“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

The Bald-Faced Hornet

The other day we were doing a quick walk-around of the house with a handyman.  We’d hoped to hire him to take care of a couple of relatively minor yet urgent jobs—and we did so.  But while surveying the back yard we noticed a bees’ nest.  Tucked up against the edge of the sunroom, attached to the downspout, gutter, and facing board, was a big gray papery mass.  We assumed this must have been built over the last couple of weeks.  We’re out in the back yard pretty regularly in the summer, even when it is persistently hotter than normal like this year.  It wasn’t perfect porch weather, but we’d spent significant time there, in a place from which one could have seen the nest easily.  We’d mowed, watered, picked basil and rosemary, and raked out there.  The nest couldn’t have been there very long.

Bald-Faced Hornet

A Bald-Faced Hornet, so called because of the white markings.

Since we have a pest control contract to ward off carpenter ants, termites, chipmunks, and other pests (sadly it does not cover white-tailed deer, the pest of pests in our neighborhood), we called the contractor the next morning.  A meeting time was set up for the following day, and at the appointed hour Nixon, our main man, who I reckon to have been born between 1968 and 1974, arrived.  Nixon knows about all sorts of critters, and he took one look at our nest and said “Bald-Faced Hornets.”  We thought he said “Bold-Faced,” which would serve equally well.  He sprayed as a precaution, though he doubted that there were any live bees there.  “But it’s been there only a couple of weeks,” we explained.  Nixon took the nest down, gaining access by our stepladder.  There were many layers of papery gray sheets, with the asymmetrical yet harmonious shapes of so many natural objects built by living creatures.  They left a pattern on the siding; I’ll need to go back and wash them off soon.  Inside the torn-open structure the brood cells lay bare, caps gone, empty.  The last hornets had departed long since.


The nest on our house

Clearly we had just not seen the nest for the several months it had been there.  Looked at it, probably, when it was full of activity, with hornets passing in and out of the large hole near the bottom on the side facing away from the house.  But never saw it. It’s hard to imagine being so oblivious to such a vivid and dangerous life center in our own yard.  On YouTube are several videos in which people try to stir up a hornet’s nest, and for the next several minutes the camera, many feet from the person taking the picture, is under constant attack by angry, buzzing, stinging insects.  Turns out Bald-Faced Hornets are very common, even though I’d never heard of them before.  They are actually a type of yellow-jacket, not a true hornet.  They are very aggressive and persistent in chasing off attackers.  They eat other insects, including yellow-jackets, and in the fall they die off, except for young fertile queens, who hibernate and breed new colonies in the spring.

Later that day, Jane observed a Downy Woodpecker pecking away intensely at the place where the nest had been attacked.  I figured that the bird was probably attracted to whatever small vermin had been left behind when the nest was removed.  The following day on my walk I heard a pecking noise up in a nearly leafless maple tree.  Sure enough, there was a big, beautiful Bald-Faced Hornet nest, hanging from a limb free and perfectly formed.  On it was a Downy Woodpecker hammering away.  A week earlier the sight would have meant nothing to me.  But then it seemed like a train of thought had come full circle, that I understood a little more about my world than I had before.

© Arnold J. Bradford, 2016


Nature Report

Last Saturday my ride launched at about 11:30 in 77˚ weather.  It had been cloudy and even threatening for part of the morning, but finally things broke up into bright sun and copious cumulus clouds.  The sun was as yellow as the button in the middle of the asters by the side of the trail, the clouds as white as the circular doilies of Queen Anne’s Lace in the meadows nearby, and the patches of sky in between those clouds as blue and intense as the first blossoms of the copious Cornflowers that were newly opened everywhere.  All felt fresh and new after the midweek downpours ensuing from a slowly moving frontal boundary.

It being Saturday and school being newly out, every Weekend Warrior and their whole family—Warrior spouse, kid on a bike, and toddler on a tricycle—was out on the trail, so one had to ride with one’s eyes open.  The line for the light at Maple Avenue was about ten people long.

Apparently the animals felt the same way about the coming of nice weather.  Outbound from Vienna, along Difficult Run, I spotted a terrapin on the trail ahead.  It was traversing at a testudinarian pace from right to left, and had almost reached the center line.   So I veered slightly to the right to pass.  Just as I got to the terrapin a rider coming the other way stopped smack in the middle of her lane, reached down, and picked the reptile up to help it complete its journey safely.  The angle of her lean, however, brought her head, shoulders, and arm onto my side, and I just avoided a glancing blow.  Weekend warrior behavior.

I went on all the way to the skateboard park at the west end of Herndon, but I promised not to further discuss this topic, so I will not report that it was my first ride to my former regular westbound turn-around point.  On the way back there is a long downhill stretch from Michael Faraday Ct. to Hunter Mill Road, featuring a speedy, leafy descent from Sunrise Valley to Buckthorn Lane, with a short, steep rise just before Buckthorn.  Along that stretch an animal ran right into the buzz-saw of my front wheel.  I suspect it was a squirrel, because they characteristically cross roadways in frantic, demented dashes, featuring instant 180˚ turns if they see a vehicle coming in mid-dash.  Could have been a chipmunk.  In any case, this one dashed straight into the spokes from about 20” away.  Why it didn’t see me coming I can’t imagine.  But the spokes were revolving so fast—I was probably traveling at about 22 mph—that it made a fur-muffled bump sound and bounced straight off again, grazing my right shoe, which was on the downstroke.  I barely saw it, because needless to say I was focusing on the road ahead.

Immediately I heard an approaching rider exclaim “oh dear.”  I didn’t brake or stop pedaling, because it would have been to no avail.  I have no veterinary skills, nor do I carry needles with units of tetanus vaccine, or leather gloves.  I am not equipped on any level to render assistance to wounded wild animals.  I assume it was the worse for the collision.  If it died, my major regret is that it did not live out its role in the food chain by providing a meal to some hungry predator, a hawk or a fox.

About a mile inbound from Hunter Mill, headed for Vienna, I saw another Weekend Warrior stopped in the lane ahead of me.  I reckoned it was somebody on their cell phone, or with a mechanical.  As I approached she was looking ahead, not at me, so I said “on the left” and swung around her.  Then I saw what she was looking at: a long Black Rat Snake, wriggling again from right to left, crossing the trail ahead of her.  Its head was in the grass on the far shoulder and its tail just past the center line, with a set of slithering S-curves worthy of the Shenandoah River.  Straightened out, it would have to have been at least 5 feet long.  Too late to stop, I swerved back to the right in front of her and just missed the snake.  I said “sorry, I didn’t see that!” as I passed.  She laughed and said “neither did I at first.”  So glad not to have injured a large reptilian eater of vermin and (less happily) bird eggs and baby birds.

runner lunge

Department of Silly Walks: Runner Lunge

After all that action I didn’t know what to expect today, equally warm and sunny, though a bit more humid.  But I found: nothing.  The closest I came was the mundane, familiar domestic scene of an immature English Sparrow, now fully as large as its parent, standing in the middle of the trail, flapping its wings, chirping helplessly, demanding to be fed (before going back down to the basement to play more video games).  And then there was the exerciser, in tank top, spandex pants, walking shoes with low socks, and a pink baseball cap with an oversize brim about as big as the one Jayson Werth wishes he had yesterday.  She was blending yoga and walking by making each step a Runner Lunge.  As I passed I was SO tempted to say “Perfect for the Department of Silly Walks!  John Cleese has nothing on you.”  But I didn’t.

Still, you never know what you’re going to run into on the W&OD.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2016.

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

Sharp-shinned Hawk

A few days ago, in the late afternoon sunlight, I noticed a bird alight on a branch outside my second-story home office window.  I was preparing for an online class, moved up from the usual 7 p.m. start time by a Maundy Thursday church service.  A glance told me this might be something unusual; something about the coloration and the posture took it out of the realm of an ordinary songbird.

I grabbed the binoculars that always lie at hand, and checked it out.  Sure enough, the posture was upright, the beak was hooked, the breast feathers were in distinct vertical barring.  This was a hawk!  The amazing thing about it, though, was that it was barely bigger than a Blue Jay, that familiar perky, pesky, raucous songbird cousin of crows.  I checked other identifying marks, too.  The feathers on the upper back seemed greyish, and a few had white spots.  The rest of the back was more brown.  The beak was black, the eye yellow, legs yellow, and tail obstructed from view by the shape of the branches.  The bird sat there for several minutes, while I googled bird ID sites.  The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has the best one by far, a fact I proclaim with an alumnus’ pride.


Immature Sharp-shinned Hawk

And what I found was not simple.  There are two hawks that look like this; the Sharp-shinned Hawk and the Cooper’s Hawk.  The Sharp-shinned is the smallest hawk in North America, while the Cooper’s is just enough larger to be described as “medium.”  To put this in perspective, adult Sharp-shinneds are 9 ½ to 13 ½ inches long, have wingspans of 17 to 22 inches, and weigh all of 3 to 8 oz.  Coopers range from 14 ½ to 15 inches (male) / 16 ½ to 17 inches (female), span 24-35 inches (m) / 30 to 35 inches (f), and weigh 8 to 14 ½ oz (m) / 11 ½ to 24 oz (f).  So a large Sharp-shinned is nearly the size of a small Cooper’s.

Both have red eyes and breasts that are horizontally barred as adults, and both have yellow eyes and vertical bars as immatures (immatures can also be recognized by their inclination to be socially awkward, act silly, and wear makeup badly).  Both species feature songbirds as a major dietary element, so both hang around bird feeders.  (And we thought cats were the primary danger at feeders!)  Both can fly at lightning speed through dense branch coverage, and tend to do so to surprise their victims.  The Cooper’s Hawk is more common, but the Sharp-shinned is present during migration season.

The Cornell site even has a whole section with excellent photographic evidence comparing and contrasting the two.  The Cooper’s has a longer neck and a longer tail; that’s why I regret the obstructed view of the tail I had.  I did not observe the bird in open flight either; after a few minutes he or she just took off on a straight line, and was out of sight in a second.

The evidence that convinced me that I saw an immature Sharp-shinned is its truly diminutive size, its “no-neck” look, and the heaviness of its barring, which is more persistent on the Sharp-shinned.  I’m going to keep my eyes open, though.  Cooper’s Hawks are apparently abundant in suburban areas of this region, and are simply not noticed as often as more brightly colored or flamboyant birds.  Seeing one would give me a chance to verify by comparison and contrast that it was a Sharp-shinned Hawk I saw this time.  That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2016

First Ride

Today the harsh wind, the bleak gray skies, the borderline icy temperatures have begun to abate.  Meteorologists have promised, for what such promises are worth, a week of above average temperatures and sunny skies.  A clearing line swept across like the lifting of a grey veil yesterday, and the wind is blowing from the south.

I feel nervous and excited.  I’ve not been out on my bike since last mid-November, turning to the exercise bike in the cellar as an alternative to facing winter cycling.  I disappoint myself, but neither my confidence, nor my energy levels, nor my conditioning have recovered to near their levels last year before my cancer was diagnosed and radiation and hormone treatments began.  Then too, being 76 years old doesn’t help, whether the diminution in strength and resistance is real or imagined.

The indoor/outdoor thermometer reads 61.2˚ at 11:00, but that may be influenced by sun shining on the sensor.  AccuWeather says it’s 57˚.  Close enough for government work; I know what gear works in that temperature range, and though it should get several degrees warmer I’m going to be conservative and go heavier on the clothing: bib shorts, thermal underlayer, lime-green training jacket (handkerchief and iPhone bagged in plastic in the pockets), soft heavier socks, nominal sweatband.

In the garage, rakes and snow shovels cover my cycling shoe stand, omens of the chores of months just past.  They get relegated to the remote corners.  My bike rolls out easily past the new smaller Audi A3.  After being on the wall for three months the tires are at about 2 atmospheres; the pump fills the front one to 6, the rear to 7.  I’m grateful that I lubricated the bike just before I stopped using it. Fresh water in the bottle, computer cleared of that last fall ride’s data, helmet and gloves on, and I’m ready to go.

Rolling downhill toward Jackson Parkway I have that slightly disoriented feeling of relearning the feel and nuances of riding.  I’ve lost the instinctive certainty of melding with the machine.  Up Jackson to the W&OD right-of-way, where I see it’s been cleaned off and the brush has been taken back several feet off the tarmac.   That’s even truer up on the trail itself, where the swath is from 10 to 20 feet wide.  At least they had the sense to do it before all the little nesting creatures became active.


Bridge Abutment near Vienna on W&OD: “JULY 1902”

Workmen are fussing with the new crossing lights at Cedar Lane.  Are those traffic cameras?  Good!  The cleared underbrush and bare limbs reveal new home construction from teardowns on the way to Vienna, and there are two areas where tree-trimmers have blocked half the trail with their trucks.  Can’t they get those monsters off the trail entirely?  At the Community Center the large building project, featuring a “scored earth” approach to tree conservation, has us going between narrow chain-link barriers and across the middle of the now-shut parking lot.

Monitoring my body, I feel strong.  My neck hurts some, though.  I’m not used to this angle, even though my handlebars are set to a more relaxed position.  I move along pretty well in the quartering tailwind.  There are a few walkers and dog-walkers, and just a rider or two.  One passes me west of Vienna, the only one to do so on this 11.3 mile ride.  One more service truck setup to pass.  That’s three in less than four miles.  Sheesh!   Out where Angelico Branch is swampy the spring peepers, and even more the “spring croakers,” are starting to wind up the volume.  Thousands of horny amphibians in cold water.  I feel so good that I’m very tempted to go beyond Hunter Mill Road and try the steep trail hill.  But I won’t.   I need to return into the wind, and I don’t trust my energy reserves.

Good decision, as I start to feel the effort in my back and quads by the time I’m nearing Vienna again.  Going east I have to walk my bike around three huge tree trimming trucks east of Park Avenue.  I do just OK up and over the hill, but by the time I’m back at Academy I have enough left for an out-of-the-saddle sprint to the top of the street.

Not too bad.  And tomorrow it’s supposed to be over 70˚.

©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.