Opening Acts

Glamor close-up of Witch Hazel 'Amethyst'

Witch Hazel ‘Amethyst’

Tomorrow, we’ll be done with January. For me, this has been simultaneously a very long and a very short month. I have been doing more writing for other venues this month, which has diverted me from efforts here. Despite the schedule uptick, I have found time to wander my yard long enough to photograph the new growing season’s opening acts. Natives like the witch hazel cultivar above are among the early bloomers, but the showier acts are mostly non-native ornamental trees and shrubs that I added precisely because of their early-flowering proclivities. More than ever, I am merciless in eradicating any non-natives that show signs of potential invasiveness, but the plants in this post have been with me for over a decade, and so far, so good.

January Jasmine flower buds

January Jasmine flower buds

I first met January Jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum) on the campus of Duke University, where its arching evergreen branches cascaded down a rock wall, its winter flowers a welcome surprise on a dull gray day. I never forgot it, and when we moved to our five-acre paradise, I found a spot for it in the first few years.

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New flowers after an unseasonably warm rain.

From a distance, the botanically unsophisticated mistake this beauty for forsythia. But forsythia is a much coarser, larger plant, and it usually blooms at least a month later than January Jasmine.

The individual flowers are much more delicate-looking than those of forsythia -- at least in this gardener's opinion.

The individual flowers are much more delicate-looking than those of forsythia — at least in this gardener’s opinion.

Before the January Jasmine got started, my pale pink-flowering Flowering Apricot (Prunus mume) opened for business. During a recent warm spell, it was covered in ecstatic honeybees from my neighbor’s hive.

A week later, my other two Flowering Apricots opened. Theoretically, both are the cultivar Peggy Clarke, but as I wrote here, the flowers are not the same, regardless of the name tags that came with them. As I wrote then, I think of them as Peggy Senior and Peggy Junior, because I acquired Junior later, after falling madly in love with the fragrance of Peggy Senior. I know my enthusiasm sounds extravagant, but trust me, on a cold — or warm — winter’s day no matter how blue you might be feeling, a few deep inhalations of Peggy Senior’s cinnamon-sweet perfume will lift your heart and hopes.

Peggy Senior branches

Peggy Senior branches

This syrphid fly was quite a surprise. I've never seen them out so early.

This syrphid fly was quite a surprise. I’ve never seen them out so early.

I didn't realize it wasn't a honeybee until I looked at it through the camera lens.

I didn’t realize it wasn’t a honeybee until I looked at it through the camera lens.

Most of Peggy Senior's pollinator visitors have been my neighbor's honeybees.

Most of Peggy Senior’s pollinator visitors have been my neighbor’s honeybees.

Peggy Senior is sited behind the south-facing wall of our garage, so she always begins to bloom about a week before Peggy Junior.  For comparison, here are a couple of shots of Junior. The differences in their perfume are profound; although pleasantly sweet, Junior’s fragrance entirely lacks the cinnamon undertone that makes Senior so heavenly. Junior’s flowers are also a paler pink.

The Green World is my source of solace these days more than ever before. When faced with national and international events over which I have little control — at least until the next election cycle — I have chosen to devote my efforts to where I feel I can be most effective. That’s why I’m stepping up my writing efforts.

I’m writing a bi-monthly gardening column for a small paper in Virginia in the hopes that I can persuade new readers to more deeply appreciate their native environments. I also recently finished an article for the next edition of Conservation Gardener, the magazine of the NC Botanical Garden that I’m hoping will motivate folks to get serious about eradicating invasive non-native species from urban natural areas in their neighborhoods.

Expanding male catkins of native American Hazelnut (Corylus americana).

Expanding male catkins of native American Hazelnut (Corylus americana).

I’m also deeply involved in helping a local church create a wildlife sanctuary on their property by enhancing it with diverse, abundant native plants. My dream is that all such public places — now mostly “landscaped” with resource-hogging, environmentally sterile lawns and a few struggling, mostly non-native trees and shrubs — can become healthy native havens for struggling wildlife, including vital pollinators. I’m hoping this project will inspire other churches to start their own native sanctuaries, and that as adults and children become familiar with these plants, they will want to plant them in their home landscapes. It’s a big dream, I know, but with so much darkness in our world right now, I feel obliged to think big — and very green.

Moon, Jupiter, and Spica

Moon, Jupiter, and Spica

A couple of weeks ago before dawn, we got quite a show just as the moon began to make her descent. The bright light below and to the moon’s right is the planet Jupiter, shining brighter than most stars. If you look carefully toward the bottom of the shot, you can see a blurry bit of gray light. That’s Spica, the brightest star in the constellation Virgo.

This conformation of heavenly lights was a lovely opening act for the sunrise that followed shortly thereafter, and reminded me that there’s more than one meaning to that term. Opening acts can be preludes to main shows, but they can also be behaviors. In this time when political darkness threatens to overwhelm us, I am looking to my early flowers and spectacular sunrises as reminders to keep my heart open despite the palpable fear in the air.

Love wins.

Love wins.

The only way to fight darkness is with light, and light comes from loving, open hearts. So I resolve to do my best to keep my heart open through the dark days ahead, drawing strength from the Green World, and praying that sharing it as widely as I can will inspire others to do the same.

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Snow Days

An unhappy cardinal surveys the sleet/snow accumulation on the deck railing.

An unhappy cardinal surveys the sleet/snow accumulation on the deck railing as snow continues to fall.

The forecasters predicted my area could receive as much as 6-8 inches of dry snow on January 7, but warm air pushed up from the south, so we ended up with 2.5 inches of sleet and 0.5 inch of snow on top. Normally, this would have disappeared in a day or two, but this time the frozen precipitation was accompanied by record cold. With ice covering the ground at my house, our thermometer registered 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit one morning, and 7 degrees the next morning. Nighttime lows “warmed’ into the teens after that.

After the snow stopped, hungry birds bided their time on nearby bushes, waiting for their turns at the feeders.

After the snow stopped, hungry birds bided their time on nearby bushes, waiting for their turns at the feeders.

Snow plows concentrated on highways; my small road didn’t get plowed until January 10, and again several times on January 11. Wonder Spouse and I stayed home, enjoying the slowed pace of snow days, and entertained by the crazy drivers navigating our hilly road covered by a sheet of ice that had even 4-wheel-drive vehicles sliding precariously.

By late afternoon on January 7, the snow was plaguing Virginia and clouds opened to glimpses of blue skies.

By late afternoon on January 7, the snow was plaguing Virginia and clouds opened to glimpses of blue skies.

Wonder Spouse conducted business as usual via conference calls and computer links. I spent most of my time alternating between reading and wandering around the yard taking photographs. Hence, the rest of this post is mostly photos of a snowy landscape that melted in two days when 60-degree temperatures arrived on January 11.

January 8th dawned at 3.5 degrees, and the thermometer never rose above 26 degrees. I stayed indoors; this southerner is not adapted for such temperatures. It “warmed” to the low 30s on January 9, and the mid-30s on January 10, so I ventured out several times for photos.

I had not seen deer during daylight hours in my yard for several months — until the snow fell. A herd of five braved broad daylight to forage beneath the feeders several times each day.

I enjoyed attempting to parse the tales told by myriad tracks left in the snow. I’ve no idea how one discerns between tiny bird feet. Deer prints were numerous, complete with skid marks on the hills when they punched into the solid layer of sleet lurking just below the veneer of snow on top.

 

The growing beaver pond and wetland on the other side of our creek was bedazzled by ice during the arctic blast.

We were treated to a spectacular sunrise the next day.

Warm sky colors belied the frigid air temperature.

Warm sky colors belied the frigid air temperature.

I walked out to survey the road at the end of our driveway.

Sunset on January 10 was so vivid that even my southeast-facing view of our floodplain was highlighted by a pink evening sky, which appeared just as a nearly full moon climbed through the trees.

Finally on January 11, warm southern air surged in, and the great melting began, as you can see by the slumping ice on the solar panels on our roof.

Despite bright sun, our panels were unable to generate any power until the ice finally slid off them.

Despite bright sun, our panels were unable to generate any power until the ice finally slid off them.

My final shot is blurry, but I could not resist the power of that almost-full moon, as it admired its reflection in the melting creek waters.

Warm blessings to all those currently winter-bound.

Warm blessings to all those currently winter-bound.

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A New Year’s Eve Walkabout

We knew rains — significant rains — were promised for New Year’s Day, so Wonder Spouse and I took advantage of a mild New Year’s Eve Day to wander about our five acres. Mostly, we saw what we expected to see, but as always, there were a few surprises.

Our area hasn’t seen significant rain for over two months, and we’ve been labeled “abnormally dry” by the experts who monitor such things. Usually when this is the case, our floodplain dries out, the mud disappears, and the creek level drops to a trickle. But this hasn’t happened this time. Previous such episodes have taught us to suspect beavers.

As New Year’s Eve Day dawned, I realized I was seeing much more water than normal reflecting light on the floodplain opposite our side of the creek. It’s a tad hard to see if you don’t know what you’re looking for, but this is what I saw.

The water reflecting light in the foreground is our creek. All that water further back wasn't there a month ago.

The water reflecting light in the foreground is our creek. All that water further back wasn’t there a month ago.

We pulled on our boots after the light grew stronger and got as close as we could to what turned out to be a growing beaver pond.

The edge of the pond area. Note the cattails in the right foreground.

The edge of the pond area. Note the cattails in the right foreground.

When I got in and looked at this next picture, I spotted a suspicious-looking structure on the right side.

We startled a pair of mallards when we moved in for this shot.

We startled a pair of mallards when we moved in for this shot.

I’m fairly certain that’s a beaver lodge in the middle of the pond on the right. Here’s a zoomed-in view.

See the dome in the middle that looks like a pile of sticks?

See the dome in the middle that looks like a pile of sticks?

The beavers are well on their way to creating a very large pond on our neighbor’s side of the creek. And today they got a lot of help — about 1.5 inches of rain, with a similar amount predicted for tomorrow. As night fell, our creek had reached the top of its banks. Even though the rain had stopped several hours earlier, the water was barely moving, thanks to the beaver dam downstream. More rain will certainly cause the creek to spill out onto our side of the floodplain — for how long remains to be seen.

The transformation is mesmerizing.

The transformation is mesmerizing.

It will be an interesting late winter and spring, if the pond is permitted to remain. The influx of waterfowl could be wonderful, and the last time the beavers did this, a few river otters moved in to enjoy the increase in fish and other aquatic life.

If 2016 taught me anything, it is that life is entirely unpredictable. It’s best, I think, to seek beauty anywhere I can, to savor it, celebrate it, and pray it wins out in the end. With that in mind, here are a few final beauty shots also taken this day.

Active nesting holes of resident Pileated Woodpeckers in a sycamore beside the creek

Active nesting holes of resident Pileated Woodpeckers in a sycamore beside the creek

First bloom of Witch hazel 'Amethyst'

First bloom of Witch hazel ‘Amethyst’

Lingering fall color of Virginia Sweetspire 'Henry's Garnet'

Lingering fall color of Virginia Sweetspire ‘Henry’s Garnet’

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Doing the best with what we are given

Taking some sun on a warm winter's day

Taking some sun on a warm winter’s day

Vultures, like these Turkey Vultures here, have an image problem. You know the cartoon cliché of a man dying of thirst in a desert, vultures circling, patiently waiting for the man to expire.

It’s true that vultures dine upon death, but without such scavengers, we would be up to our eyeballs in slowly decomposing bodies — assuming the corpse-eating bugs and microscopic life were at least still on the job.

This time of year, Turkey Vultures roost together in large numbers on the high-voltage power line towers about a half mile from my house. When morning temperatures rise above freezing, they lift off and often slowly circle over my house and the adjacent woodlands until they disperse in small groups to find a broken body for breakfast. As sunset approaches, they circle again overhead in increasing numbers until some tacit signal sends them all to their nighttime roost.

I think Turkey Vultures are excellent examples of creatures doing their best with the circumstances thrust upon them. Their naked heads may be practical — easier to clean — but let’s be candid — they are not breathtakingly beautiful birds. They remind me of bald old men — a bit cranky as they argue over a meal, or jostle for the sunniest spot on a winter-bare tree limb. Yet, they endure, and even thrive filling a vital ecological niche that ensures a less messy landscape for us, and survival for them.

And they know how to make the most of an unseasonably warm winter day. Yesterday was such a day at my house; the Turkey Vultures turned it into a spa day in and above the creek adjacent to my property. From my back deck, I had an excellent view as about a dozen of them gathered on sycamore branches leaning over the water.

One at a time, they took turns fluttering down to a wide sand bar. With wings slightly extended, each waded slowly into the water until only its head remained unsubmerged. Due to almost no rainfall in the last couple of months, the current is quite sluggish, so the birds were in no danger of being pulled downstream. Each bird would linger in this mostly submerged position for about 30 seconds, then slowly wade back up to the sandbar, and shake its feathers vigorously. It then fluttered back up to a low-hanging branch, fully extended its damp wings, and let the sun dry its feathers while another bird took its turn below.

Their pool party lasted about two hours, only ending when the sun dropped below the tree line, casting their sycamore perches into shadow. They lifted off, circled, and headed for the power line towers, having squeezed maximum enjoyment from an uncharacteristically warm winter’s day, and reminding me of the importance of grabbing the most joy I can from every possible moment.

Party on, Turkey Vultures, and thanks for the lesson in mindfulness.

An early spring gathering on a favorite sycamore branch.

An early spring gathering of Black Vultures on a favorite sycamore branch.

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Dark is Light

Morning moon on Winter Solstice eve

Morning moon on this Winter Solstice eve

Winter Solstice occurs at 4:55 a.m. EST tomorrow, December 21. Those of us lucky enough in this world to be blessed with adequate food, shelter, and safety are mostly fixated on the holiday season that culminates (for many) with New Year’s Eve celebrations in less than two weeks. These often family-focused upcoming days can be wonderful affirmations of our connections to kin and home, and I wish all of my readers the very merriest of holidays.

But before these happy times occur, we celebrate an older tradition born from earlier centuries, when the sun’s presence – and absence – was deemed critical to the survival of everyone. On the darkest, longest night of the year, bonfires were built, prayers were chanted, and the sky was anxiously scanned for signs of dawn’s new light – the return of the sun, of life – of hope.

Light is often equated with hope, and darkness with despair. But today I invite you to consider the yin-yang of things – that dark and light are not opposites between which we must choose. Rather, they are parts of a whole, and perhaps holding too tightly to only half is contributing to the current state of our planet.

Green light emerging from dark earth.

Green light emerging from dark earth.

The dark can be a scary place, there’s no denying, but it is also critical to the life cycles of all living creatures. Most seeds require a dark meditation period in the embrace of earth before they germinate and reach for the light above. Roots of plants great and small embrace the darkness, drawing sustenance from it. Myriad creatures including microscopic bacteria and fungi, worm-hunting moles, root-nibbling voles, and bug-hunting salamanders all dwell happily in the darkness of earth. These darkness dwellers are essential to the survival of those of us who prefer the light. We need each other, and we need to understand each other.

I fervently wish I had an easy solution to this dark-versus-light crisis currently clutching our planet in a near stranglehold. But we humans are complex creatures, and attempts to oversimplify reality are not helpful. Thus, I have recently spent a good bit of time pondering what actions I can take myself to create more balance in my world. Of course, being a devoted lover of the Green World, I pondered ways I might be able to bring more balance – and love – to the natural world I see under assault everywhere I look.

In the new year, I hope to share some of what I’ve been reading and thinking about, but today I want to leave you with some of the many signs of hope I have recently encountered as I have been searching for ways to facilitate balance in my world.

Shelter for the homeless

Shelter for the homeless

  • A local church blessed with acreage has dedicated their space to serving the homeless – humans and native plants and animals – by building spaces on their land that will serve those groups, creating a green, safe sanctuary that will shelter and heal bodies and spirits.
  • A local high school has committed over the last few years to a native landscape, creating beautiful, diverse plantings around their buildings. And now they have begun planting a forest where a vast expanse of sterile Bermuda grass lawn once dominated. Row by row, native oaks are lovingly planted, and site-appropriate smaller natives are tucked around and between the young saplings. The man leading this transformation estimates it will take about 20 years for trees to become young forest, the Bermuda grass to vanish, the natives – plant and animal – to make homes in the new landscape. But the manifestation of the vision is underway – vibrant life from sterile lawn, light from darkness.
  • Several groups of local citizens are beginning to tackle the enormous task of reclaiming their neighborhood greenways. Long-dominated by aggressive invasive non-native plant species, these recreational corridors are in many areas entirely dominated by a mix of non-native thugs that have outcompeted the natives that were there first, degrading essential habitats that native animals rely on for survival in an increasingly urbanized region. One stretch of greenway at a time, these groups plan to establish the light of a balanced, native landscape from the dark snarl of invasive plants that currently dominate these corridors.
Non-native English ivy strangling a native dogwood

Non-native English ivy strangling a native dogwood

That’s only a sample of what I’ve learned about activities going on in just my little corner of southeastern piedmont. But what I have also learned is that similar projects are emerging all across the United States. It seems to this lover of the Green World that many of us have reached a similar conclusion about the current state of our planet. To bring light from darkness, we must act locally. One project at time – one bonfire at a time – we are creating green light from darkness.

On the long, dark night of this Winter Solstice eve, I invite all my readers to take a few moments to reflect on what you are doing to bring light to our planet. Whether you choose to act on behalf of the Green World or perhaps one of the many other causes or disenfranchised groups in desperate need of your light and energy, I think the important thing here is to act.

Embrace the darkness; see the kernel of light always within it. Build your bonfire, and light up night’s sky.

Happy Winter Solstice!

Happy Winter Solstice!

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Grateful for Change

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A Thanksgiving vision for the future

Adapt or die – I see that phrase in many contexts. The business and financial realms are especially fond of it. This evolutionary imperative has been on my mind a lot lately. On the minds of many, of course, are the political earthquakes – not to mention the geological ones – shaking many parts of the world, leaving us slack-jawed by the pace of change. I’m more concerned about the impacts of rapid change on my beloved green world.

Around the globe, the natural world has been taking more hard hits to its stability than humanity has ever had to deal with before. Whole ecosystems are disappearing, species extinction rates are soaring, and of perhaps more immediate concern to humans, water availability and potable quality are no longer givens in parts of the world and even my own United States. Arable soils are becoming more rare, air quality more erratic. And increasingly unpredictable weather patterns are creating difficulties for humanity and the natural world.

Native amphibians are especially sensitive to declining water quality.

Native amphibians are especially sensitive to declining water quality.

One thing seems certain: we can’t go back. Humanity has irretrievably altered the blue-green jewel upon which all life depends. Our choices are clear: adapt or die. Thus, my Thanksgiving meditation this year is to try my best to be grateful for change.

No, this is not some Pollyanna pipedream. I am not suggesting we all don rose-colored glasses. I am suggesting that we recognize that change is almost always an opportunity for growth. New ideas can rise, phoenix-like, from the ashes of chaos – ideas that can create doors to new worlds.

Installed Solar System

For the last several months, I’ve been reading a lot, and thinking hard about how I can contribute to a transformation that will permit much of my beloved green world to survive without any remaining wild lands on our planet. A number of good minds are working on this. You can see the evidence in a growing number of places around the world – green roofs that grow food, solar panels generating clean power, wind turbines that don’t kill birds but still generate energy, sustainable agricultural practices. These are exciting developments – and I am grateful for all of them.

A native long-horned bee visiting native Joe Pye Weed flowers

A native long-horned bee visiting native Joe Pye Weed flowers

But where does this leave native wildlife? Where do the native pollinators – without which our food chain breaks beyond repair – shelter, feed, and reproduce? Where do the native birds that eat pest insects shelter and raise their families? Where will the forests and prairies, the trees, shrubs, wildflowers, and grasses be able to thrive when they are being increasingly displaced by bulldozers and concrete, invasive non-native plants and animals, and climate change?

Many experts believe the answer lies with the force that disrupted the Earth’s natural processes: humanity. But for this to work, all of humanity must agree to change old ingrained habits, replacing them with new adaptations that will improve the survival chances of the natural world – and the humans who rely on it.

If biological processes are disrupted, human food production will be problematic at best.

If biological processes are disrupted, human food production will be problematic at best.

“But,” I’ve been asking myself, “I am one plant-obsessed gardener in the southeastern piedmont region of the United States? What can I do?”

I am starting by doing my best to be grateful for change. I am endeavoring to embrace this new reality as an opportunity to advocate for the implementation of a new gardening paradigm that every suburban homeowner, urban condo-dweller, and farmer can adopt. In short, we must transform every speck of green space remaining into actively managed gardens. We can work to make them as self-sustaining as possible, but with the clear understanding that natural processes on this earth are now too disrupted to maintain themselves without at least occasional human intervention. These green spaces will never resemble the wild places of even fifty years ago. But they can serve as the critical refuges needed to maintain the insects and animals we need to put food on our tables, to clean our air and water, to keep Earth’s biological engines running.

The functions fulfilled by this vibrantly healthy wetland cannot be duplicated with non-native species.

The functions fulfilled by this vibrantly healthy wetland cannot be readily duplicated with non-native species.

In future posts, I will describe some of the changes I am planning to make to my five acres of southeastern piedmont. I am basing these plans on some of what I’ve been reading, but attempting to adapt it to work for small landowners. For this change to take hold and work, even suburban homeowners with quarter-acre lots will need to revise their thinking about their landscapes. And the real estate industry, home-owners associations, government regulators, and construction industry must join us in the 21st century, accepting that old practices cannot be sustained in the face of the rapid deterioration of the natural world upon which, ultimately, we all rely.

I invite my readers to join me in this challenging exercise of being grateful for change. You might want to add these two books to your winter reading list. I’ll be writing about both of them in future posts:

The green world has always been a refuge for me. It is where I have always turned to lift my spirits, nurturing me body and soul. It has never failed me. This blog has been part of my way of giving back some of the blessings I have received from my lifelong relationship with the natural word. But now I think perhaps it is time to try to do more, and pray that others will join me.

magnolia2

This Thanksgiving, I am grateful for change, because it has given me the opportunity to do more than merely describe all the aspects of the natural world that I love. Now I have a chance to try to help preserve it. Of course, I may just be a dotty old woman tilting at windmills, but in this adapt-or-die world in which we all now live, I feel obliged to holler “Charge!” and see where this mission takes me.

I know I cannot stop change, nor do I wish to. But perhaps I can help steer the changes impacting the natural world toward less devastating directions. Random change can be terrifying, but metamorphosis is miraculous.

05-9-27chrysalis1 - 2

May we all find ways to create positive transformations for ourselves — and our world.

3 Monarch on Lantana

Happy Thanksgiving.

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Supermoon Signals Winter’s Arrival

Last night's rising moon

Last night’s rising moon

During the wee hours this morning while the moon — one day short of officially full — silvered the landscape, our first killing freeze finally arrived. This morning’s low was 23 degrees Fahrenheit — low enough to dissuade even heartier perennials from further blooms. This is as it should be, of course. In fact, I’m grateful that we can all now turn to winter meditation tasks, while bees and butterflies, mosquitoes and gnats take a well-deserved break from their appointed tasks.

As the sun reluctantly rose this morning, evidence of last night’s moonlit chill was abundant. Sparkling white diamond frost coated every leaf, stem, flower, and garden bench. Where the sun’s rays touched the frost, it melted into submission. But the moon had already done her work, ending another growing season.

Last night's moon kisses the treetops as it climbs higher.

Last night’s moon kisses the treetops as it climbs higher.

I sleep poorly when the moon is near or at its fullness. I especially love to wander through my dark house in the wee hours of a winter full moon. I can walk without tripping, because moonlight streaming through windows allows me to see everything in its silvery glow. All is quiet, except perhaps for occasional howls from hungry coyotes, or in late winter, the pipe-organ calls of owls claiming territory and hooting about love.

This year more than most, I need this quiet, moonlit time to re-gather myself, to find my way forward. Always for me, of course, that will mean immersing myself in the green world — growing food, for humans and wildlife — and sharing my love of this world with others, in the hope that we will all enjoy centuries more of silver-touched, fertile landscapes.

I took the first two photos above with my little camera, sans tripod, standard lens. But I leave you with this moon portrait shot by the ever-amazing Wonder Spouse. He used my camera, but attached his fancy, longer lens, and attached it all to his tripod. After a little post-processing, the result is this shot here.

May we all find solace, and the strength to continue, beneath the silvery light of tonight's super moon.

May we all find solace, and the strength to continue, beneath the silvery light of tonight’s supermoon.

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