Days of the Garter

Honi soit qui mal y pense.
I offer warm accolades to all readers who can (a) translate this sentence accurately, (b) provide its historical background, factual and legendary, and (c) relate it to the title of this blog.

Of late we’ve had some real fall weather, as it is understood in this climate. Nighttime temperatures have dipped into the 30s and even upper 20s, bringing the first frosts, though not killing freezes yet. The neighbors’ mysterious oriental vine (their ancestral home is Tibet) is now limp and ruined, hanging slackly from its elaborate support structure of string and wood. But our own potted geraniums, tucked snugly against the house on the front stoop, are still thriving, bringing forth a resurgent growth of red blossoms. Yet we know their days are numbered, perhaps in single digits.

Daytime temperatures soar into the sixties to mid-seventies, a full 40-degree jump, with a few notable exceptions. We attended Ben’s baseball game on late Monday afternoon, and thought we were going to get frostbite in the nippy upper-40s breeze as sunset descended on the diamond. The chill made us think that if they had only flooded it they might have been able to play hockey.

With the sun setting ominously early, and the dawn creeping in ever later, there’s a basically chilly affect even if the sun warms up for a few hours and makes us all feel good. The cats seek out those sunny squares of warm light on the carpets, squirrels keep their metabolism up by squirreling away nuts for the winter, people find the sunny benches in the parks and along the bike trails, the same ones they had avoided all summer as they sought respite from the blazing heat. Now any bit of warmth is good.


Eastern Garter Snake

And so the season is reflected on the bike trail. The tarmac warms up in the middle of the day. Where the trail courses close to Piney Branch and Difficult Run on the way from Vienna to Hunter Mill Road, the creatures living in the woods and wetlands adjacent to the trail are drawn to its warmth. While the cool air lurks in the lowlands and hollows, the W&OD becomes an oasis of blissful heat. Thus it was that yesterday I saw not one, not two, but three snakes in separate places along the trail. As I encountered them, they were moving in sinuous frenzy to escape the imagined menace of my 15 m.p.h. approach. But surely they had been stretched out on the asphalt, every bit of their cold-blooded reptilian being enjoying the autumnal solar heating.

I am pretty sure they were all garter snakes, because they had that dark green and yellow longitudinal striping. One of them might have been a queen snake. Two of them were big, healthy specimens in the vicinity of 20” long (give or take 3 or 4 inches), the other maybe more in the 14” range. My powers of observation are only approximate as I am concerned at these moments with not harming the snakes, keeping my bike on course, and only then garnering a more precise observation of the critter itself.

One thing I love about cycling is the constant reminder of the ongoing presence of wildness around us. I am grateful for the protection of that wildness provided by creeks and their flood plains, and by these old rail trails and their right-of-ways. They all help assure that many creatures can coexist alongside 1,140,000 suburbanite human beings who inhabit Fairfax County.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2015.


Gunmetal Gray

Last Monday we returned home from a wonderful weekend spent in part with good friends in majestic West Virginia, looking westward across layers of mountains and the snaking Potomac, and in part with dear old friends in Pennsylvania celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary. The weather was warm, gently sunny, and sublimely relaxing.

On Tuesday we began a streak of gray, rainy weather, in which for six straight days the sky remained a relentless gunmetal gray, the air got colder, the precipitation varied from drizzle to downpour to fog and back again. During midweek we got ready to hunker down for a local hurricane. Early weather forecast models had “Joaquin” coming right up the middle of the Chesapeake Bay. My Church Council dithered for a while, trying to make our inclement weather snow policy fit a hurricane. Couldn’t do it. We struggled to actually think out what to do “in case.” But the storm went way out to sea instead, casting grave doubt on the reliability of forecast models, even those developed only three days ahead. In fact we got only gentle rains, which were much needed. They served this year’s version of the “equinoctial storms” that herald the change of seasons, as in Shelley’s “wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being.” But this week was a time of dead losses too.

For baseball fans of all teams except the elite playoff clubs, it was the end of the season. Watching games last week televised in Atlanta, New York, and Washington, D. C., I could hear the echo of individual fans shouting their last hurrahs and epithets as many of the “fair weather” faithful opted for warmer, drier, lighter surroundings than the dank, dim ball parks. On Saturday the Nats took two games from the Mets in Citi Field, and except for diehard fans of the two teams nobody cared much because the Mets had already sewn up the Division Championship. If the race had still been on, Bryce Harper’s game-winning two-run blast in the eighth inning would have been electrifying (positive or negative charge) for tens of thousands of fans in the park and at home. As it was, the ball bounced around for a while in the largely empty upper deck, and I knew that as a Nats fan I’d still have to suffer the condescension of smug New Yorkers once again, as I so often have had to as a Boston fan. Gunmetal gray.

Republican poll leader Donald Trump's preferred school protection device

Republican poll leader Donald Trump’s preferred school protection device

On Thursday a gunman in Roseburg, OR, killed nine people, mostly Christians, and then himself, at a local community college. The incident was investigated by the local sheriff, who has been an active advocate against gun control. The President of the United States expressed grief, chagrin, frustration, and sorrow at the unwillingness of his country, alone among advanced western nations, to take action to reduce access to handguns. As he foresaw, universal gun access advocates used the same “tired” and untrue arguments. Predictably, the leading Republican presidential candidate opined that if the faculty of the institution had been armed fewer people would have died. Another Republican candidate, son and brother of presidents, observed that “stuff happens,” and you can’t just change the law every time it does. I reflected that among the “stuff” that the U.S. has had to endure are three terms of presidency by his family, one brought about by a vote of 5 to 4. The lack of compassion among those seeking leadership dismayed me. Gunmetal gray.

Overseas, first the Russians and then the Americans took turns bombing and killing doctors and patients in refugee hospitals staffed in part by Doctors Without Borders. Both nations denied intentionality. Americans were asked to be skeptical of the Russian claims, while accepting that the deaths from American bombs were unintentional “collateral damage.” That is the coldest, cruelest, calculatedly impersonal phrase in the lexicon. Medical doctors who volunteered to relieve suffering in the Third World were blown apart. Patients were burned alive in their beds. Had to do it though, because we thought there might be “bad guys” hiding there. As if this were some childhood game of backyard cops and robbers or ringolevio. At least when the Israelis bomb a hospital you know they did it on purpose because their military doesn’t make mistakes, and they admit it because they just don’t care. Gunmetal gray.

Well, it is Monday morning again, and the sun rose in a golden glow about 7:15 a.m. The sky is blue, the air is fresh and comfortable. Perhaps we’ll have a better week. We sure need one.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2015.