“The Sweet and Merry Month of May”

This has been an unusually cool and rainy month in northern Virginia, as recorded in the average air temperature and the rainfall total, which should surpass 8” for the month before the end of the day.  Nights have been cool, many afternoons so chilly that I’ve worn a sweater over long sleeves.  The cats have had little sun to loll in, neither on the screen porch in the early morning or late afternoon, nor by the storm door in the front.

When we got home from recent travels we had long grass, encouraged by the cold and wet, and hard to mow because it was wet.  But we attacked it and got it done.  Not, however, without the mower leaving big clumps all over the lawn like an incontinent cow.

I was working clean-up duty, raking the clumps before they matted and spot-killed the lawn, on a rare sunny afternoon when I realized the other day that May, which Elizabethan composer William Byrd called the “sweet and merry month,” is truly just that.  Hot, and sweaty in the sticky air, I stopped to rest on the porch steps for ten minutes.  First, a tiny butterfly, looking for all the world as if it had commandeered a piece of sky to color its wings, fluttered leisurely across the patio, exploring random small weeds, leaves, clumps of dirt.  It was almost certainly a Spring Azure, though different butterfly sites provide very different structures of classification.  Next, a fox kit trotted nonchalantly into the yard from the back hedge, angled over into the neighbors’ azaleas, and was on his way.  He saw me, but neither paused in surprise nor hurried away in fear.  Then there was the “wild rose tree,” actually an ornamental holly tree that is now full of rose vines and looked simply splendid in the bright sunshine.  This simple wild plant is a free bounty, just eager to express its own beauty with its deep pink blossoms and yellow center, and with its gentle rose scent.

roses in bloom

Our wild roses in full bloom

Finally, sometime after my rest, I found a small bird’s nest in the arbor vitae.  It was a shallow concave thing, woven together with grass and pliable twigs, neatly and securely.  It evidently had served its purpose, but was a symbol of the simplicity of the needs of songbirds, the care with which they use what nature provides, and the procreational urges of the season.  Much to be thankful for in the “sweet and merry” miracles of nature, right in my own back yard.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2017


Comfort Zones

A couple of weeks ago I took to my bike again, following a long patch of rainy weather that necessitated my riding my indoor trainer, and a week away from home.  The later spring blossoms along the way included blackberry and wild rose, their natural copious abundance increased by cool weather and rainfall that assured they’d “pop” once we had a couple of days of seasonal sunshine.

Normally they crowd up to the edge of the W&OD Trail, leaving no doubt of their presence.  But this year the Regional Park Authority spent a lot of time in the early spring cutting back trailside brush to about 15’ to 30’ along both sides of the trail, except in places where it cuts through terrain in a way that results in steep inclines immediately off the pavement.  The result looked very “scorched earth” in March, but now it has mellowed a little bit, despite the herbicides used to dampen [even they could not “halt”] bamboo growth.

Still, for old berry pickers like me, foragers from the ‘70s era of Euell Gibbon’s Stalking the Wild Asparagus, comfortable access to blackberry bushes is a nice perk.  We’ve had a few trailside quarts here and there.  And this would have been a good year, given the 7.43” of rain recorded in Vienna this May.

Wild rose

Wild rose blossoms.

The bushes were still close enough for me to enjoy my late-May rides, because the seasonally humid, close air concentrated the fragrance of the roses.  I’d be riding along, and there would be a stretch of a couple of hundred feet where the air was richly laden with the deep, sweet aromas of the roses’ perfume.  As I wrote here some years ago, it’s easy to tell roses and blackberries apart if you know what you’re looking for.  Both have five white petals in each blossom, and both have clusters of blossoms in similar patterns.  But blackberry blossoms are more slender and ever so slightly greenish, while the broader rose blossoms are equally slightly pinkish.  Likewise, blackberry leaves are on the bluish side of the green spectrum, while rose leaves are inclined, again ever so slightly, to the yellowish side.

While smelling the roses literally, I have been smelling them figuratively as well.  A couple of days ago I took a quantum leap by increasing my riding range from 15 ½ to 21 ½ miles.  I hadn’t really planned to go that much farther, but it was a great day, cool, sunny, dry, and the place I had planned to turn around offered no place to rest.  So I just went on.  Luckily, the terrain between Wiehle Ave. and Van Buren St. is relatively flat, with only one dip and one overpass.  My new turnaround is only about a mile and a half from my old standard turnaround on the W&OD going in that direction, so it may not be too long before I am doing my whole “old normal” ride.

That said, I’m probably only about 75% of normal strength, but a lot of that is just building conditioning back.  I still am fatigued more quickly, and my overall pace is a couple of ticks slower.  But I’m already motivated to push the envelope of my new comfort zone.  And pretty much the whole summer lies ahead!

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2016

Banzai / Bonsai

December 7, 1941, was the “date that will live in infamy,” as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt put it. On that date, 74 years ago today, aircraft of the Empire of Japan, flying off six aircraft carriers, conducted a surprise attack on the American naval base and surrounding military installations at Pearl Harbor, Honolulu, Hawai’i, then an American Territory. The damage was enormous. 2403 Americans were killed and another 1178 injured. All eight American battleships then docked at Pearl Harbor were hit and badly damaged, with four sunk outright. The Japanese wanted to keep America from interfering with its upcoming plans to expand its conquests in the Asian Pacific. They succeeded in the short term, but of course they drew America into the World War then going on in Europe and Asia, and they lived to regret that. The Americans interfered mightily with the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Less than four years later B-29 bombers, which by then could fly with near impunity throughout the Pacific, dropped single atomic bombs on Hiroshima and then, lacking an immediate Japanese capitulation, Nagasaki. The consequences—129,000 deaths, nearly all civilian—persuaded the Japanese to surrender.

I was only two years old on the day of the Pearl Harbor attack, but I grew up in a world in which “Pearl Harbor” was synonymous with deceit and treachery. I grew up in a world in which basic commodities were rationed because of the war effort, in which we drove a 1937 Chevy through whose floorboards you could see the pavement because new cars were unavailable. In that world Mitsubishi was not a car manufacturer, but the maker of a deadly fighter aircraft that killed men of my father’s generation. I remember the day of the Japanese surrender in August of 1945, and nobody was sorry that those nuclear bombs had been dropped. That night Dad woke us up to see the fireworks several miles away over the Boston skyline. When I went to college twelve years later a surprise test was still called a “Jap quiz.”

pine bonsai

Japanese Pine Bonsai, a gift to the American people from Nagasaki.

This fall we visited the National Arboretum’s Bonsai gardens. This remarkable collection of small trees represents the best in the ancient practice of trimming the branches and roots of seedling trees so that they become miniaturized and grow in pots. “Bonsai” is a Japanese term, but like so much else in Japanese culture the process evolved its distinctive characteristics from Chinese origins. Even the term is a corruption of “penzai” and “penjing,” words associated with the original Chinese ways. I came across one bonsai specimen that dated to 1939, the year I was born. I observed that if I had been given such constant care and loving attention since then, I’d probably be in better shape than I am. But luckily we humans are left to grow up somewhat wildly, arms akimbo, on our own. Bonsais can last longer than we humans; a couple of specimens in the collection date to the eighteenth century.

Among the many noble Japanese Pine bonsai, one stands out. It was a gift from a Japanese family to the American nation in 1975, on the thirtieth anniversary of the Japanese surrender.  The plant had been nurtured by the same Japanese family for five generations. Remarkably the plant and the family were living in Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. Remarkably, both the plant and the family survived. Today its sturdy trunk, its carefully sculpted clusters of branches, its dense miniature needles, its ironic mushroom-cloud shape, all bear witness to life. That miniature pine tree, still growing in the capital city of the country that defeated its nation of origin in war, symbolizes ongoing compassion, nurture, and vitality. These qualities reflect the new bonds between the Japanese and American people. Its existence and presence make me hopeful that time can restore all human bonds, that enmity and violence can be subdued by the embrace of our common humanity.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2015.

The North Wind Doth Blow, or, The Robin

The old nursery rhyme about robins in winter goes:

The north wind doth blow
And we shall have snow
And what will poor robin do then, poor thing,
He’ll sit in the barn
And keep himself warm
And hide his head under his wing, poor thing.

Poor Robin

Poor robin, European style

This ditty refers to the European robin, or Erithacus rubecula. That’s obvious, because that insectivorous, passerine bird, specifically a chat (as Wikipedia tells us), is “sedentary” over its range. It’s around all year, summer and winter, spring and fall.

The American robin is Turdus migratorius, or “migratory thrush.” Unlike the cute, tiny, truly red-breasted European robin, the American robin is over half again as large, rather bumptious, with a breast that is reddish-orange. Clearly as close as the English settlers of the Atlantic coast could find to their beloved national bird, but not the same thing at all, really.  They are not passerine, but eat invertebrates, fruits, and berries.

And they are migratory. In fact, the return of the robin was known as the early harbinger of spring in New England, where I grew up. Thoreau, who in Walden wrote perhaps the most universal and simultaneously the most intimately local of all books, talks of the robin in Chapter 17, “Spring”:

I heard a robin in the distance, the first I had heard for many a thousand years, methought, whose note I shall not forget for many a thousand more — the same sweet and powerful song as of yore. O the evening robin, at the end of a New England summer day! If I could ever find the twig he sits upon! I mean he; I mean the twig.  This at least is not the Turdus migratorius.

Meaning that the first robin of spring, portending the ones he will hear on summer evenings, is an individual bird, not a generic species. I am convinced that the version of the nursery rhyme that my dad used to recite was written in America about American robins:

The north wind doth blow
And we shall have snow
And what will poor robin do then, poor thing,
He’ll sit on the branch
Of a tropical tree
And laugh at us under his wing, tee hee.

It is accurate, but also has a peculiarly American sardonic quality. Those robins don’t suffer, nor do they deserve our pity. They live it up in the Caribbean, and come back in the spring.

Our backyard holly trees, now a good 25 feet or more high, are getting a once-over from a flock of some 30 or 40 robins this week. In a couple more days, the berries will be entirely stripped. It used to be that we always had trees full of berries until after Christmas, so we could cut colorful red-and-green ornamental sprigs from them. Then when it got really nasty in January the winter birds, especially cedar waxwings, would eat the berries in times of severe needs.

But now the robins get them early.   You’d think that they were fueling up for their annual fall migration. The trouble is, these birds do not migrate!   They have learned that in our increasingly temperate winters, they can survive quite well. I saw them all last winter, branded harsh and difficult by those who do not know what winter is, grubbing around under the already-stripped hollies for food. Why fly over a thousand miles when you can get by locally?

Now, in consequence, we have no harbingers of spring. Or at least we’re thrown back on less cheering, less reliable measures, such as the response of a pestiferous rodent, the groundhog, to his shadow or the absence of it. This bothers me, because it reflects the reality of climate change, and because one of the greatest human losses as the environment shifts under our feet is the loss of ageless patterns, the very measure of our time, our mortality.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2014.



Signs of seasonal change are all around us. When I launch out on a bike ride shortly after 9:00 a.m. the shadows are still very long, since the sun is rising later and is lower in the sky. At 5:30 these days it’s still dark out, whereas it would have been late predawn six weeks ago. Nevertheless, the route I ride is more heavily shaded until later in the morning in late spring and early summer, because the sun rises farther to the north and casts shadows almost straight across the trail until midmorning. Now it’s inching southward, and by midmorning its rays are coming almost into line with the prevailing trail direction.

Along the trail for the last week, dry leaves have fallen when the wind is gusty—and it has been unusually gusty this summer. The weather has not been dry; we’ve gotten average rain. So these leaves are just the early harbingers of the avalanche to come in eight or ten more weeks. When I arrived home from a ride last week I noticed a “fairy ring” of mushrooms in the side yard. They flourish therein the humidity of late summer and early fall. This was quite a good-sized ring, and encompassed an arch of about 270°.

wolly bear

Wooly Bear caterpillar

But the clincher was the outlier Wooly Bear caterpillar I saw a full two weeks ago, back in July. It was headed straight across the trail, as they usually are, and its reddish-brown middle band was definitely (or as a tragic portion of my students write, “defiantly”) wide. According to folklore these critters, the larval stage of the Isabella tiger moth, predict the severity of the coming winter. So not to worry, the upcoming hibernal season will surely be mild, at least here in Northern Virginia. Plenty of chances to ride outdoors without fearing the fate of the Scott party.

Meanwhile, we’ll savor these late summer days. The local average high temperature has already come off its mid-July zenith, and in the current month will fall by four more degrees, before it really plummets a further ten in September. So I’ll be reveling in “summertime, when the riding is easy,” as Israel (Ira) Gershwin almost put it.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2014.

Nature Report

Riding the W&OD in the relatively early morning to beat the early July heat.  I am finding myself more sensitive, if anything, to heat these days.  The summer flowers are in their prime, including yarrow, deep blue cornflowers (as yet unfaded), black-eyed Susans, St. Anne’s lace, and trumpet vine.  The fauna are about as well.  Squirrels and chipmunks scramble as the bike rolls by, and of course there are the domestic fauna: dogs on leashes (keep those leashes short, folks!), and hunting cats patiently waiting for some small rodent to make a mistake.  Todays’s special sighting was an Eastern Box Turtle, about halfway across the trail, head up and alert, contemplating his next half hour of activity in reaching the other side.  Actually, of course, I exaggerate; it would only take him a minute or less once he saw that the coast was clear.  Oddly, I did not see even one of the species this area is cursed with, though I often do see them up close, unafraid, and personal: the hoofed, hosta-eating, tick-hosting Ibmab, the evil anti-Bambi.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2014.

Tahquitz Canyon

[Originally posted on October 2]  Yesterday was our day to stay at the Oasis Resort and relax. We sat by the pool, did some reading and swimming; Jane liked the hot tub in the late afternoon. We limited ourselves to shady lounge areas rather than the direct rays of the desert sun.


The intrepid hikers on the trail in Tahquitz Canyon.

This morning, however, we decided to see one of the sites offered by the local Indigenous Peoples (e.g. Indians). They are the Agua Caliente band of Cahuilla Indians. Their ancestors settled in this area more than 2000 years ago, but they were restricted to a reservation by the US Government in 1876. Today they have a visitors’ center at the mouth of a very ancient and impressive canyon that runs up into the foothills of the mountains, Tahquitz Canyon. We got there about 9:15, hoping for a guided Ranger Tour, but that was not available this morning, so we took the self-guided option.

We bought a large water bottle, having been warned in many forms that dehydration is a principal form of danger in this region. We also took advantage of the offer of free walking sticks, which came in very handy as a “third leg” on the uneven ground. Armed with these things and an interpretive guide map, we set out on the loop trail to the head of the canyon, 2 1/2 miles long round-trip, with a 350 foot rise.

Hiking on, over, and around rock, we found the path well-trod. We could verify the

Cow is ic ela, meaning "The Fox's Dress."  An indian maid of that name had the power to turn herself into the stone atop the boulder.

Cow is ic ela, meaning “The Fox’s Dress.” An Indian maid of that name had the power to turn herself into the stone atop the boulder.

direction because most of the footprints in the desert dust were going the way we were. The bottom of the trail was unshaded and rocky, close to the base of the steep and stony canyon wall. The points of interest had to do with Indian legends and local lore. As the trail got steeper, there was more shade, and a couple of indications of how the Indians used the stream as a water source. More of the trail was in the form of high-rising rocky steps, and lizards skittered off rocks and into shady crevices. The trail circled rocks and outcroppings; it was not a straight path.  Flora and fauna changed a bit with the altitude.  If one were to go to the top of San Jacinto Mountain, one would travel through four distinct climate zones.

trail top

Pal hani kalet, as named 2000 years ago by leader of the Fox tribe. a place of shady coolness, spiritual power.

Just as we were beginning to poop out we reached the summit, where a 60-foot seasonal waterfall was still active now in early autumn. Its water skimmed over rocks and then free-fell into a shady pool. We doubted that the sun ever shone there directly. We spent a while reveling in the cool air, the refreshing sound of the water, the amazing eroded rock formations. No wonder this spot was thought to hold sacred power.

The first part of our downward trek was even shadier, because we were hugging the steep mountain slope. We encountered none of the larger mammals that live here–kit foxes, mountain lions, longhorn sheep, rabbits, or squirrels. But we saw more wild, sacred country. Back at the ranger station, we watched an interpretive film about the Indian deities, and particularly the shaman Tahquitz, who was said to steal souls of those who entered his mountain domain, and who abducted an Indian maiden.

Back on the valley road, heading for lunch, we finally saw our first Roadrunner. He was walking, not running, across the road. Beep-beep.

Then came another afternoon of cloudless sun and pool-slumming.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2013.