Wednesday, January 30, 2019

7 Quick Takes - Polar Vortex Appalachia Style

When you have a rhododendron plant outside your window, you don't need a thermometer.  This photograph was taken this morning when it was about 19 degrees Fahrenheit.  The colder it gets, the tighter the leaves curl.  By tomorrow morning, they'll be curled up so tightly, they'll look like drinking straws. Nobody fully understands this natural phenomenom and why the leaves curl the way they do, which is part of what makes it so amazing. Needless to say, the curling of the leaves is the Rhododendron's most desperate attempt at surviving yet another polar vortex passing through Appalachia.

We have yet to get any real snow this winter.  My children are so disappointed to not have had a "snow day" yet.  We came close this past week, with a forecast of 3 inches predicted, but alas, this is what our Kentucky blizzard looked like.  Those of you in the Midwest, feel free to laugh! Our governor raised quite the ruckus today when he referred to Kentuckians as "soft".  I agree.  We're kinda pathetic compared to all those hardy souls north of us.  Hang in there, Midwesterners! We're praying for you.

What we have been getting instead of snow is rain.  Lots and lots of rain.  Sunny days have been a rare treat, but when we get one, we all head outside for some sun-bathing. We have a south facing barn covered with sheet metal, and the sheet metal absorbs and reflects the sunlight.  It makes the perfect place to catch a few rays.. Plus, all the "junk" around the barn makes for lots of creative inventions for little boys, too.  Here's John in the recliner he built while we were getting our Vitamin D.  I thought it was pretty creative and doesn't it just scream Appalachia??  I love it!

Although we've had no snow to speak of, it's been plenty cold.  All the rain combined with freezing temperatures has made for some great ice formations on our clifflines (aka, bluffs).  The boys have been asking me to take them on a hike to see icicles so a week ago, we ventured down a trail that I hadn't hiked in years.  I vaguely remembered it having a pretty little waterfall so off we went to explore.  As we hiked along the top of the ridge, we could look down into the gorge below and see long rows of icicles lined along the cliff.  The trail turned and took us down into the gorge, and we were fascinated by the hundreds of glistening icicles hanging on the rock walls.  As we walked a little further, stone steps took us under the cliff and behind a cascading waterfall that was partially frozen.  It looked like a scene from the movie "Frozen".  The boys delighted in having their own little "ice cave" to explore and it has now become one of our favorite winter hiking places.

Speaking of hiking, it's my favorite winter past time.  I seldom hike in the summer because it's just too humid/buggy/hot/crowded. I hike infrequently in the spring because it's planting time, and I hike only occasionally in the autumn because it's harvest time. So, January and February have become my favorite times of year to get out in the woods.  No bugs, no humidity, no poisonous snakes, unlikely to see bears, and most of all, no people. We have the forest all to ourselves.  For me, it is the best antidote to cabin fever, seasonal depression, and the random flu-like viruses always lurking around.  Plus, I'm a big believer in getting kids outdoors, especially during the time of year when our society tends to discourage them from doing so.  God's playground is never closed!

Tomorrow is the feast of St. John Bosco, one of my favorite saints!  You can read a post I wrote about him a few years ago here.  As a mother of boys, he's been a source of inspiration to me, especially in regards to how I see my own sons, who can be reckless, unruly and undisciplined.  Today, boys like mine are labeled ADHD.  In St. John Bosco's time, they were simply labeled as the "bad boys", the ones that got into trouble and caused trouble.  In both cases, these are the boys that get pushed to the margins, isolated from others, and stereotyped before they even have a chance. But John Bosco saw past the labels and into each boy's heart, giving them a loving home and a focus on Christ. The fruit that came from St. John Bosco's approach is still being born today, and it gives me hope that the same will happen in my children if I can only follow his model.  Thank you, St. John Bosco.

We'll be taking down our Christmas lights and nativity this weekend and replacing them with candles as we celebrate Candlemass.  I've loved having the Christmas lights up during the dark evenings, but as the days grow longer, we look forward to spring, Lent and Easter.  It makes so much sense that the liturgical year follows the four seasons of the natural world.  I know this isn't a coincidence but I wonder just how many people notice it today. As we bear through another winter, I am trying to focus on the light and warmth ahead and thinking about the inevitable resurrection that is already slowly underway. Today, the rhododendron leaves are curled tightly in a spontaneous act of survival but soon enough, they'll be raised high towards the sun and celebrating another winter gone by.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Our 12 Days of Christmas

With tomorrow wrapping up the end of the (official) Christmas season, I thought it might be a good time to share how we celebrated our Christmas.  We started the tradition of celebrating the 12 days of Christmas about 3 years ago, and while it is a little exhausting (for mom!), I really am glad it's something that we do now.  It has helped make the Christmas season more meaningful for us, and it also takes the stress out of feeling like we have to do all.the.things on Christmas eve or the first day of Christmas.  I just recently purchased Kendra's book about liturgical living and am excited to read it and get even more ideas for next year.  But for now, here's how our family does it.

It all starts with a list that I hang up on the refrigerator on Christmas eve after the kids go to bed.  The list contains each day of Christmas, and what special thing we will do that day.  I mix it up with some easy things and some more involved things.  The easy things, like watching a Christmas movie or coloring lunch bags, give me a much needed break during the 12 days, while the more involved things, like going for a hike or going to see Christmas lights, take a little more planning, but I don't put anything on the list that is super-involved or time-consuming.  Part of the joy of Christmas, in my opinion, should be keeping it simple and easy and relaxed.

Anyhow, once the gifts are opened and the candy binge ends, the kids love to run to the refrigerator on Christmas morning to see what fun things they will be doing during the rest of Christmas.  I'm always pleasantly surprised by just how excited they get over reading the list, and I think they look forward to that as much as opening their gifts.  It also has really helped drive home the idea that Christmas doesn't begin until December 25, which allows us to put more emphasis on Advent during the weeks before.

Even after the 12 days ends, we still celebrate by eating leftover candy, using our Christmas dishes, listening to Christmas music, watching Christmas videos, and leaving all our decorations and tree up.  But after the Baptism of the Lord (tomorrow), we'll take our decorations down and put away the Christmas dishes, and eat the last of the candy (I must stop eating candy!).  However, our Christmas lights and nativity will stay out until Candlemas (February 2) partly to remember the old 40-days of Christmas tradition, and partly because I love having the lights up in the house during the long, dark evenings of winter. 

If you haven't done the 12-days of Christmas tradition with your family yet, I really encourage you to give it a try.  Just keep it easy and work from there. Sometimes, we forget just how little it takes to make a child happy. Below is our list from this year (since we homeschool year-round, not doing lessons is a big way to celebrate) and a few photos from our 12-days of Christmas.  Do you do this tradition? If so, I'd love to hear what you do!

Tuesday - December 25 - Day 1:  NO LESSONS, Gifts, Steak

Wednesday - December 26 - Day 2: NO LESSONS, Go on a picnic; eat birthday cake

Thursday - December 27 - Day 3:  NO LESSONS, Go see Christmas lights

Friday - December 28 - Day 4: NO LESSONS, Decorate Graves (Feast of Holy Innocents)

 Saturday – December 29 –Day 5: Family Hike

Sunday – December 30 – Day 6:  Saint Bingo (Feast of the Holy Family)

Monday – December 31 – Day 7:  NO LESSONS, Lunch with our priest then go to Mass

Tuesday – January 1 – Day 8:  NO LESSONS, Stay with grandparents; Christmas Bird Count

Wednesday – January 2 – Day 9: LESSONS, Family Christmas movie & make kettlecorn

Thursday – January 3 – Day 10:  Co-op; decorate lunch bags (Feast of Holy Name of Jesus)

Friday – January 4 – Day 11:  LESSONS, Adoration

Saturday – January 5 – Day 12 (12th Night): Make treats

Sunday – January 6 – Epiphany Party; Gifts
Day 2 of Christmas:  Birthday cake for Jesus
I was informed that Jesus likes German chocolate

 Day 3 of Christmas:  Going to see Christmas lights

Day 5 of Christmas:  Our annual family hike (with friends)

Day 6 of Christmas: Playing Saint Bingo with Grandma and Grandpa

Day 10 of Christmas:  Remembering Jesus' Holy Name as we pack lunches

Day 12 of Christmas: Making candy for our Epiphany party

Epiphany Party! 
King cake decorated with wild edibles, lots of candy and treats.

And chalking the doors for another year.
May all who enter our home be blessed!

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

A Gift from Granville

Happy New Year!

It was a cloudy, but warmish New Year's Day here in Appalachia Kentucky yesterday, and I was so thankful for that.  Every week before New Year's Day, I start monitoring the weather closely, waiting with anticipation to see if it is going to be warm, wet, cloudy, sunny, windy, calm, freezing or frigid.  Normally, I take less of an interest in the weather, but for the past two decades, my New Year's Day has been marked by one of my favorite traditions...a Christmas Bird Count.  And having participated now for more years than I can remember (I think it may be 25 now), I can honestly say that I have counted birds in every winter weather condition imaginable, which probably shows just how much I love birding, and also just how crazy I am.

With my birding team.

Anyhow, for nearly all of those years, I was part of a CBC team led by my friend, Granville.  Granville and I went way back.  When I was fresh out of college and just starting my career, Granville was nearing the end of his. He was a forester and I was a wet-behind-the-ears wildlife biologist.  In those days, foresters and biologists were often at odds with one another in the agency that Granville and I worked for; the foresters usually advocated for cutting timber and the biologists usually advocated for saving the old trees and the critters that lived in them.  Finding common ground was often a challenge.  Granville was an old-school forester, and he and I had butted heads a few times. The first time that we worked in the forest together, he tested me and tried to get me lost.  When he realized that I could find my way around a timber stand and that, like him, I felt perfectly at home in the woods, I think I earned his respect.  From that point on, our mutual respect and love of the natural world transcended any differences in opinion.

A few years later, Granville retired and was looking for a hobby that would keep him active and outdoors, so a mutual friend invited him to join us on our Christmas Bird Count.  Granville came along, and was soon overwhelmed, as most new birders are, to the quick and rapid pace of the CBC, trying to keep up with us as we pointed out birds by sound and shape, all while driving along backroads at 20 mph, trying not to get rear-ended.  After 12 hours of this, Granville had a headache,  but he was also hooked.  He'd endured a day of complete birding immersion and had emerged from it a true birder.  His new year's days would never be the same again!

Soon after, our mutual friend moved away and Granville enthusiastically took on the role of team leader. Every year from then on, Granville always mapped out our territory for maximum efficiency, so as to avoid any backtracking. He came prepared with maps, screech owl tapes, field guides and, often to my chagrin, always wanted to start an hour before sunrise to make sure we could find some owls. From sunrise to sunset, we'd ride along. With Granville driving and me in the backseat because I hated to navigate, he and I and our other team members would spend the day peering out the windshield looking for anything with feathers. We'd laugh at each other's mis-identifications (oops, that's not a bird, it's a leaf), poke fun at one another, and shared leftover Christmas cookies and bourbon balls, the latter always getting a snarky comment from Granville, who never let alcohol touch his lips.

I could write a lot more about our time driving around in Granville's SUV during our CBC, about the nicknames we'd all given one another and how we got them, the time we found a hummingbird in mid-winter, the dogs that chased us back to the car, the drunk who yelled at us from his front porch, the screech owl that popped it's head out of a tree and answered back my call, the merlin that Granville just couldn't stop talking about because it was the first he'd ever seen (lifer!), the sandhill cranes that flew over as we looked out the window while eating our thickburgers at Hardee's (again, much to my chagrin, Granville always wanted to stop for thickburgers).

Last year, I missed the CBC entirely.  At the last minute, our babysitter got sick and I had to stay home with my kids.  My husband, Tom, went along with Granville and our friend, and they had the best count yet, getting 65 species, a new record for our team. But when Tom came home, and I asked him how it went, he said only three words, "Granville has cancer."

The prognosis wasn't great; Granville had been told he had 3 to 5 years. But despite that, his enthusiasm and determination to keep doing the CBC didn't waver. Granville had always been the picture of health, winning many physical fitness and cross-cut saw competitions during his younger days, and with the prognosis and Granville's positive attitude, we expected we'd get at least one or two more years of birding with Granville.

It was the weekend after Thanksgiving, the first day of Advent, that Granville died this past year.  He'd started losing his eyesight, then took a turn for the worse, and his health rapidly declined. Even though he'd had cancer, the timing of his death came most unexpectedly and few of us had the chance to see him one more time.  Driving to his funeral, I thought a lot about him and how difficult New Year's Day this year would be.

Yesterday morning, the three of us on the team met and assumed our new roles. Tom became team leader and I moved up to the front seat to serve as navigator.  We drove the same back roads that we'd driven every new year's day for years, and reminisced about the birds we'd seen on that fencerow, or in that field, or behind that house or in that woodlot.  Granville's absence was palpable, and I told the team that I was sure that Granville was going to send us a great bird, something we'd never had on our count before, and that we'd know it was from him.  I suppose it seemed far-fetched, but faith just told me that he was there with us, and he wanted us to know it.

The morning dragged into early afternoon and the birding was slowing down.  Low clouds were keeping raptors and vultures grounded, making them difficult to find, and forcing us to scan tree tops for them perched and waiting for the clouds to lift.  As I scanned a line of sycamores along a stream, I saw a bird-shaped silhouette at the top of the tallest tree.  Even without binoculars, I could tell that it was an unusual shape for a hawk, but too large for a kestrel.  Perhaps another merlin, I thought.

My view without binoculars.

As I got my binocs focused on it, my heart lept.  There it was.  There was the bird I was waiting for.  A new species not only for our team but for the entire Christmas Bird Count.  And a magnificent bird at that.  One that had once dominated the skies but was now almost wiped out, making it a true rarity in the hills of Kentucky.  Quickly, we got the spotting scope out, and all of us got good looks at it, plus a few fuzzy photos for documentation.  It looked straight at us, then stretched its wings and flew out of sight.

The moment had only lasted a few minutes, but it was enough for all of us to know that we'd been sent our gift from Granville.  And I knew that as excited as Granville had become when he'd seen his first merlin with us years ago, nothing could compare to the joy he had found now.  Now, he was soaring with the king of the skies.

A peregrine falcon.  
Our gift from Granville.