My mom said she loved bluebirds, but she was frustrated that she never saw any in upstate New York. Because of this, I believed bluebirds were rare. Then I moved to central Pennsylvania and here bluebirds seem quite common. This one spent a lot of time at the community garden where I had a plot in 2015. I especially like this photo because I think the bird is pretty, and seeing it makes me think of my mother.
Yes, I’m still trying to live up to the photo challenges I gave myself while heavily drugged after major surgery. This one features birds.
My parents maintained a “life list” of birds they’d seen. I suspect most of those were birds that visited the feeder outside their kitchen window. I never became a “birder,” but I did develop a love for feathered creatures. I used to offer seeds on a large feeder in our front garden about six feet from the picture window in our living room.
When my kids were young, we’d watch the feeder and immediately consult a field guide when we spotted a bird we couldn’t identify. I was taken aback one day when I couldn’t identify a visiting bird and my oldest child asked, “Isn’t that a nuthatch?” Indeed it was.
Last year, I captured far more than seven bird photos. My favorites may not be National Geographic material, but at least one of them deserves an “awww.”
While working in my new rock garden last summer, I heard a familiar whirring and looked up to see a ruby-throated hummingbird getting nectar from the flowers of our canna plants. As is usually the case, I was wearing my camera and captured a few decent photos of the hummingbird in action.
Robins are the omnipresent “native plant” of northeastern birds. We mark the seasons by their coming and going. I find them especially entertaining when I’m turning soil in my garden. Invariably, a robin watches, ready to pounce on exposed worms when I retreat far enough from my work. I made friends with this robin when I made a planting bed for black raspberries: I collected grubs and left them where the robin had to spot them. It did spot them and seemed to relish every one.
Seagull, right? No! It’s a kittiwake. I had no idea until my Ethiopian son announced his intent to spend the summer in Alaska studying Kittiwakes. His professor, apparently, scoffed at the term “seagull.” I photographed this kittiwake while waiting in line to board a ferry to the Statue of Liberty. We hosted two Japanese students for nearly three weeks last summer and took them into New York City, for a hike in the woods, and to experience a local county fair among other adventures.
While building my rock garden last spring, I heard a wet thud in the grass behind me. When I looked hard enough, I spotted this very young bird on the lawn. After a moment, I also found its sibling and looked up to see their nest had tipped onto its side. This is a baby house finch. I set up a step ladder, laid the nest flat on a branch, and used twine to tie that branch to the one above it so the nest couldn’t flip up a second time. Then my wife passed the young birds up to me and I returned them to the nest. Within a few hours, the parents were coming and going as if nothing had changed.
This adolescent house finch perched in our lilac tree one day while I was poking around among the heucheras, violas, and primroses beneath it. I quite like having house finches in the yard.
Not a stellar photograph, but I couldn’t leave it out. I spotted this red-tailed hawk perched way closer to me than they typically approach and was pleased it remained as I captured a dozen or so photos. Just a few days ago during my morning dog walk, a similar hawk soared out of a tree with a squirrel clutched in its claws.
Years ago I discovered that ordinary objects standing on the lip of a pond assume new character. A stalk of flowers, a bird, an alligator – each somehow becomes more impressive against an azure (or even muddy) background. Between my home in Lewisburg and my childhood home in Ithaca there’s a boat launch and recreation area I enjoy visiting. I caught this photo last summer when I stopped on a trip to Ithaca.
This is number six of ten photo challenges I gave myself while heavily drugged during recovery from major surgery. Of all the photo challenges I’ve seen on line, the “nature” challenge is most common. “Nature,” in my opinion, covers pretty much everything there is. Granted, humans mess around with nature quite a bit, but that is our nature. Choosing to label ourselves and our deeds as unnatural is nothing more than conceit.
I shoot many photos of stuff that catches my eye. The ones in this collection show nature in various forms. Upcoming photo challenges also will show nature, but they’ll be narrower categories: Birds, Bugs, Critters, and Farmscapes.
Here, then, are seven nature photos in seven days—all in a single post.
Goldenrod frustrates me. It’s gorgeous in meadows of central Pennsylvania in late summer. However, having captured goldenrod in hundreds of photos, I rarely find any of those photos remarkable. This one makes the point: I think it’s pretty good, but I’m still looking to capture THE goldenrod photograph. Late summer isn’t all too far away…
An art teacher – a family friend – at the high school I attended was a master of a water color wash method of painting. His works had the look of Japanese paintings, but with more depth and, sometimes, more color. While coaxing a masterpiece out of a wet canvas, he once explained: “If I put three birds in a painting, I can call it ‘Trinity.’” Here: thistle heads, not birds. But I’d never name one of my photos Trinity.
Along the road at the boat launch and recreation area I mentioned earlier is a beautiful swamp. It seems every time I stop there the sun is low on the far side of the swamp. It can result in intense backlighting that hides many details while illuminating others.
I fiddled around a small tree next to the student union at Cornell University last summer and came up with this photo. Apparently, this is the fruit (or flower?) of a Chinese Dogwood tree, not that it matters. I love the “soft focus” that leads my eyes from the red fruit back into a forest of unripened fruits.
Here’s a super cheap photographic device that nearly always delivers: Put an interesting leaf between your camera lens and the sun, use a small aperture, and focus tight. Take enough such photos in your lifetime and you’ll eventually come up with art. This is the back side of an elephant ear leaf that grew near my rock garden in 2015. If I were a bit smaller, I think I’d enjoy hiking in that landscape.
Nature happens across the street from the Cityslipper ranch. Many evenings, I grab my camera, mount it on a tripod, and capture the sunset. A gorgeous sunset is a terrific way to end a day.
I try to keep my main planting bed covered in leaves through the winter. In spring, it’s fairly easy to rake the leaves aside and scrape furrows in the moist soil to hold pea seeds. This year, my wife made the furrows. I set and buried the peas. If the leaf cover has done its job, there are almost no weeds to remove, and I dig only where I’m planting.
This blog has traditionally been about how to grow and prepare food and it means to stay that way. I’ve taken detours of late because of family issues (my dad moved out of his house and I spent a lot of time cleaning up after him) and because of health issues (I’m recovering from a Whipple—surgery that removed a pancreatic tumor and re-routed my digestive tract).
Here’s a brief “how-to” to keep the blog on course:
It’s spring, plant!
With help from my wife, I’ve started three rows of peas in the garden. I plant a lot so we have peas to eat until July with plenty left over for the freezer. I once posted a video that shows the method I still use – Small Kitchen Garden Pea Notebook. I also wrote a post explaining how-to – Enough Peas to Preserve.
Peas handle frost well, and will even survive a freeze into the 20s. They aren’t as hardy in hot weather. In my experience, a variety called Wando handles early spring heat better than most. So, given we’re in a streak of hottest months on record, hedge your bets and try to plant Wando peas this year. They grow at least five feet tall, so make sure you rig trellises for them.
I just started seeds for my summer vegetables. My setup this year is on our seldom-used ping-pong table: I used the kids’ cardboard bricks to support a four-foot shop light across the five-foot-wide table. The planters are the bottoms of plastic one-gallon milk jugs filled with a commercial seed-starting mix. I set 16 seeds in each planter, for a total of 112 seeds. Soon, I’ll add a second shop light and start a few other seeds; once the first planting emerges I’ll note what failed to germinate and try again with the same varieties.
Along with peas, this is a good time to plant lettuce, spinach, onions, carrots, and potatoes. All prefer to grow in cool weather and can handle frost—though young potato plants may die back in the cold, they’ll quickly make up for it on warmer days.
Start seeds indoors
We’re at the threshold for indoor seed-starting. That is, if you don’t start yours soon, you’ll lose the advantage you get from indoor starts. Ideally, start tomato, pepper, tomatillo, eggplant, and okra seeds indoors six-to-eight weeks before the average last frost in your area. Turns out, if you start eight weeks early—especially with tomatoes—your seedlings will probably need to be transplanted into larger pots before it’s time to set them in the garden. That’s fine if you have the space to manage it.
Around here, the average last frost is mid-April, so I just planted 72 tomato seeds, 8 tomatillo seeds (a new gardening experience for me), and 32 pepper seeds. It’s very easy to do; I’ve written several posts about it over the years:
Start Your Own Seedlings (this is how I start my seeds)
Small Kitchen Garden Seed-Starting Shelf
Start Seeds in Pellets for Your Small Kitchen Garden
Start Your Small Kitchen Garden from Commercial Flats
Really? Start Seeds Indoors for Your Small Kitchen Garden?
Start Seeds in Pots for Your Small Kitchen Garden
When I assembled photos for my landscapes photo challenge, my set of favorites from 2015 included way more than the requisite seven shots. Rather than choose seven from among 40, I added a Waterscapes photo challenge to my list—and was pleased to learn that “waterscapes” is a real word meaning what I wanted it to mean.
I’ve posted seven waterscapes here. Like the landscapes of my previous post, I captured these photos in central Pennsylvania and in central upstate New York—near Ithaca or on the way to Ithaca from Lewisburg.
This photo isn’t about art so much as it is about Mom. Mom kept a “life list” of birds she spotted through the kitchen window. Years after I left home, she and my dad bought a shack on a cliff above Cayuga lake and spent summers cleaning, painting, and making it into their vacation lake cottage. I enjoyed visiting the cottage, but I didn’t fall in love with it until 2015. I finished emptying and repairing my dad’s house, and tenants moved in. That left me with two options when I visited: sleep on my dad’s sofa in his tiny independent living unit, or stay at the lake cottage. Stoking a fire in the wood stove to hold off cold autumn nights called back years of semi-rustic living. Waking up at the cottage to sounds of rustling leaves and nautical activity was meditative.
It’s possible my mother never saw the birdhouse in this photo. However, seeing it hanging along the stairway down to the lake made it easy to imagine my mom pausing on those stairs to watch birds come and go. I hope to spend time at the cottage this year absorbing the same sensations that lured my parents there.
There are few places that make my dog Nutmeg happier than she is at the local dog park. Far from the park’s parking area, there’s a stream in which Nutmeg tests her Labrador breeding… and fails. She’ll chase sticks into the water and bring them back as long as she never gets in deep enough to swim. Last August, grass seed heads caught sun against the dark waters of Nutmeg’s favorite stream.
Mansfield, Pennsylvania is halfway to Ithaca from the Cityslipper ranch. Mansfield boasts a nature preserve with hiking trails, a picnic area, and a boat launch, and I love to stop there to capture photos. Water at the boat launch is a weird shade of blue that makes me wonder about agricultural runoff, but were that not the case the waterway would still be surreal. In this photo, the white flowers lining the river are knotweed—an invasive that looks awesome in bloom. Depending on cloud cover and the time of day, different features pop, so I always discover something new when I stop in Mansfield.
South and west of Mifflinburg, Pennsylvania there are many waterways that flow to the Susquehanna River. I’ve photographed these streams, creeks, and rivers at so many places, I’m not always sure which is which. It’s compelling to me that I could drop a canoe in one of the streams and float in it 140 miles to the Chesapeake Bay and then into the Atlantic ocean.
On trips to Ithaca, I sometimes drive north to Corning, NY, and then up route 414 to Watkins Glen. The road follows a valley with farmland guarded by wooded hills that put on quite a display in autumn. Last October, I stopped to capture photos where wetlands cover much of the valley floor.
Perhaps stretching the definition of “waterscape,” this is one of dozens of waterfalls at a Pennsylvania nature preserve called Ricketts Glen. We hosted two Japanese students for nearly three weeks in August, and shared a hike with them along the Glen’s most popular trail.
I lingered below a waterfall at Ricketts Glen where the roots of a tree felt their way over rocks to find soil in the creek bed. If you want a photo session in Ricketts Glen, clear the day, go alone, and stay all day… though it’s fun to share the trip with a group.
Some awesome landscapes feature buildings, and then there’s this one. I passed the scene dozens of times driving to and from my community garden plot in 2015, but I’d already grabbed photos in winter. An outbuilding from a rotted-away farm? A small, abandoned house? A former retail store? Abandoned buildings always spark my curiosity.
The seven-photos-in-seven-days photo challenges are daunting! Picking a photo a day and posting on Facebook might not be too bad, but I’d rather post photos on my blog… and creating a daily blog post has always eluded me. So, when I gave myself three seven-photos challenges, I knew I’d be packing each of the seven photos into its own blog post. The original challenges were:
- Food photos
- Garden photos
- Nature photos
Among last year’s photos alone, I found far too many favorites to fit into these three categories. I ended up adding several more categories. I’m up to ten seven-photo challenges:
- Waterscapes (Landscapes that feature a water feature… yes, I made it up)
- Farmscapes (Landscapes that exist only because of farms. Made this up, too.)
The Food and Blossoms photos are up. This post holds the Landscape photos.
Apparently, I tend to scout landscapes most often in autumn… at least that was the case in 2015. Though I drove to Minnesota last year, all of these scenes are from central Pennsylvania and upstate New York.
On a hillside somewhere near Lewisburg, snow, evergreen trees, and sunlight caught my attention one evening in February.
Pretty much halfway between Lewisburg and Ithaca, the town of Mansfield features a wildlife, hiking, picnicking, and boat launch area with some gorgeous vistas. Depending on the available light, I pause there during trips to and from Ithaca and try to capture interesting photos.
Returning from Ithaca on a trip last October, I zigzagged on country roads between Cayuga and Seneca lakes and stumbled across Finger Lakes National Forest. There was an interminably long dirt road with occasional parking areas at trail heads and so many gorgeous sights along the road I didn’t even stop at a walking trail. I hope to return for an extended visit; had I stayed on the forest road, I’d eventually have intersected an actual highway that would have gotten me home.
On a trip to Ithaca in November of 2015, I stopped on New York State forest lands and captured photos of several landscapes. Whoever planted this hillside had a terrific sense of the shapes, textures, and colors of trees.
Same trip to Ithaca in November of 2015, same New York State forest lands: The layers of textures, colors, and shadows in this view were sublime… and my camera managed to capture them.
Just past peak colors in October of 2015, I drove into an area of Pennsylvania that was new to me. Along a dirt road that turned out to be an Amish family’s driveway, I paralleled a very high, forested hill and stopped to capture many photos. The shading and texture resulting from trees in peak fall colors standing branch-to-branch next to fully-denuded trees created an ethereal, impressionistic effect. I captured enough photos of this hillside to wallpaper a large living room. This photo may actually be awesome enough to click to enlarge (which, by the way, works with all the photos in my blog posts).
We experienced a very tame autumn and early winter. There was no measurable snow, and there were few days of winter cold. I was still working on season-end garden projects when, finally, cold and snow set in.
My last project was to put a rodent fence around my black raspberry patch. Critters have grazed there casually for months, and I wanted to stop the damage while more than half the canes were intact. I was working on the fence two weeks ago when I became ill and spent a week in the hospital.
Building a fence around the black raspberries wasn’t a precision operation. I’ve pounded in 10 “posts” to hold 24” chicken wire. I need to add, perhaps, four more posts. Except for a grape vine at the front right corner of the frame, all the canes among the stakes are black raspberry brambles. Many at the far end have been gnawed to short sticks.
I received an unpleasant diagnosis: I have pancreatic cancer. Medical science says my tumor is removable, but it’s not going to be a fun experience. I have six more days before surgery, and I’m not excited about gardening in snow – just after I returned from the hospital, the epic storm that buried Washington D.C. buried my yard in about seven inches of powder. Unless the next few days are unseasonably warm, I won’t finish the fence and my first black raspberry crop will remain in jeopardy.
In any case, after a week of being a hospital patient, it was nice to get out in the snow and photograph some of last year’s projects. I’m looking forward to getting things going as I recover from surgery and begin chemotherapy. The blog may be even more quiet than usual for the coming month, but I’ll post again as soon as I’m able.
My blueberry bushes have had hard lives. Just when they started looking bushy, they spent too long out of cages and got pruned back to sticks by rodents. This season, several of them lived inside fairly generous cages and recovered a lot of ground. I don’t expect a big crop in 2016, but I’ve some hope they’ll bulk up this year and start feeding us well in 2017.
Last year I started quince trees from seeds. I nursed seedlings in planters until autumn, and then planted them in the yard. The two in this photo are intact because of the cages around them. Rodents chomped the third seedling down to the soil line; it’s not likely to grow back. I had devised a protective barrier using plastic nursery pots, but wind blew it away… I’m starting more quince seeds this winter with hope of replacing the eaten seedling in my yard.
I started cardoon indoors early last year. I didn’t treat it well, so the plants were tiny when I set them in the garden. Eventually, they flourished, but they never produced harvestable stalks and I assumed they’d die with the first frost of autumn. Several frosts and cold nights did little damage, so I decided to test the plants’ resolve…
I haphazardly erected a low hoop tunnel over two cardoon plants. Just a few weeks later, temperatures plummeted; we had some nights in the teens. Given the plants’ hardiness until then, I hope the low hoop tunnel holds things closer to 30 degrees and my plants manage to shiver through alive.
In fall of 2014, I erected a simple tent over two fig trees I’d planted on the south side of the house. Unfortunately, I didn’t erect the tent until we had had a very early, crazy deep freeze. The fig trees died back to the soil. This past fall, I got the tent up before any severe cold… I managed to stretch it over a rosemary plant as well. With luck, the tent will provide enough protection that my trees won’t have to grow back from the soil line this year.
My daughter—my youngest child—headed off to Argentina this morning. She’s a sophomore in college and will spend what’s left of her Christmas break hiking with friends in Patagonia.
About nine years ago, that same daughter, age 11, was gamely trying to keep her magazine in business. “Business” might be an overstatement.
In May of 2006, my daughter started Phoolish magazine. At first she had some enthusiastic contributors, and she pressed friends and family to participate. I wrote a few articles and was quickly seduced by the overwhelming crush of rabid fans. Letters poured in, and I wrote more and more—some under my own name, and some under a pen name…
Phoolish died when my daughter grew tired of chasing authors. When people promised material but failed to deliver, the hassle completely offset the glamour of editing, doing the layout, and delivering the printed copies. I was sad to see the magazine go, but I understand my daughter’s frustration.
Phoolish encouraged silliness, and I enjoy looking at the things I wrote for it back then. Here’s a piece from Janaury of 2007:
On the farm
I was about 12 years old when my parents bought a weekend farm. We spent nearly every Saturday and Sunday there clearing brush, building fences, and doctoring up the old barn and milk house.
We quickly got to know the man up the road: A farmer who also worked as a janitor to make ends meet. He was a friendly man who generously used his tractor to plow our garden plot so we didn’t need to turn soil with a shovel.
He offered suggestions for improving our pastures. We helped him do jobs that demanded large farming devices. Sometimes we worked with him to harvest hay or oats, or to load a harvest into his loft or ours. With our neighbor, we picked rocks from the pasture, harvested bumblebee honey, bagged oats, and stacked hay bales.
I learned much about so many things during days at the farm. I’m sure the activities I enjoy today and the choices I make are strongly influenced by those experiences. And, while I’ve many stories to tell about those days, one in particular stands apart from the others:
We had just completed a job—putting up oats, perhaps—and were strolling casually near our barn when our farmer neighbor asked thoughtfully: “Do you ever wonder how many bugs a cow eats?” Admittedly, I never had. However, many times in the thirty three or more years since, I have found myself musing on exactly that.