Monthly Archives: November 2013


Just a few pics from this morning.  It was another cold one last night, don’t know the exact temp., but well below freezing.  Just before 9, I was walking down to the courtyard for my town trip, and the garden … Continue reading

November 29 – chilly Thanksgiving

It’s Friday morning now, and I’ve got a bit of time to catch up on the past few days.  It’s been chilly and wet all right; it might be that we’re just getting a week-long cold snap, but right now it’s definitely feeling like winter’s come early this year.

Rained Tuesday during tofu delivery.  Tuesday afternoon and evening was more of the same, mostly rain mixed in with some slushy snow/sleety stuff.  By Wednesday morning, it had dropped back down to persistent drizzle, but the ground (and everything outside, really) was fully soaked.  By the afternoon, the temperatures were enough above freezing that I made a quick trip to town for some wine and pre-thanksgiving treats.  Along the way, I shot this picture of the South Anna River, where it goes over the dam.  The low-lying fields near the river were covered with a shallow layer of standing water, and the dam was no more than a ripple beneath the swollen river.


When I was in town, we got a few minutes of real snow, big puffy white flakes blowing through the air, but the ground was too warm and wet for any accumulation.

Back at the Oax, I took these photos of our garden, where little is still growing except nearly indestructible kale and white ground cover cloth, which can give some of our cold-hardy crops just a few degrees of extra warmth.  Although it looked like the sun was about to set, it actually wasn’t any later than 2 in the afternoon– it was just that kind of a day.  Image


late November in Virginia– bare branches against a colorless sky.


Arriving home, I was pleased to see that someone had been stoking the fire.  It’s unusual this time of year to keep a fire going all through the day and night, but it’s been necessary this year.  Looking at this website for Charlottesville, it says that the average temperatures for this time of year are about 57 high and 37 low.  Since last Sunday, we’ve been averaging about 40 degrees high, getting down into the high teens every night.


Thursday–Thanksgiving day–was no warmer, but at least the sun was shining.  Mostly I was too busy with the holiday to do much observatin’, but I took this one photo of the trees just out in front of my house in the late afternoon, just to have some sort of reminder of the kind of day it was.


Last night was another cold one, and when went downstairs in the AM, the entire back yard was covered in frost.  The way the morning light caught the frozen ground made it twinkle in a lovely manner, but I was unable to capture that particular effect in a photo.


With a bit of spare time, I went out for a quick morning walk, to enjoy the fresh air and sunshine.  I actually really enjoy walking outside on mornings like this one, the sun bright in the sky and air cold enough to tromp around in a sweater and long undies and not get overheated.  Now that the leaves have all fallen, I am back to enjoying the smooth graceful trunk curves of the big de-foliated beech trees around the property.


A few weeks back, I discovered a spot in the woods where an oak had fallen and splintered into many chunks.  Each of the pieces was alive with oyster mycelium, and it seemed like as soon as we got decent conditions, there would be a big flush of oyster mushrooms.  I was curious whether all the recent rain had brought any out, or whether it had been too cold.  As it turned out, there was a bit of both.  There were lots of shriveled frozen mushrooms, looking like they had tried to grow in the wet conditions, but the daily hard frosts have just been too much for them. Image

Despite the cold, the field up by the cemetery remains bright green.  In fact, if I remember right from the early days of this journal, it stays pretty much that color all winter long.Image

A couple of weeks ago, the oldest member of Twin Oaks community died during the night.  It was at once sad in that “someone we know and love has died” kind of way, and a relief in that “she had lived a long and full life and died swiftly without suffering” kind of way.  I had to work during her funeral, so this was the first time I had seen her grave up at the cemetery.  The ground all around the grave had been disturbed, and there was a lot of this effect, where slender pillars of ice push tiny clods of dirt an inch or so out of the ground.  I first noticed this phenomenon years ago while walking the Appalachian Trail in Maine, and it never fails to impress me.  I don’t really understand it (something about water expanding as it freezes), or understand why it happens in some places but not others, but it sure is cool looking.  Image

A close-up of the tiny ice pillars


Walking on home, through the late November forest, long shadows pointing north despite the fact that it’s past 10:30 in the morning.  We’re only a few weeks away from Winter Solstice, and you can definitely see that the sun isn’t getting all that high in the sky, even at noon.


And finally, returning to my back yard, where the ground remained frost-covered wherever it was still in the shade.  It would be cool to do a time-lapse photo of the frost retreating as the sun climbs higher in the sky throughout the morning.


November 26 – cold snapped

According to the weather forecast, last Saturday was predicted to be our last pleasant day for a long  while.  It’s Tuesday night now, and so far that forecast has been pretty much spot on.  This past Sunday, we got slapped with our first real cold weather of the season, hard frost at night, temperatures in the 30’s all day, raw and windy.  On Sunday night, I went to a friend’s house to watch an evening football game, which lasted until well after midnight.  (The game was being played in New England, which was quite a bit colder; everyone on the field and sidelines looked utterly miserable, and I was glad to be in a warm house.)  Walking back to my car after the game, the air was bitterly cold and clear, the stars crackled and sparkled in the sky above, and each breath felt like I was frosting my lungs.  I was later told that it got down to 10 degrees that night, which was about what it felt like.

Monday was more of the same.  I had plenty of work to keep me inside; and frankly I wasn’t all that tempted to go out exploring.  Here’s what Monday looked like.  What it felt like was fall swiftly (and a bit prematurely) turning into winter.Image

On Monday night, we got our first rain of the month, and it kept on drizzling this morning (and all afternoon, too).  I did my normal Tofu delivery rounds in Charlottesville, a damp, chilly task on a day that never got much above freezing.  Years ago, when I happened to be in Seattle during late December, I came to the conclusion that rain, combined with temperatures just a few degrees above freezing (which soaks right through your clothes), is actually much colder and more uncomfortable than snow combined with sub-freezing temperatures (which often bounces off).  By the time I got back from my delivery rounds, I was well chilled.  Here are a few pictures of the neighborhood near to Twin Oaks, taken out the window of the Tofu Truck.  Just rolling down the window was about as close to the elements as I wanted to get today.Image

A couple photos of the South Anna river, the old mill, and the dam.  During the summer, there is so much thick annual vegetation that you can’t even see the river from the road.  This is not the case this time of year.Image

Eventually, I think that all the rain is going to push the water level up higher in the river.  But it’s been so dry this month, that the first couple of inches of rain will most likely be absorbed into the ground before there is a whole lot of runoff.Image

Driving up the road to Twin Oaks.  It looks bleak out there because it was bleak out there. Image

At the time I’m writing this–10 PM–we’ve had about an inch and a half and it’s still coming down.  I’m curious to see what effect the rain, our first in about a month, will have on whatever is still alive out there, whether it will bring out any mushrooms, or whether it’s all just done for the season.  We’ll see what tomorrow looks like.

November 23 – coming home, looking ’round

Last Wednesday, I flew back from to Richmond, then drove back to Twin Oaks. Despite having a lot of indexing work that’s been keeping me indoors, I have managed over the past couple of days to get out and about here and there, to take a look around and see how the season is unfolding.

During the week I was in Maine, the forest trees around Twin Oaks lost pretty much all of their leaves and fall colors.  The woods here have taken on a very wintry aspect, which is pretty much they way they’re going to look until next April.  There was no rain at all during the week I was gone, and at this point, we’ve gone about a month without any measurable precipitation.   I’m not expecting that there will be any mushrooms around, although I’m not entirely ruling out a flush of late-season oysters if and when we ever get rain again.

Here’s how the woods are looking these days.Image

Friday was an unusually warm and humid day, despite being overcast and windy, it was actually warm enough to walk around in a thin cotton shirt and still be completely comfortable.  I liked the look of the naked gray sycamore tree against the gray sky.  The intricate architecture of trunk and branch is much more noticeable now that nearly all the leaves are gone.Image

A couple of photos from my back yard on Friday afternoon.  Some of the fruit trees and bushes are still hanging on to a little bit of leafy foliage.Image

and the blueberry bushes, in particular, have turned a lovely bright red color.  Notice the fig tree next to the blueberry bush, completely bare and leafless.Image

Saturday was another beautiful day, sunny, cool, and comfortable.  There is a major cold front moving in, so Saturday was the last really pleasant day we’re going to have for a while.  The day’s ultimate frisbee game was well-attended, and the late afternoon sun on the line of sycamore trees was quite dramatic.Image

Another shot of the treeline, all lit up with slanty late afternoon sunlight.Image

I left the game a little early to stoke the sauna; as I came to the top of the hill, I saw the trees all along the edge of the forest lit up all dramatic-like.  Image

Just a few minutes before sunset.Image

Sometimes the most dramatic sunset colors aren’t of the setting sun at all, but the intense color and light effects created by the few moments of sunlight.Image

Heading down to the sauna, I was particularly impressed with the reflection of trees and sky in the mirror-still pond.Image

All in all, it was a very pretty end of a very pleasant day.Image

I stoked up the wood stove in the sauna.  As I waited for the fire to heat it up to a proper sweaty temperature, I sat on the front deck of the sauna and watched the sunset colors in the sky, the reflection of trees and sky in the pond.  I particularly like this “mirror image” shot.Image

November 21 – escape from New England

A bit of a “grab bag” post covering the second half of my trip to Maine.  For the last few days, I was more occupied with cleaning and packing the house and socializing with friends,  and wasn’t able to do as much outdoor exploration.   Still, I wasn’t exactly “full-time” busy, and I managed to get out some.  On Monday morning, I went on a very interesting and educational walk with the local logger who has been working on our property, discussing past, present, and future forest thinning projects, looking at areas that had been cut in the past couple of years and areas he would work on this winter. I thought to take my camera, but as it was raining for most of our walk, I didn’t take it out.

In the afternoon, after the rain stopped, I thought I might do some walking through the part of our property on the far side of the creek– nearly half of our total acreage–which hadn’t seen any cutting since before I was born.  First, I had to get across the creek, which was actually running kind of high.Image

The rocks in central Maine, like this sharp shale, are so very different from those in the mid-Atlantic.Image

I walked up and down the banks for a while trying to find a place to cross without getting my feet wet.  At this point, it was just a few degrees above freezing, so I was hoping to stay dry.Image

Another view of my family’s “swimming hole,” where I was able to walk across the stream on the top of the rock dam.Image

So here’s the dumb part.  I got across the creek, and started walking through the pleasant, open forest on that side.  Then, I saw a hunter off in the distance through the trees.  I realized that I had neglected to put on my neon orange cap and vest, quite important this time of year– in fact, I was dressed mostly in earthy grays and browns.  And I really didn’t feel like getting shot the day before I was supposed to fly home, so I turned around and walked home. Image

When I had been in town over the weekend, I bought a bag of birdseed and spread it out around the yard, just to see what happened.  What happened is that a bunch of big blue jays moved in and spent the rest of the week eating the seed.  On the last day I was there, a flock of juncoes showed up to share the bounty with the jays.Image

Tuesday was the last day we would be in Maine, and it was the coldest and windiest day of the week.  Just after I woke up, I looked out the front window and saw snow blowing through the air and a wild turkey in the front yard under the apple tree.  Just before leaving, I made a last-minute trip to a friend’s house.  Here’s a classic November view of West Athens, a hometown like no other.Image

A view of the power line that runs across our property.  Our land starts about three poles back from the “Hole In The Wall Road,” from where this photo was taken.Image

Dairy farm in West Athens.  Green grass, green pines, and 50 shades of gray.Image

Just another mid-fall scene along the “Hole in the Wall Road.”Image

during the week I was in Maine, I came across many apple trees still holding onto some of their withered frost-damaged fruit, long after they had lost their leaves.  I wanted to include a photo of one example of these trees, as it seems like a real sign of the season.Image

I got back to our house on Tuesday morning about 30 minutes before we were going to head down to Portland.  Off to the north, it was clear that something was blowing in.  Just as we were bringing our bags out to the car, it began to snow.Image

It’s difficult to get good photos of snowfall before it starts to accumulate on the ground, but the blustery wind and blowing snow definitely gave our escape from central Maine a bit of urgency.Image

easier to see the snow in this photo.Image

And here’s a couple more photos of our yard, with the white flakes blowing this way and that, as we headed off for points south.Image


We got to Portland on Tuesday evening, and were on an airplane before dawn on Wednesday morning.  Just before 10 in the morning, I arrived at the Richmond airport, having successfully brought my mother out of Maine just in time.  After a week in northern New England, Richmond felt not quite tropical, but quite a welcome change nonetheless.  We sat out in the sun waiting for our ride home, enjoying the “greater-than-40-degree” warmth.  Driving around Richmond, it felt like we had gone back in time about a month.  Many of the trees in the city are still quite bright with color, even the dramatic red and orange maples that had lost their leaves weeks ago around Twin Oaks.

As we made our way back to Louisa County, the last vestiges of fall color fell away, and the woods here at Twin Oaks look not all that different than the forests of central Maine, in that the trees are mostly all bare of leaves, and the landscape is looking pretty much like winter.  Hopefully I will have time to do some exploring and photographing in the next few days; I came home to a big pile of indexing work which promises to cut somewhat into my time for exploration/observating, but I hope to set aside more time to work on this journal sometime in the next few days.

November 17 – a Maine event, pt. 3

On Saturday morning, we drove into Skowhegan to do some errands.  The “city” of Skowhegan isn’t especially beautiful, and the drive to town, passing through mixed farm and forest country, isn’t especially dramatic.  This field, studded with bales of hay, bounded by old farmhouses and piney woods, is pretty typical of the region.Image

We made it home in the early afternoon; with a few hours of daylight left, I set out to explore my family’s 100 acre woods, to check in on the current state of our forest, and the various wood-cutting operations we’ve got going on.

For the past five years, we’ve been working with local woodcutters to thin our woods, with an eye towards harvesting mature fir and poplar, and thinning around some of our healthier and more valuable pines and hardwoods.  As I walked through the recently cut land, I was glad to see that the forest had been harvested in such a way as to leave plenty of healthy trees standing.Image

Another part of the woods that had been thickly overgrown, which is now a bit more thinned out.Image

In 1973, just before my family bought this land, the previous owners had all of the mature sugar maples cut, which I’m sure had something to do with the low price that my parents paid for the hundred acres.  Even forty years later, we have stands of skinny sugar maples, but not many big ones.Image

This pine tree, a gnarled, twisted, multi-trunked beast of a tree, is the largest single tree on our property.  The way that the trunk is split again and again is probably what makes it of limited economic or timber value, and is also probably the reason that it has been allowed to grow so big and old.Image

This stand of pine trees was one of the first part of our woods that we had thinned.  Now, about five years later, it’s one of the most pleasant areas to walk through.Image

When I was a kid, our property was a patchwork of fields and forest.  The fields were all ringed with low rock walls, painstakingly hand-built many generations ago.  Even in these days of modern convenience and communication, it is still quite an undertaking to get through a Maine winter in an old farmhouse.  It’s incredible to think about how difficult it must have been for the folks who, on top of everything else, were dragging these rocks out of the fields.Image

White birch against a blue skyImage

A year-round creek runs through the middle of our property, from one corner to the other.  Along the edges of the creek are many acres of clustered cedar trees.Image

More riparian cedar forest.Image

Crazy curved tree at the edge of the creek.  So many places in Maine, you see trees grabbing onto the slightest bits of soil at the edges of water or rock, and curving their way into whatever bit of sunlight they can reach.Image

One effect of having active woodcutting operations is the opening of skidder trails in places that had just been dense trees.  It actually makes it much easier to walk through the forest. Image

Over the past ten years or so, I’ve been doing my own small-scale forest thinning project at the edge of the clearing in front of the house.  I’ve been trying to create a more gradual transition into the forest, with an intermediate semi-forest zone.  It’s been a year and a half since I have worked on it, but I’m pretty happy with how it looks now.Image

Another project from a few years back was our attempt to dig a “pond” (more like a large puddle)  in a low swampy area.  It looks like “Lake Anna” will need some maintenance, probably during a warmer time of year.Image

Along the edges of the old field stand a handful of enormous old white pines.  I think this particular tree is the largest of them.  I’ve thought at times about having this tree cut and milled right on the spot, and making an entire small building out of wood from this one individual.  For now, though, I think we’ll let this one grow, and see just how big it will get.Image

November 15 – a Maine event, pt. 2

My second full day in Maine, another sunny warm pleasant one.  In the afternoon, I went on a little drive to visit a friend who lives back in the woods between West Athens and Solon.  Compared to central Virginia, this part of Maine is far more sparsely populated, more dirt roads, more distance between homesteads.  The road coming out of West Athens has several old farmhouses, some of which are still working family farms.


The friend I was visiting makes his living as a wood cutter.  His mile-long driveway passes through many acres of forest land that he has been actively managing for several decades. Image

Lots of places where the forest has been partially cleared, leaving behind the most healthy, straight, and valuable timber for future cuttings.  It’s cool to see how a forest that has been managed for long-term economic returns can also be attractive and look ecologically healthy.  All of the bare white birch in the sunlight is also quite pretty.Image

Lots of tall, straight white pine that he cuts one at a time and mills right on the spot to use as needed.


When I was a kid, my father made a living as a central Maine landscape painter.  Many of his paintings were of the bare trees and gray skies of late fall and winter.  This shot reminds me of many of his paintings that I’ve seen over the years.


This long, low, moss-covered boulder looked like some sort of enormous green grazing mammal in the woods.Image

One of my favorite trees that grows in Maine but not in Virginia is the larch, known around here as the Tamarack tree.  It’s a coniferous tree whose needles turn orange and drop off right around the time the deciduous trees lose their leaves.  On this bit of the driveway, the needles of the larch cover the ground like orange snow.


It’s kind of strange to think that the last time I was in Maine, in the summer of 2012, it was before I had started learning to identify mushrooms.  I’ve often wondered how many times I walked right by oysters or other tasty edibles without recognizing them.  I spotted these oysters growing on a tree a couple hundred yards off of the road.  Unfortunately it was a bit too old and frost-damaged to be worth eating, but it’s interesting to see that they are growing in Maine at this season.


I took a slightly roundabout route home, that took me through a few more miles of central Maine forest land.  Lots of acres of trees out in this part of the world, and lots of acres of clearcuts.  The clearcuts are pretty ecologically awful, but they do make for some nice views.


Far off to the northwest, it’s possible to see the long high ridgeline of Bigelow Mountain, the third-tallest mountain in Maine, second second only to Katahdin in bulk.  Bigelow is more of a mini-range than a single mountain– the Appalachian trail traverses its two highest peaks, and there’s a very remote shelter in the saddle between the two where I once spent a chilly damp night many years ago.  Image

Looking north to what I believe is Moxie Bald Mountain, another peak crossed by the AT.


Another view, from a different clearcut.  This is definitely Moxie Bald.


South of West Athens, you see a mix of forest land and farms, lots of hayfields, corn fields, small dairy farms.  In this part of Maine, Athens seems to be the northern limit of farm country.  The homesteads in the ragged forest country north of West Athens definitely have a different character.  Many of the buildings are sporting camps, occupied just for a few weeks during the summer or during hunting season (which is actually going on right now).  The few year-round settlements along the road are fairly hardscrabble affairs, a level of material poverty that I rarely see outside of central Maine.Image

I imagine that this stretch of hardwoods must have been really spectacular a few weeks ago.  Even without their leaves, this line of bare trees is quite beautiful.Image

Although it hasn’t felt uncomfortably cold while I’ve been here, it has been chilly enough that this woods pond, shaded on its south side by a row of pines, remained frozen even on this mild day.Image

An active logging operation.  If you spend any length of time in the Maine woods, you will come across several of these.   When I was younger, it always really bothered me to see all of the ecological and aesthetic impact of the logging.  I guess I still don’t like to see such devastation in the forest, but I’ve got more of an appreciation of the needs of the folks here to make a living, and the needs of everyone for the wood and paper products that come out of these forests.  I still hate to see the big clearcuts, which stink of quick-buck greed and short-sighted mismanagement, but it’s a lot easier to accept selective cutting and smaller-scale operations like this one.


There are lots of big power line cuts in this part of the state.  When I was a kid, I used to go for long walks along the power lines.  I probably absorbed a lot of herbicides and electromagnetic radiation in the process.


The time for wildflowers is long past, but the meadows and clearings are full of old brown milkweed.  Their pods split open months ago, and as the plants dry out they release their cottony seeds into the wind.  The white seed clusters look almost like enormous dandelion heads.


as the sun dropped out of the sky, around 4 in the afternoon, a nearly full moon rose in the east.  Moonrise is one of the trickiest things to photograph without a fancy camera, so this photo gives a poor impression of this dramatic woodland scene.


Just north of my house, there are several low boggy spots in the forest like this.  They always seem like perfect locations to spot moose, and I have indeed seen several in this spot over the years; a few years back I narrowly avoided one that leapt out onto the road as I was driving past.  No moose this afternoon.


Driving directly east as the road climbs a hill right up into the moon.


As I approached my home, I saw tendrils of smoke curling through the trees.  For a moment, I had a wild thought that our old farmhouse had caught fire, but soon discovered it was just thick smoke from a neighbor’s chimney, a true sign of the season ’round here.