Earth Stood Hard as Iron

Virginia never gets the kind of “bleak midwinter” that Christina Rossetti conjured up for the Nativity out of her English sensibilities.  But the temperature has not been above freezing for four days, and it is now snowing, albeit very lightly, for the second day in a row.  That’s as close as we’re likely to get to her Bethlehem-on-Thames.  The temperature has not risen above 25° during the cold spell; right now it’s 20.7°.  On Tuesday especially the wind was vicious, roaring out of the northwest at over 30 mph to create bone-chilling conditions.

On days like this nature seems immobilized.  A double circumnavigation of the house this afternoon turned up no animals I could see or hear except the barking of a neighbor dog, which very annoyingly is apt to challenge me for walking in my own yard.  Luckily all dogs in the County need to be fenced if they’re left out, and leashed if they’re walking.

There were traces, though.  A few bird tracks in the thin, light snow, and several squirrel tracks, including some on the front porch.  The squirrels seem less abundant this winter, due in part I think to the recent cold (they’re all nested up), in part to the absence of the trees we had cut (nests elsewhere), and in part to the greater abundance of predators, including foxes and hawks (empty nest syndrome).  There are no prints at all on the back patio, meaning no animals there in the last day and a half.  Still, even with our fewer trees “A squirrel could jump from tree to tree / ‘Round the edges of our property,” and for that matter from the top of Academy Street almost to the bottom.  Not exactly Blacon Point to Hilbre, but something.

Earth iron

Earth standing hard as iron on Academy Street.

The rhododendron leaves are drooped and curled; the potted geraniums on the front porch, which had bloomed modestly through the holidays and up to last Monday, finally gave up the ghost.  Yet our flora always are responding to the natural urge.  The daffodils and jonquils are a couple of inches out of the ground.  They get tricked into exposing themselves too soon every winter, and tend to lose some of their potential blossoms.  Seeing those imprudent, sturdy optimists gives us hope every February.

Today, though, the midwinter bleakness prevails.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2013.


Reality and Perfection

Around these parts people always find something to natter about.  Most recently it’s been Beyonce Knowles, better known as Beyoncé, who apparently lip-synched her way through the National Anthem at President Obama’s Second Inauguration (my, that phrase has a lovely sound!).  Some people apparently thought she showed disrespect for the occasion, that she should have come to town earlier for adequate rehearsals, that somehow the lip-synch was artificial, phony, not worthy of the occasion.

Many of these folks doubtlessly gave Lady Gaga a pass when she simultaneously belted out a song in a strong voice and multi-puked on stage in Barcelona last October 8th.   That was either lip-synching or the first step to sainthood—a miracle. As for Beyoncé, her offended carpers are not professional vocalists, and don’t know the parameters of the artist and her situation.  You can talk about her lack of rehearsal time, the sub-freezing air, or whatever.  All I know is that Aretha Franklin defended her, and if the Queen of Soul says she’s OK, she’s golden as far as I’m concerned.

Chris Richards, in his Washington Post column “Give us reality—and also give us perfection,” talks of “how confused our culture has become over its wobbly standards of authenticity.”  We want passion, spontaneity, drama, the depths of the human soul.  But what if her voice had cracked from fatigue, cold, just an off moment?  The National Anthem is notoriously difficult to sing, even if you’re not an offensive jerk about it like Roseanne Barr.  Had Beyoncé faltered, the natterers would be picking that apart today.  The slim zone of perfection between failure and artificiality is all we want.

Needing so badly to hit that zone is reason enough to be persuaded to lip synch on such an occasion.  The problem is that we found out she did it.  As Richards says, that knowledge spoiled our fantasy that the whole event was a spontaneous expression of national enthusiasm rather than a carefully orchestrated (no pun intended) ritual.

Trek-riding cyclist that I am, I compare this to Lance Armstrong and the depth of vituperation poured upon him.  Few people wanted to challenge our vision of his heroic recovery, his amazing athleticism, his profound resolve to win on his merits.  But Armstrong, like his fans, needed to live in that slim zone of perfection.  He spoiled our vision of himself as the triumphant athlete by letting his use of PEDs become known, and so now many former hero-worshippers hate him.  The depth of that anger reflects the same “wobbly standards,” the same ambiguity about wanting it real and wanting it perfect, as does the indignation at Beyoncé.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2013.


Foxes!  The very word was the mating cry of those two “wild and crazy [Czech] guys,” Georg and Yortuk Festrunk (played by Steve Martin and Dan Ackroyd), of long-ago Saturday Night Live fame.  And it was our surprised cry today when Jane went out to get the paper about 7:20 a.m., right about sunrise on a freezing, clear morning.

What Jane first spotted was one fox, lying down right in the middle of Academy Street, somewhat downhill from our door, about opposite the next-door-neighbor’s driveway.  I grabbed my trusty Bushnell 12 x 25 binoculars, now always at the ready as part of my urban naturalist mode.  The fox was just lying there, head up and alert, and making a sort of continuing barking noise.  We wondered if the fox was injured or sick, though it did not appear to be.  Then we saw another fox, sitting silently by the bushes directly across the street from the first.  And closer examination showed there was yet a third, reclining just behind the sitting one.  They were both regarding the barking one with interest, though not hostility.  (This was very much like what occurred when a cat came to visit us while Isabel and Calvin were in their prime.  The female visitor, a former resident, was on her guard and hissing, but our two looked at her with mild curiosity.)

After a few minutes a car came along.  The one lying in the street immediately got up and came to the lawn next door to us, keeping its eyes on the other, and continuing the noise.  The two across the street shifted positions slightly but stood their ground.

After a few more minutes a woman walking a large white dog started up the street from Jackson Parkway.  She hadn’t seen the vulpine drama, but began to notice it.  She turned around and went back downhill.  But that action broke the spell for the two across the street.  They both stood up, revealing that the reclining one was slightly larger than the other two.  All of them were adult, beautifully colored, and healthy looking.  The two loped toward the back yard of the house they were in front of, then turned right and ran across the front of the next house up the street.  The other one ran across the street, joined them, and they all went around the corner of the house and disappeared.  Shortly thereafter Jane’s walking friends came, and one of them checked out the back yard of the house they’d disappeared behind.  She saw two of them rolling around in the grass.

We soon went online to learn more about what this activity might have been.  We learned that foxes have at least twelve vocalizations, some for confrontation and some for communication.  Some sources say there are as many as 40 recorded sounds.  What we heard may well have been what’s called “gekkering,” an ongoing noise rather than a cry, sort of like the “cackle” cats can make when they see would-be prey through a window.  Foxes often make it in confrontational situations.  One site said that male foxes “yip,” while female foxes “yap.”  I wondered if that’s anthropomorphizing the fox.  We also learned that December and January are mating season, and that foxes often pair off for the year, and may continue the pairing, though not with complete fidelity, for quite a few years.  We learned that they live in dens only for giving birth and raising the kits, and that they are pretty much solitary for the rest of the year, sleeping in the open.

Our amateur analysis of the situation speculates that the fox in the street was a submissive one, either a male in a rival’s territory, or a female expressing hostility to the idea of courtship.  Why the two others, rather than one?  We’re not so sure about that, unless they were already a bonded couple.  Judging from size, and noting that males tend to be a bit larger than vixens, the two together might have been a couple, and the one in the street the “odd vixen out.”  It would seem there’s a high probability that the situation had something to do with mating.  So the cry “Foxes!” turns out to fit both the wild and crazy antics of the Festrunk brothers and this morning’s nature drama.  In this case, three very wild foxes.  But only crazy like, um, a fox.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2013.

Do the Math

The figure I gave yesterday for the square footage of our lot stuck in my head as just plain wrong.  And it slowly came back to me that there are about 44,000 square feet in an acre, so a quarter acre is about 11,000 square feet.  Going to the modern Source of All Truth, I googled a converter and found that .27 acres comes out to 11,761 square feet.  That’s the true number.  The 2840 square foot figure must refer to our house.

All 11761 square feet are pretty sodden this morning after 24 hours of soaking rain.  It was a dry fall, so this is good.  The temperature today is 36°, about 20° lower than a couple of days ago.  Snowfall is predicted for Thursday.  The combination of cold wet does not encourage a yard excursion today, though we’ll see.  On days like this I like sitting in my office, writing and surveying the quiet, dripping matrix of tree branches extending in all directions over the neighboring rooftops.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2013.

Quercus alba

Being an urban naturalist begins with baby steps.  One of my concepts about doing so, derived from Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s book Crow Planet, is to concentrate on my own house and its lot.   Each such lot is a defined microenvironment.  Haupt says that a pair of crows claims about two such lots, about half an acre, as its nesting territory.  I’m not sure how one defines “territory” for crows, because they seem so often to travel and roost in flocks, but nesting demands a more definitive area.

Jane and I live on our house lot in Fairfax County, on Academy Street.  It is roughly rectangular, and is all of 2840 square feet, .27 acres.  The house was built in 1964, at a time when more trees were preserved in the development of subdivisions.  Ours, Stonewall Manor, was built in a woods, and still has many of its old trees.  In addition, trees planted by early homeowners have had plenty of time to mature.  So unlike the scorched earth of new developments, such as a nearby 7-acre parcel of mature woods where developers razed every single tree except for a very narrow perimeter around the outside edge, our properties provide considerable shade.

Shade brings its own problems, of course.  In the fall, raking is horrendous.  If you don’t hire a lawn service, and we don’t, you become very familiar with the components of your shade canopy.  We traditionally raked about 45 to 50 well-compacted 35-gallon bags every year.  Our biggest tree was a Willow Oak, whose narrow leaves clogged and pulled down gutters, slipped under porches, and even somehow wormed their way into the house.  Its quick-growing and burly roots heaved up the brick patio in wavy undulations, pushed against the retaining wall of the basement stairs, and created tripping hazards in the lawn.

Finally that tree had to go.  It was heartbreaking, and I may narrate the whole story some day.  This fall we had more serious tree work done, losing three weakened and dying trees (one swamp maple and two oaks) and two towering Southern Pines next door, which were threatening our home and had indeed already done damage through falling limbs.  So this fall we had less than half of our traditional raking chore.  Our backs loved it.

But now I want to care about, care for, and preserve the trees we have left.  One of them I had to get to “know” is in the northeast corner of the lot, on the downhill side.  So when I was walking the lot the other day (a daily activity now) I pulled off a leaf with a rake—this tree has some lower branches that never dropped their leaves.  I happily went inside for an online leaf identification session.  Haupt owns all kind of guidebooks to her flora and fauna, but I am going to see what I can do online for starters.

The brown leaf is still on my desk.  It’s about 13 cm from stem to tip, and it has four lobes

White Oak leaf

My Quercus alba leaf

on each side of its central vein, with one central lobe at the top.  Its symmetrical form tapers outward from its base, so the top end is far broader.  I noticed at least one on the grass that was about twice as big, but in exactly the same form.

In my search the most important thing I learned is that the leaves of varieties of oak that are native to Virginia come in a stunning array of shapes and sizes.  There is no one “oak leaf” shape comparable to the maple leaf form that adorns the Canadian flag and the uniforms of the Toronto hockey club.  I also learned that not all naturalists see the leaves of a single oak species exactly the same way, nor do the photos they take all match exactly.  Still, I was finally able to nail down my leaf as that of a White Oak, Quercus alba.

My family used to take a favorite hike in the Shenandoah National Park on the White Oak Canyon Trail.  From the top we passed Limberlost, about 1.5 acres of rare eastern virgin forest.  From the bottom we soon reached the lowest of about 4 or 5 falls along Cedar Run, the stream that the trail follows much of the way.  We could swim in very cold water and get nibbled by little fish.  So now I have found a tree on my lot that can remind me of those sweet summer walks.

New Year’s Rides

Just a collection of thoughts and observations about the rides I have taken yesterday and today, the first of the New Year.

  • I began riding seriously as part of a determined effort to get in shape and lose weight.  That was about nine years ago.  In 18 months I lost 40 pounds, gradually but steadily.  Over the last three or four years I have seen my weight creep up just a bit, perhaps five or six pounds above my lowest sustained weight.  This year I’d like to drop at least three to five pounds from last year’s weights.  But I also want to ride for riding’s sake, not just for my health.  How much, I wonder, does age modify what results we should expect from such exertions?  And how do I keep from being overly conscious of this one aspect of riding?
  • It’s always difficult for me to transition into riding in cold weather, even though I have the gear and enjoy the season.  By January, though, I am refocused enough to appreciate high temperatures that hover around 50°.  The average high for the date is about 42°.
  • Most folks must really dislike cycling in the cold.  Yesterday I passed 2 riders, was passed by 1, and saw about 20 coming the other way.  Today I passed two and saw 9 coming the other way.  Long stretches of empty trail and road on trips totaling about 46 miles.
  • Those riders who are out are serious riders of two kinds: (1) excellent recreational/competitive cyclists and (2) people who use a bike for basic transport.  Polar opposites, but common in their being on the bike.
  • Yesterday the forecast was for sun, with some high cloudiness by afternoon, with a high in the upper 50s.  In fact it was solid overcast when I went out at 11 a.m. and before I got home there were cold raindrops in the 44° air.
  • Today the forecast was for some morning sun, with cloudiness increasing by mid-day and highs approaching 50°.  I went out at 10:15 in bright sun, and there were no clouds at all for the entire ride.  The high during my ride was 46°, and it peaked out at about 52° later in the afternoon.  Go figure.

I am focusing on making 2013 an excellent year for riding, for health, for wholeness of body and spirit.