The Tuesday Guys

That was the filename that the Volunteer Manager at Manna gave to this picture that she took of the four of us in the warehouse a couple of weeks ago. Yes, we are still at it at the food bank. The need to tackle the issue of hunger in our communities still remains. This is one of the activities that can get me to a happy state of mind in the morning regardless of my state of mind when I got there. It is remarkable how that happens! Have you ever heard the theme song from the old sitcom Cheers?

The last year has impacted our little volunteer group somewhat. Two of our regulars have had to take an extended break due to various reasons. I miss their presence, and I hope to see them once again some day. They had become like family. That having been said, I have also noticed that there are some routines, even those that seem to be foundational, that are difficult to get back to once you take a break. So I am keeping my fingers crossed.

The three of us to the left of the picture below have been at it for a long time. The young man on the right joins us occasionally. He has been helping us for quite some time. Here is a case of a person doing something not because he is forced to do it, or because he is being paid to do it, but because he feels like doing it. There is no need for him to join us older folk in the work at Manna. Yet he does, and he does seem to enjoy it. Young people can be inspiring. We will probably not see him once he goes back to college. That will be a loss. But life will also go on…

Snakes In the Morning

Before proceeding further with this blog, I have to make a note related to my previous blog. There was a picture of a bird in that blog that I was not able to identify in a timely manner. I now know that the bird is a Yellow-billed Cuckoo. These birds breed in North America during this time of year and fly to South America during the non-breeding winter season. They are shy birds that apparently stay hidden most of the time. I am very thankful for having had the opportunity to see it! Incidents like this give our outdoor activities that extra zing!

I went for a bike ride last Friday, starting out from Rileys Lock, and heading north. I had not been on the trail too long before I came upon a lady who was stopped on the trail. She stopped me and told me that there was a snake on the trail. A somewhat smaller-sized northern copperhead lay in the middle the trail enjoying the cool of the early morning. In case one is not aware of it, these snakes are venomous and can be deadly.

The young lady wanted to proceed north with her travels, but was very nervous about the reaction the snake might have to her attempt to get by. The two of us stood for a while strategizing about how to get around the snake. I was thinking of riding past it on the bike. While we were standing around, a bald eagle landed on a tree nearby. I could not get a very good picture of the bird.I wonder if the eagle was attracted by the activity on the trail.

I eventually rode past the snake, right in front of it. It might have turned its head to keep an eye on me as I rode by, but I was not too sure. My focus was on my safety! I stopped after had I passed the snake to take a picture of the bald eagle that was still hanging around, but the bird took off before I was ready with the camera. The young woman finally decided that she was not going to risk moving past the snake.She turned to head back towards Rileys Lock.

Having seen one snake this early in the morning, I was prepared to see more of them as the ride progressed. And it happened! The reptile sightings actually took place only towards the end of the ride – on two occasions.

The first time was when a long and thin black rat snake crossed the trail.It was moving fast enough that I my attempt to frame a picture capturing the entire length of the snake in the picture was unsuccessful.

The second time was toward the end of the ride. I saw a big and fat black rat snake beside the trail. I think the snake was getting ready to cross the trail. It turned and quickly slithered back into the grass when I stopped to take the picture.

It was towards the end of the ride, a little bit after I stopped for the second black rat snake, that I realized that my lens cap had fallen off the camera somewhere along the way, probably after I had taken the picture of this last snake. Something like this was bound to happen some day because the Olympus lens caps are, in general, designed very poorly from the point of view of staying attached to the front of the lens. You have to make an extra effort to make sure they are locked into place after you put them back over the lens. They might seem to be securely attached even when they are not. There have been several occasions in this past where the lens caps on my lenses have fallen off, but I had always been fortunate thus far to have been able to find the piece that dropped off. Not this time! I returned home “capless” in spite of my effort to find the lens cap by riding back along the trail – back to the place where I thought I had taken the last picture.

Luckily, it is not too difficult to get a replacement lens cap.

I want to finish the blog with this picture of a swallow taken at Whites Ferry. This was one of many on a wire. I cannot figure out what kind of a swallow this is.

I will post more of these pictures on Pbase eventually.

The Sunflower Gardens Mini-Adventures

We have known for a few years that the State of Maryland manages a few sunflower gardens in the area of McKee Beshers Wildlife Management Area near Sycamore Landing, one of our starting points for Sunday morning walks along the towpath. The exact locations of the gardens can change every year. The primary purpose of the sunflower gardens is to provide food for birds. That having been said, The Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the organization that maintains the area, allows visitors to the many sunflower gardens, including the one next to the parking lot at Sycamore Landing for the C&O Canal.

We went to see the sunflowers for first time this year. This year, all of the gardens other than the one at Sycamore Landing are accessed from parking lots along a rough road called Hunter Quarter Road. Hunter Quarter Road is a diversion from a main road called River Road. It runs parallel to River Road for a short while. River Road itself runs roughly parallel to the Potomac river. It is the road we take to get to both Sycamore Landing and Edwards Ferry. McKee Beshers WMA occupies all of the space between River Road and the C&O Canal park next to the Potomac River. River Road and the towpath are spaced by a distance of roughly a mile. The wildlife management area is broken up into woods, swamps, and plots of land which either lie fallow or are used for growing plants like corn, and even sunflower. I suspect that some of the plots are leased out to people. This being a wildlife management area, there is plenty of wildlife, including a variety of flora and fauna.

Here are some pictures from the outing!

The following pictures are from the first location that we stopped at. The garden had to be accessed via a trail through a wooded area.The sunflower garden itself was next to a cornfield.

The sunflower plants here were growing in the midst of some other tall wild plants.

It was still a little cloudy at that time of the morning. We could see the occasional aircraft flying in the direction of Dulles airport.

The sunflowers were easier to view at the second place that we stopped at.

We saw a lot of goldfinches flying around the sunflower field. They would occasionally land on the sunflower plants, sometimes sitting on top of the plants, and sometimes going down into the leaves of plants themselves. They did not stay in any one place for too long.

Beyond the sunflower garden, we were able to follow the pathway in the direction of the Potomac River, all the way to its end. We then had to walk through a field of fairly mature corn plants to get into the woods next to the canal. It could have been a setting for a Stephen King novel.On the other side of the cornfield, a trail led through woods to the prism of the canal and the towpath on its other side, and then the river just beyond.

We did not see any sunflowers at the final place that we stopped at. The pathway in this area lay next to a swamp. There were plenty of interesting other plants to be seen. These are some of the newer ones.

There were also mallows and bindweed aplenty in this last section.

Here is a picture of a bird I do not recall ever having seen before. It was very cooperative when it came to my taking its picture. I have been unable to identify it so far. Notice the multi-colored beak.

We have been aware of the existence of the McKee Beshers Wildlife Management Area for a long time. I have actually studied a map of the area in the past to figure out if there were places to hike. I had been looking forward to exploring this space for a few years. Now it is done thanks to the sunflower gardens! We might return to the place in the future.

Sweating The Computer Stuff

I have not been in the state of mind to write a blog for a little while now. You can blame technology for this. I finally got a new computer. I ended up spending a lot of time getting the new machine up and running. I found myself in a frame of mind not conducive to writing anything.

My old laptop computer has had a few issues with it for a long time, but I tried to manage without a replacement for as long as I could. One of the buttons on the touchpad has been sticky for a while, which sometimes led to unexpected responses when it was pressed. The plastic casing of the computer had cracked and separated an even longer while back – at the location on the side where the power cord got plugged in, to the extent that the connector for the power cord inside the computer was not firmly connected to anything within the computer itself. When the lid of the computer was lifted to the certain level, the broken plastic on the bottom of the computer would separate, and the connector would become free to move. The only way to ensure that the connector was stable was to push the top and the bottom elements of the casing together and to try to keep them together using some force. The engineer in me had to try to come up with a solution to the problem. Super-strong adhesives would not work since the force pulling the broken pieces apart was too much. I was using a sticky tape instead as a temporary solution, and had been trying to limit the actions of opening and closing of the lid of the computer. That careful approach had its limits, and mitigated the issue for only so long. It was time for a new computer!

I got a new laptop computer with much more memory than I had before, with the hope that it would make it easier for me to support multitasking, and also speed up running of my photo editing app, a piece of software that is a complete memory hog. I also upgraded to a Solid State Drive (SSD) instead of the traditional Hard Disk Drive (HDD) in order to eliminate a moving part in the computer.

Laptop technology has advanced significantly since my last upgrade about 6 to 7 years ago. The newer units are far more compact (smaller in overall size for the same screen size), significantly thinner, and much lighter. This is in spite of the fact that the new machines are much more capable than the older ones. The core chipset technology has advanced significantly.

The effort involved in bringing up the new machine to a configuration of familiarity to me, so that I could do all the stuff that I used to do on the old machine, was what disrupted my past week completely. This process should not have taken a lot of time. But one of the key apps on the old machine that I use for image processing would not install on the new one. I spent a few days trying to get past this issue, even spending a significant amount of time with representatives of the company that made the app – on the phone and on my computer – trying to figure out what was going on. I even gave the company reps temporary access to my computer for hours on end. (I was very nervous for the duration of the remote sessions when they were running.) In the end, they were unsuccessful in figuring out what was going on. And, in the end, they also dropped the ball on solving the problem. They had promised a call back from their experts within 24 hours. A few days have passed since then…. But, fortunately, I had also been trying to troubleshoot the problem on my own, and finally found out the source of the issues I was having. It was due to the existence of a use case that they were not likely to see too often – one that they were not familiar with. But shame of them for not following up! If they had stayed on the case, the information that I have found could have been helpful to them in the future. Too bad that they gave up!

Changing gear……
Changing topics…..

We went out to pick fruits at a farm last weekend. It was my first such experience. It was a fun couple of hours. The fruits available on this farm for picking at this time of year were nectarines, peaches, and blackberries. It turned out to be a very pleasant day to be outside. It was good exercise to walk across the fields to the locations of the best pickings. I was quite surprised by how engaging the process of trying to find good fruit to pick actually turned out to be. One becomes adept at making out the level of ripeness of the hanging fruit. And, of course, you are sampling some of the fruit you have just picked as you go along. There we a lot of families out there having fun. In the end we ended up picking more fruit than we really needed.

The farm had other activities to keep the families engaged, including places to pet the animals, and a flower garden where people could cut flowers for themselves.

It was a good day!

We were also able to go to the canal for our Sunday walk last weekend. It was good to be out again after a short break. We went to a familiar section of the trail – between Sycamore Landing and Rileys Lock. The parking lot was unusually full because of the people who had come to see the garden of sunflowers next to the lot.There are very few flowers along the trail itself at this point in the season in this section of the towpath. There were the dying Wild Sweet William that I had seen in full bloom while biking a couple of weeks back. The underbrush is also very thick at this time, with the various tall grasses and shrubs pushing up against you from the sides in the sections of the trail that have not been cleared out yet. It is green everywhere.I did see some leftover Bee Balm, Coneflower and Touch-Me-Nots. There seemed to be fewer than usual birds around. We noticed the occasional cardinal. The woodpeckers were scarce.

There was the one Zebra Swallowtail that we saw feeding. It did not seem to notice us.

Fortunately, there were very few gnats, probably because it was a unusually cool and cloudy morning.

It is possible that the reader will get the impression that the experience of the towpath must have been diminished because of what I have written above. Banish the thought! That certainly was not the case. There is nothing like being out in the quiet of the woods to rebuild one’s spirits – in order to carry you through the rest of the week. Thus it was last weekend!

Walk, Bike, and Run

I felt good this morning. I was able to go for a run after a somewhat long break. The last couple of days have been a little cooler than usual, and the temperature was in the 60s when I started out. I thought that I would feel a little sluggish because of the break. That happened to not be the case. I got my mojo going pretty quickly, probably because of the cool temperatures. The running came easy. I was was able to maintain a decent pace throughout the run, and I actually felt wonderfully refreshed the rest of the morning.

We walked from Weverton to Harpers Ferry last Sunday. We were walking a section of this trail for the first time this year. Because of the location closer to Harper Ferry, there was more activity on the trail than one wishes and hopes for. But it was OK. We still had our extended periods of quiet. Here are some pictures from the walk.

The railroad line runs beside the canal all the way to Harpers Ferry.

This is the Route 340 bridge across the Potomac.

The river is very rough downstream of Harpers Ferry. The water is also very low in summer.

Harpers Ferry is across the river in West Virginia at the meeting point of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. The railroad line crosses over the river on the bridges to the right of the picture.

The newer flowers that we saw for the year during this walk include White Campion,

Buttonbush,

Queen Anne Lace (here in its early stage),

flowers that I was unsuccessful in identifying last year too,

Crown Vetch (distinguished from Red Clover because of the nature of the leaves),

Hedge Bindweed,

Wild Sweet William,

Rose of Sharon,

and Asiatic Dayflower.

My bike ride last Wednesday started once again at Pennyfield lock, but this time I headed towards Washington, DC. I rode up to Chain Bridge. It was a typical hot and humid Washington, DC, summer day. I covered more distance this time than I did during my first ride of the year last week. I put in a little more effort than during that first ride – keeping up a decent speed on the trail. There were quite a few people on the trail in spite of the heat. Thankfully, interactions with folks I encountered were generally pleasant, including a conversation with a couple who were in the early stages of an ambitious ride of over 60 miles! I hope they made it.

Here are a couple of pictures from my ride. The first one was taken at Widewater.

You can make out the typical haze of a Washington, DC, summer day in the second picture.

All The Creatures Of The Garden

I do not have a recollection of ever having seen a creature like this. And it happened right outside our front door. I had seen an unusual kind of skipper butterfly, one with a particular pattern on its wings, on one of the plants, and had stepped outside the house with my camera to try to take its picture. There comes this strange looking creature flying in the air and alighting on the Vinca flowers in order to to nectar. It hung around for a little while, flitting from flower to flower. It was not still enough for me to get a decent picture.

I had to do some research to try to figure out what I was looking at. It is apparently a Hummingbird Moth. It can hover in the air by moving its wings rapidly (like a hummingbird!). It is a little bigger than a bee, and it looks like nothing else I have seen. And it came to our garden! I have been keeping a lookout for it for a few days since I first saw it without success.

There are apparently a few kinds of Hummingbird Moths, and this one might have been a Clearwing. They are not seen very frequently in these parts. The things your learn! The things you see in the garden!

Riding For The First Time This Year

I rode my bicycle last week – for the first time this year. It has been a late start. I was going to start writing about the reason why this has happened, but then realized that I had a late start, for almost the same reasons, last year also. So my mindset in this regard, and the preparation for this first ride, mirror what happened last year. I wrote about it in the first section of this blog.

Truth of the matter is that I had gotten my bike cleaned up for a ride a couple of weeks earlier, but had never gotten around to actually taking the bike to the trail. This year, I am finding that the heat outside is discouraging me more than I expected from my efforts to exercise. I have become better at making excuses. Years are catching up.

There were three distinct stages to the ride last week.

The first stage was getting used to the feeling of being in the saddle once again after a very long time. When I am on a bike, the distances and the scenery pass by more quickly and smoothly than I am used to when on foot. I cannot pay as much attention as I usually do to things beside the trail. Nevertheless, it was difficult to miss the large number of birds at the pond at Riley’s lock. I had to stop to take pictures. There were an unusual number of egrets at this location.

There were also a few Great Blue Herons to be seen all along the trail. We have not seen them for quite a while, and their sight, for some reason, brings a feeling of comfort.

The second part of the ride was when I was transported into a world of happy fantasy, where my mind wandered away into some other space. The act of biking itself became completely instinctive. I even recited a nursery rhyme loudly when I went past a section with a lot of blackbirds. My song for the morning included the words – “I want to fly like an eagle, let my spirit carry me“! And then, there I was, chasing the butterfly, and the bird, and the rabbit, as they showed me the way ahead, each for a short distance – as they fluttered all over the place in the air in front of the moving bike, or skipped along in the grass beside the trail, or hopped for a while on the trail, all while staying in front of me. This was my Alice in Wonderland moment, and there were no magic mushrooms involved.

The last stage of the ride was the slog. This happened primarily because I am not fully in shape. (Thankfully, I had decided to do a shorter ride than I normally would have pushed myself to do.) If I had been in shape, I would have been in the zone by this point. This stage of the ride is usually notable because one can end up speeding without even realizing what is going on. But I had to slow down. I was feeling the effort. There were also a few distractions along the way, including having to deal with the hordes of people who had descended on the trail by this time.

I hope I can keep myself motivated to do more rides this year. The bicycle rack remains mounted on the car.

How Does Our Garden Grow

I tried to create a garden of flowering plants in our front yard when we first moved to Maryland many years ago. Shrubs, seeds, and bulbs, made their way to our home from the local store. Many of these plants actually survived for at least a little while. We had beautiful flowers of different colors in our yard that drew in the bees and the butterflies. It was actually pretty. It was a time when I actually tried to remember the names of the plants we had in our garden! The plants needed care, and some of them died because I was not very good at it. But, generally, things were going well. Then came the deer.

The deer in our neighborhood are absolutely fearless.  They walk around on our streets as if the whole place belongs to them.  They sometimes do not move even an inch when you try to shoo them away. They also eat everything up in the yard.  It is worse in winter when they get really hungry.  I had tried to find plants that they are not supposed to like, but that did not stop them.

I gave up trying to create a garden a long time ago.  I would not get much sympathy when I ranted on about the deer immediately after they ate up a bunch of stuff.  I was told that deer also needed to live.  Served me right for trying to live in a green and wooded place similar to the place I grew up in in India, where there were a lot of deer!

But, now, the attempt to create a garden has been revived once again! The motivating force for this effort came from elsewhere, but I had no objection to it. I knew enough to not set my expectations too high. We planted a bunch of supposedly deer-resistant plants.  I also made sure to spray this product on the plants every once in a while to try to deter the deer.

Unfortunately, it has not been working out that well. The deer have been munching regularly on some of the plants we bought. Deer-resistant, my foot! They also try out the other deer-resistant plants we bought, but stop before getting too far. A few of these plants seem to recover after being eaten, with new leaves reappearing, only for them to be chewed up once again. The “deer-resistant” ground cover that we had planted must have been particularly enjoyable since they actually seem to have dug deeper into the soil with the mouths to get access to any succulent leaves that they might have missed. (It would be amazing if that plant comes back to life.) I came back from a bike ride this morning and saw that the deer had made a meal of another plant that seemed to have been recovering.

The previous owner of the house had planted hostas on the side.  They used to come out beautifully every year – until the deer found them.  They love the leaves and the flowers.  They either jump over, or get around, the plastic fence I put in place. In spite of being eaten regularly, the plants come back every year in Spring – only to be eaten once again.  This year things were a little different for a while.  I had changed up the fence a little bit and that seemed to keep them out for a little bit longer than usual.  The hostas were growing really nicely, and I was looking forward to seeing the flowers.  And then the deer found a way in one night!

I am not as upset about this kind of stuff these days as I used to be!

One aspect of taking care of the garden, regardless of the losing battle with deer, is the process of pulling the weeds and the wild grass that appear with regularity among the plants that we are trying to grow. It takes the right set of circumstances for me to actually get down to the job of weeding, but once started, I can keep going on and on. There is actually something peaceful, meditative, and zen-like, about the experience of weeding. There is also the feeling of satisfaction when getting the weeds out by the roots (even though you know that your effort is ultimately futile, and that you are going to be repeating the operation some time in the future – again and again).

There is also something interesting about the way in which the weeds seem to get themselves entangled in the plants that we are actually trying to grow, to the extent that you have to pull up some of the “legitimate” plants along with the weeds in order to be successful in the weeding operation. Is this a natural process that is meant to increase the chances of survival for the weed? Order and organization, and separation, seem to be the enemy of the existence and survival of some weeds. Order and organization are not always the way in which natural processes work on Planet Earth. Maybe things are meant to be messy. Human beings messed with the overall equilibrium of the planet when we started creating our own ordered processes and our civilizations. Today, we are doing this to a greater extent than we ever did in our history – primarily looking out for ourselves, not paying enough attention to the rest of the planet. All that stuff is in the weeds! Can this be a good thing? How does our garden grow?

Going Around In Circles

An alternative title for the blog could have been “Teaching an old dog new tricks!”

We went down to Prince William County in Virginia for the July 4th weekend. The young ones wanted to spend some time kayaking on the Occoquan river while we were there. The older ones agreed. I had to confront some trauma left behind from an incident in the mid-eighties (at the end of my graduate school days) in doing so. The boat that I had been on in a lake in Upstate New York had overturned thanks to some youthful hijinks. My glasses had fallen off, and I lost them in the muddy and, fortunately, shallow water I ended up standing in. I had to manage without any glasses for the rest of the stay, and also had to figure a way to get back home without them, having to travel from Utica to the New York City area without them! I cannot remember today if I had to drive.

It was a more mature group in the kayaks this time. I ended up in a supporting role in the whole process. I proceeded to inflict my damage regardless of my status and duties on the captain and rower-in-chief of our double kayak, not managing to maintain a good rhythm in the whole process of rowing, stopping my rowing far too frequently to take pictures,and, stranger still, causing the boat to turn to the right constantly and consistently in spite of my lame efforts to correct this tendency. I tried to blame what was happening on the twisted oar that I was using. But I also have a history of not being able to move in a straight line! There was an incident that happened when I was younger that comes to mind. I had been swimming near a beach on the Gulf of Mexico in Florida. I had been swimming parallel to the shore, and ended up swimming straight towards the gulf itself because I could not see where I was going and ended up turning in that general direction in the water. There was no good excuse for that incident other than a complete loss of directional sense in the water. (I prefer to swim in swimming pools where the lanes are clearly marked.) I could blame my behavior this time on my separated shoulder.😛

In any case, we had a good time on the water. We rented the kayaks at the quaint little town of Occoquan.

We rowed a few miles out on the Occoquan river that day. In one direction, we rowed out to a point upstream where we could proceed no further due to the presence of rocks and what looked like some rapids further upstream.In the other direction, we rowed towards the meeting point of the Occoquan and Potomac rivers. In the end, we still had a way to go before reaching the Occoquan Bay, where the Occoquan river terminates at the Potomac, but we did reach the highways and the railroad bridge over the river not too far from the entrance to Belmont Bay.On the way to the Potomac river, we drifted past marshlands and the verdant greenery of the river bank. We saw Pond Lilies and Pickerelweed.

We explored a creek that we discovered just after we rowed past the Interstate-95 bridge over the river.

We did get too close on one occasion to a nesting Osprey in the middle of the river.

Kayaking is something that I can see myself doing once again in the future – provided that the water we are on is calm, and also not flowing too swiftly. I think you can teach an old dog new tricks! But no whitewater kayaking for this dude.

Hope folks had a relaxing 4th of July weekend.

The People vs. Agent Orange: PBS

I saw this documentary a few days ago using the App for the PBS Passport streaming service on my Roku device. Depending on where you live, you might be able to stream this on to your computer from their website for free.

What many people already know about this subject is that Agent Orange was employed by Americans during the Vietnam war as a weapon of mass destruction. Perhaps the only worse weapon that has been used during war in the earth’s history for the purposes of mass destruction is the nuclear bomb. (One has to admit that the Germans and the Allies did also do a very effective job of mass destruction with their bombing campaigns of London and Dresden during WWII.) In all of these efforts, people did not care who was killed, soldiers or civilians, adults or children.

The use of Agent Orange is quite possibly the worst ever case of the use of chemical warfare on our planet since the use of poison gas during World War I. We efficiently destroyed both the land and the people of the country. They are suffering even today. We also poisoned our own soldiers, even though the people in charge knew what the chemical could do to them. (The Veterans are still fighting for government support and acceptance of responsibility in this regard.) It was quite a shameful episode from history.

What I did not know was what happened in the USA after the Vietnam war with regards to Agent Orange, with the continued use of the chemicals as a herbicide, and the many lives that were destroyed because of this. The air and the drinking water sources for many people living near the forests where the chemicals were being used – the forests that were being cleared by the big logging companies – were being polluted by chemicals that have the ability to damage and destroy the genetic make-up of people, causing illness and disease not only in the people exposed to the poison, but also in their offspring. It appears that the people and organizations responsible for all of this are still escaping their full responsibilities. This includes even the federal government. The facts about the impact of this chemical are still being covered up – even to this day! The documentary indicates that evidence has even been destroyed along the way. It is a very, very, shady story. This is an American Horror story!