybe more.

Much snowThree-quarters of the way through the snowfallIt was almost too much of a good thing.  The Bean, confronted with snowdrifts nearly up to her waist, could barely navigate the stuff—but was having the time of her life, nonetheless.  

Shoveling the driveway took place in several passes over two days, but once I'd created a large enough pile, Thoreau had fun tunneling through it, as you can see here:

When we arrived in southeastern Maine for the week between Christmas and the New Year, it was strange to find it green, having grown accustomed to the white blanket of snow back home.  But on New Year's Eve, it did snow—giving us a postcard-perfect glimpse of Green Acre as we left Maine and headed to Pennsylvania to ring in the New Year with my mother, brother and sister-in-law. 

And while it was only a couple of inches, fresh snow greeted us there, too.  On New Year's Day, The Bean set to work on the red-nosed reindeer, seen here:

Rudolph the red-nosed snow-deer

Meanwhile, Thoreau and Gabby were hard at work building a snow fort from giant snowballs—and demonstrating just why kids sleep so well after a day spent playing in the snow:

The snow was all but gone when we finally returned home, but Thoreau discovered a bit of it preserved in this unique find—a "snow fossil" etched into the underside of his sled:

Snow fossil


First Snow

Sitting at the gate this morning, waiting for a flight from Nashville to DC, I had no idea I'd be spending the afternoon playing in the season's first snow with Thoreau and The Bean.  But a quick check on my iPhone revealed a forecast of 4 inches of snow back home—and the real-time weather cam showed trees, streets and rooftops already being dusted with snow.  All of which heightened my anticipation of this first, and unexpected, snow of the season.

The DC region seems to perpetually hover near the rain/snow line, often producing soft, wet snowfalls.  And today, we had at least 5 inches of the well-packing stuff, a fairly prodigious output for this part of the mid-Atlantic—especially while we're still in the tail end of autumn.

Even before I joined them, Thoreau and The Bean were turning our front yard into a wintry statuary, including an IKEA-esque snow chair and a collection of "Snowhenge" monuments.  But the real fun began when we set out to build a tower of rounded blocks which, halfway through construction, changed course and became an igloo of sorts. 

Shortly before dark, we finished our work—giving Thoreau and The Bean just enough time to cozy up in it, and giving Bliss just enough light to snap this photo of them warming up inside:

 The Bean and Thoreau enjoy the result of an afternoon's work


Just Wait 'Til Next Year

Baseball fans—and I count myself among them—recognize an alternate sequence of seasons: Spring Training, Glorious Summer, Fall Classic.  And now, with the World Series drawing to a close, begins the next one: Long Cold Winter.

But baseball, like any good belief system, has its foundation in hope and renewal.  As sure as winter gives way to spring, discontentment dissolves in the rebirth of optimism. Just wait 'til next year...

In the meantime, the best way to look forward can be to look back.  If you haven't yet read it—or read it lately—treat yourself to John Updike's classic essay about Ted Williams' final at-bat: "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu"


Woolly Bully

Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear.  A woolly bear, in this case.

Earlier today, The Bean came across a lively little woolly bear caterpillar, no doubt preparing itself for the colder weather ahead.  And, as our family's official Giver of Names, she dubbed her newfound friend "Fuzzy," which is as good a name for these bristly little fellows as any.

A common sight in the fall, chestnut and black-banded woolly bears are among those caterpillars that are much better known than their adult forms—they are the larvae of the relatively nondescript Isabella tiger moth.

But they are, of course, even more famous for their prognostication.  According to legend, the length of the woolly bear's middle, chestnut-colored band predicts the severity of the upcoming winter.  The shorter the band, the longer and colder the winter ahead.

It's been a pleasant and relatively mild fall in the mid-Atlantic, so far.  Could that generous band of reddish-brown mean more of the same for the winter ahead? 


Daylight Fading

I love the quiet change of seasons at this time each year, as summer begins to slip away and give way to fall.

It’s a subtle shift, not at all like the bursting forth of springtime buds and flowers or the sudden appearance—and disappearance—of brightly colored autumn leaves.  It’s one measured by degrees—of evenings that fall ever so slightly clearer and cooler that their chill creeps up and settles upon us like fog; of rays of sunlight that strike our faces at ever more oblique angles.

It’s celestial geometry that resolves itself in golden light, and golden time, as the world itself quickens and stirs something within us.

Around here, it’s set to music: the final chorus of summer sung by cicadas, crickets and katydids.

Time, now, to throw open the bedroom windows, and fall asleep to their song.