LOCAL VIEW –Hurricane Heights Demonstrated–

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Last week I talked about the old captains of coastal schooners, and the way they studied the sky for signs of “Hurricane Heights”.

Before railways were built in the mid 1800’s the main way to ship things was by boat, (which is why we speak of “shipping” things, even when we use trucks.) New York City was so big and growing so fast it had an insatiable appetite for lumber, and not all could be supplied by barging it down the Hudson River. Good money could be made “schooning” lumber down from Maine, but, before the Cape Cod Canal was built in 1914 (and widened to its current size 1935-1940)  the route south was nearly 150 miles longer, and involved going outside Cape Cod, which was that much closer to the hurricanes people on shore hardly noticed because they had “gone out to sea.” Even when the hurricanes’s winds were to the east huge waves traveled outwards, and when they reached the shoals off the elbow of Cape Cod they could turn waters a ship could ordinarily navigate over into a landscape of breaking waves, huge combers far from a beach,  with troughs so deep a keel could hit sand. Therefore a wise captain kept “an eye to the sky”.

This was done in a manner we can’t imagine. If we tried to force ourselves to study the sky we would soon start to fidget. Our minds would wander, and before long we’d get up and go to see what was happening elsewhere. However the old captains were stuck at the tiller or helm, and couldn’t go anywhere any faster than the boat was going. They studied the sky for hours upon hours.

One thing was very important to know, and that was whether the wind was going to back or veer. This was especially important when heading upwind. Without engines a ship had to tack to and fro, and (for example) a north-bound ship’s course could be made shorter if you knew beforehand whether the the headwind was going to shift to the northeast (veer) or to the northwest (back).

A rough idea where the nearest storm was located was to face the wind and stick out your right arm and point. You were pointing at the storm. But what direction was it moving? To guess at that you would look up at the high clouds, which moved with upper air winds that “steered” the storms. Then, by having a rough idea of whether the storm was approaching or departing or moving parallel to the ship, the captain would have a rough idea whether the winds would pick up or die down, and how they might back or veer.  On dull days this merely shortened the route and number of tacks necessary, and on more exciting voyages it might be the difference between successfully reaching safe haven, or shipwreck and death.

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Few would bother study the sky to this degree now. What would be the point? Now, if a captain wants to go upwind, he just takes down the sails and turns on the engine. There are a lot fewer shipwrecks now, but modern captains are dimwits compared to the captains of yore, when it comes to eyeing the sky with understanding. The need is no longer there to sharpen wits to that degree, and in fact if anyone now spent that much time studying the sky we might call them “obsessive”.

Personally I feel a certain amount of obsession is necessary, if you want to ever be really good at something. One person who seems really good, concerning the understanding and prediction of hurricanes, is Joe Bastardi, and he quite freely confesses he obsessed on weather maps so much when young that he was in some ways a nerd. But it paid off in terms of genius. Some years ago he looked at a tropical depression off the coast of Africa and said, “Houston, we have a problem”, which some say is one of the best long-range forecasts ever made.

Last Monday he said it looked like we could have frontal remnants becoming a storm like Brenda in 1960. I said, “La-la-la! I’m not listening”. Why? Because I want to pretend I’m an old schooner captain, and trying to see signs of storm only using my eyes and a barometer. (Of course I did hear Bastardi, but I can pretend I didn’t.)

Friday the skies were as blue as they get, and the air refreshing and cool, which is a reprieve but also a reason to be on guard.

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The passage of a Canadian high-pressure is often a prelude to trouble brewing to the south. (Bastardi calls high-pressure to the north “A ridge over troubled waters.”[Hat tip, Simon and Garfunkle.]) Not that you want to spoil your summer by worrying every time it’s sunny, but you watch for the return of clouds and the southerly flow behind the high pressure. And sure enough, when I awoke Saturday morning the newspaper had arrived, not on my doorstep, but in the sky straight overhead.

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What would such a newspaper tell an old schooner captain? I see two clues he’d see in the scene below, plus a clue he wouldn’t see.

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First, just over the pines to the lower left is a bit of low cumulus, so low you could almost call it scud.

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Right off the bat, his farsighted eyes squint to determine what direction those low clouds are moving. If they are moving to the right and approaching then the wind is southwest. That would be a benign wind, as the storm would be to the northwest, and likely a summertime Alberta Clipper. At worst, if it was hot and muggy, a Clipper might swing down a cold front and bring thunder,  but the air is still refreshing and the sky is still deep blue and Canadian, so thunder is unlikely. But, because the captain has time to watch the sky, he notes the low clouds are not approaching; they are moving to the right and retreating. The wind is not from the southwest, but from the southeast.

A southeast wind is a whole different kettle of fish. It means a storm is to the southwest. Something may be coming up the coast. A certain wariness awakes. (I should note more than eyes were used by schooner captains. Like a dog (whose morning newspaper may be a fire hydrant) he sniffs the air, as a southwest land breeze has a completely different smell from a southeast sea breeze. He also likely runs his fingers through his hair, for hair tells you a lot about humidity. All his senses are involved; the sea is a sensual experience.)

Lastly he is very aware if the wind is backing or veering, and this southeast wind has veered all the way from the northwest through the northeast . For reasons I don’t understand, this is different from a wind that backs 180 degrees the other way, although it winds up blowing from the same direction.

Then his eyes lift a bit higher to the left, over the cherry tree, to the cirrus (which he would call a “mare’s tail”).

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Cirrus is high clouds snowing into slower wind beneath. To the captain this is more reassuring than cirrocumulus, which is indicative of warmer air aloft and more inclined to be associated with hurricanes. Also the cirrus is still approaching from north of due west, which should “steer” a storm out to sea. However a rumple of concern appears on his brow, for he notices the high cloud’s movement is not as much from the north as it was. Indeed the high clouds are backing, even as the low clouds veer. Knowing nothing of upper air maps,  heedless of upper air ridges or trofs, the wheels in his head start whirring. If the high clouds back, and especially if they back with speed, look out.

However I have one clue he doesn’t.  There were no jets back then, and I can squint at contrails, and spot one over the trees in the center.

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When contrails quickly evaporate behind a jet, it is a sign of descending and drying air aloft, and a sign of fair weather. When, as is the case with the contrail above, the contrail expands into a cloud, as if part of a cloud-seeding experiment, it is a sign of moisture aloft and rising air, and a sign of increasing clouds and approaching storms. (It doesn’t say what kind of storm: Gentle rain or hurricane or the squalls of a thundering front.)

Even without contrails the old schooner captains were likely observing whether high clouds were growing or evaporating. Where modern yachtsmen can set a “self-sailor” and be buried in a book, the skippers of yore would only “lash the helm” when there was a lot of other work to do. They liked the feel of the helm, and likely, by making subtle responses to each passing swell, could shave an hour or two off the length of a cruise.

When I was young I attempted to have spiritual experiences by closing my eyes, sitting cross-legged, and gazing up at the inside of my forehead.  I never lasted very long. Rather than sacred subjects my my mind gravitated towards how divine pizza or a woman’s body was. But at the helm of a sailboat without a self-sailor I was forced to pay attention or the boat might luff or jibe, and paying-attention became a sort of yoga leading to an altered state of consciousness. This divine intoxication is the reason some people are fanatics about sailing, while those who haven’t imbibed the wine cannot see the good of it, or why anyone in their right mind would willingly suffer seasickness.

How many modern people, with their short attention spans and craving for constant stimulation, can sit and watch a cloud as it passes from one side of the sky to the other? The so-called boredom would drive many nuts, and perhaps there is an element of craziness in being at sea. However it has its own constant stimulation, in the rocking of the waves and passing of the swells, the ruffling of sails and the ringing of rigging, the hypnotic slosh and thud and gurgling of waters, and it all combines to enter one into a different dimension, a different relationship with reality, with sea and sky. Call it “obsessive” if you will, but it includes the wisdom of the weather-wise.

Just looking at the clouds I’ve pictured above, the old schooner captains would have known “something was brewing” to the south. Would they have set sail?  Well, that was up to them to decide, and they did know how to handle a moderate storm. All business involves an element called “risk”.

And how do they compare with modern computers? Well, the billion dollar GFS Model never caught onto the coastal development until Saturday morning, right about the time an old captain would have tasted the first hints of a wind-shift to the southeast.

Others models did better, but how is one to chose? Even a single model can have fifty “runs” that all differ. Which one is right?

The answer seems to be obsessive, like Joe Bastardi. In order to be good at anything you need to in some ways over-do it. But Mr. Bastardi does amaze me. Last Monday he said that by Saturday a storm “like Brenda in 1960” could appear on the coast.  He also forecast that the weather bureau likely wouldn’t call it a hurricane, despite tropical characteristics. Then, on Saturday , there it was, looking all the world like a dying hurricane, though it had never officially been a hurricane and therefore could not officially be a dying one.

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The weather bureau can bicker all it wants about whether things are “official”. I think they may be jealous if Joe’s ability, even to the mean level of not calling an event “tropical” because to do so might make Joe look better than they. But we are not suppose to become irrational, and envy is irrational. The simple fact of the matter is that Mr. Bastardi kicked their butts. And, when faced with superiority, the smart thing to do is sit at the feet of the master, and inquire, “How the heck did you do it?”

Let’s face it: If you had plans on the water off the coast of New Jersey or Long Island on Saturday, wouldn’t you like a heads-up that storm-force gusts like the feeder-bands of a hurricane could be coming north?

 

 

A final clue that this storm was “tropical” was shown by how quickly it is weakened once it cut inland.

What are we to conclude from all this? Perhaps we should conclude this: The next time we are called “obsessive”, we should respond, “Thank you very much.”

LORE OF THE LINE STORM (Hurricane Jose–Updated)

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In the lore of New England the “line storm” was a storm expected to occur near the equinox. Because, as the above graph shows, the first peak in hurricanes occurs ten days too early, and the second, minor peak doesn’t occur until October, people who never get outside, and instead dither about indoors looking at graphs, can scorn the idea of the “line storm” as being a mere superstition.

But….(cue the twilight zone music)….I once didn’t dither about indoors as I do now. I once was young and went out on the water. To be blunt, those who haven’t been out on the water, (even in a small boat on a lake), when the winds start to rise and the sky darkens and life laughs at insurance adjusters, are missing something.

We would laugh at a person who thought he had a grasp of the weather who had never heard of a thermometer. A thermometer is vital, we think. But stepping outside?

Do not tell me you are wise when only
Books advise your eyes. Action speaks louder
Than words, and an island standing lonely
Needs another, if it is to proudly
Utter truths about Love. You must get out
Into the wind to know about weather.
Otherwise our intellect struts about
Like a peacock with a lone tail feather.
Even a small child, who hasn’t yet learned
The sky talks back, goes out and faces sky
And his face is lit up, with shadows spurned
As poetry fills each innocent eye.
Children worship best: They look up and lack
The ways we argue when skies talk back.

Americans once knew far more about the out of doors. More than half owned a farm and worked the soil, and a lot of the others sailed seas on small craft that would make OSHA cringe. To go to sea and never be heard of again was not all that uncommon, and, considering we all must eventually die, I’m not entirely sure I would not have preferred to die going “Yeee-Ha!” as my craft met a mighty wave, to surviving and eventually festering in a bed with tubes in my arms, with cancer, which we call “progress.”

I wasn’t too smart at age 18, and headed out to sea in 1971 on a voyage from Boston to Jamaica (don’t ask what for). In 1971 the “line storm” happened to be a hurricane called Ginger, which also headed out to sea, way out onto the mid Atlantic. And if you had studied books at that time you knew no storm so far out to sea could ever represent a threat to Cape Hatteras. But…

Hurricane Ginger 1971 220px-Ginger_1971_track

As chief (and only) meteorologist on the small craft I am proud to state we hesitated to the north and avoided Ginger, however a cold front absorbed what was left, and then that front just lay along the coast. I advocated further hesitation, fearing a nor’easter might brew up on the stationary front, but the captain was sick and tired of hesitation, and so we sailed south, smack dab into the nor’easter that brewed up.

Nor’easters are also considered “line storms”. After the summer quiet, when seas tend to be slack in New England, they first start to brew up when the first chilly cold-fronts come south in September. You would have to include them in your data, along with hurricanes, before you could accurately determine “line storms” were “superstition”. (Also you would have to narrow your focus to the waters near New England, where the lore was focused.)

In any case, at age 18 I experienced a reality that is somewhat different than what you experience indoors at computers. Entitlement? Yes, I was entitled to die, if I didn’t make an effort to do otherwise, (though I was so seasick the prospect of death wasn’t entirely unappealing.)

I’m not sure the nor’easter was particularly bad, but the small yacht was forty miles out to sea, and both the mainsail and jib halyards broke. Sails crashed flapping to the deck, and the engine quit, and we had no radio, and GPS hadn’t been invented. In other words, we were in the position which was not all that uncommon to find yourself in, back before engines and radios, in the age of sail. My ancestors likely would have gone, “Ho hum. Get the storm jib up.” I was disgracefully and utterly freaked out, and only functioning because I didn’t want to die.  Besides doing things I had no idea I was capable of, (such as climbing a whipping mast to thread a new halyard in the pulley atop a mast when the craft isn’t quiet in a harbor,) I also took meteorological observations. After all, once you’ve fixed what you can fix, there’s nothing to do but go up and up and up a big swell, and down and down and down the other side, over and over and over, so what else are you suppose to do at the helm, but observe? However those observations are through eyes that see differently than you see at a computer. (You are going to have to trust me about this, if you think virtual sailing’s the same.) For one thing, you can’t click to a new site when you get bored. You must observe, and observe, and observe…

For me this was a once in a lifetime experience. However for my ancestors it was far more everyday. It makes their lore a bit more credible, as, if they lived long enough, their experience included something scientists make a big deal about, called “replication.”

One interesting thing about the line-storm lore is that such storms were not seen as markers of the solstice. Heck, any calendar could do that. Rather they gave clues about the weather of the following autumn.  One was suppose to pay attention to how the line-storm ended. If it ended with warm weather it meant a different autumn lay ahead than if it ended with crisp, cold breezes from the north.

To some this might indicate they were sensible to storm tracks and weather patterns, in their own way. But to others it is just superstition.

In any case, with September 20 approaching a superstition named Jose is creeping towards New England.

11:00 PM AST Thu Sep 14
Location: 25.5°N 68.0°W
Moving: WNW at 8 mph
Min pressure: 989 mb
Max sustained: 70 mph

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Hurricane Jose 3 vis0-lalo

5:00 AM AST Fri Sep 15
Location: 25.9°N 68.7°W
Moving: WNW at 8 mph
Min pressure: 989 mb
Max sustained: 70 mph

Hurricane Jose 4 vis0-lalo

11:00 PM EDT Fri Sep 15
Location: 27.4°N 71.0°W
Moving: NW at 9 mph
Min pressure: 983 mb
Max sustained: 80 mph

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I am having some sort of problem with WordPress wherein it fails to keep my updates. This is a test to see if it happens again.

8:00 AM EDT Mon Sep 18
Location: 33.5°N 71.2°W
Moving: N at 9 mph
Min pressure: 976 mb
Max sustained: 85 mph

Hurricane Jose 11 vis0-lalo

Local View –Shadberry Rains–

I should likely start this post with a weather map, showing how even when a low swings out to sea, and a cold front pushes past with a following high pressure, sometimes the clouds refuse to depart.  (Also note the low way up by Hudson Bay. If you think it doesn’t intend to plunge south and plauge New England, you lack the pessimism necessary to live here. If you don’t believe me, move here. It is right about now that lots of immigrants start screaming and ripping their hair out), (and they haven’t even met our black flies.)

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This year has been typical, teasing immigrants (called “Flatlanders” around here) with balmy weather in March, seducing them into thinking spring is about to come this far north at the same time it came further south in their past, in the far away places they came from. As a bit of irony, temperatures hit 73° (23° Celsius) on April first, as an April Fool’s joke. And to totally tantalize the suckers from the south, a few trees such as swamp maples behaved as if they were about to burst into leaf, risking some early blooms. For proof, I offer you a picture from Farmer’s New Year (March 25).

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Yet here it is, nearly 40 days later, and the swamp maple still haven’t leafed out. As the Flatlanders scream, the trees go “bwah ha ha ha.”

The trees are a lot smarter than the people around here, which makes sense, as they’ve lived longer. Of course, psychiatrists will object to my saying that, stating trees don’t have brains, and can’t think. Perhaps that is what makes trees smarter.

Regarding psychiatrists, I will say this much: Some of the kids we have had pass through our Childcare have been troubled, and they have been to psychiatrists, and also they have been to groves of pines. Guess which did nothing for the child’s bad mood (which some call “mental health”), and guess which healed the child’s hurt heart when humans couldn’t?  (Oops, I gave the answer away, by using that word “humans”.)

People do have brains, but mostly it just gets us in trouble. For example, take the subject of “being in harmony in with nature.” This subject makes humans absolutely bonkers. In my time I have seen one actress hit by a bucket of red paint as she left a theater wearing a fur coat, and another actress sprayed with manure as she baked muffins in a pasture. (These ridiculous, yet real-life, cartoons come to you courtesy of Greenpeace.)

Whatever you may say about trees, they would never be caught dead doing anything like that.

We only have one life, but according to some the “One Life” goes on and on through countless incarnations, as our consciousness strives to be One with God’s.

I have enough trouble remembering where I put my car keys, and can’t remember what I was doing before I was born, but, according to some, a long, long time ago we ourselves were trees. If that is so, I can’t say we’ve learned all that much, in a million incarnations of evolution.

I got tremendous enjoyment from Tolkien’s trilogy when I came to the part where the “Ents” make an appearance, as “shepherds of the trees”. At our Childcare I have often regaled the children with tales and warnings about “walking trees”, even to the point where one young boy marched up to me one morning and informed me, “My dad says there is no such thing as walking trees.”

However Tolkien didn’t understand one thing about trees, and it is this secret: Their heads are in the soil, and their limbs reach up towards the sun. If a tree ever did wake up and walk, it would bring its limbs to the earth, rip its roots up, and you’d face a creature with a mane like a lion, but a mane filled with crumbling dirt.  It would see you without eyes…….unless, of course, it was a potato.

Which works me around to the subject:  I did get some potatoes planted today, with the help of small children at the Childcare. In theory it was a teaching experience. I’m never sure the youngest get what I am saying, which is that by sticking perfectly good food in the dirt we get ten to twenty times as much perfectly good food. It is the older kids, the hoary veterans aged four and five,  those who had the fun of digging up the potatoes last fall, and roasting them by a fire, who have a glimmer of understanding. The younger ones are far more fascinated by earthworms.

I also dared transplant into the garden four kale plants, and six broccoli plants, just to gamble and prove even old geezers like me can live at the edge. I’ve seen killing frosts even this late, but I glanced at the sky, and consulted Weatherbell (my favorite long-range forecast site), and I stroked my white beard and looked wise, but in the end I consulted the trees. (It is a sign of our times, perhaps, that mere vegetables are so much smarter than the mainstream-media.  I didn’t consult the mainstream-media at all.)

The carrots, beets, seedling kale, onions, garlic, fennel, turnips, seedling Brussels sprouts, and lettuce haven’t sprouted yet, nor will they ever sprout if I work too long and appear dull to the children, (for bored kids at a Childcare can trample a soft seedbed as hard as a parking lot in the twinkling of an eye), so I, as the wise master of small slaves, decided it was time to go for a walk, and consult the trees.

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Abruptly I was stopped by a lovely bloom I pass every year without ever bothering to ask myself what it is. I always assumed it was some sort of cherry, (or perhaps a relative of blueberries, as its small cherries had a blueberry-like look, at the ends of their berries), but I never bothered be sure because usually everything busts out in May in such a rush you have no time to sort things out. But this year spring seems to be in slow motion, if not in suspended animation, and I have had time for things I never had time for before. Apparently one is never too old to learn, because I learned this bloom was one I’d read a lot about. Can you name it?

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Some called this serviceberry. Why?  Because in the old days the ground was too frozen to bury people in the winter. (Old timers told me that back in the day they stuck all old people who refused to do their chores in the “Town Tomb” in the fall, and in the spring they’d open it and any who didn’t walk out would get buried. This is a subject for another post, but I may include a picture of the “Town Tomb” at the end of this post, if I ever find the time to take one.) When the ground was finally soft enough to bury people, they would have a service, with this bush blooming around the edges of the graveyard, so it was called serviceberry.

Because the bush blooms so early, it is also the first to have berries, so it is also called “juneberry.” As eggs are just hatching and voracious fledglings are demanding, these berries are for the birds, and I was brought up to avoid “bird berries”, and have never tried them.  I understand they are sour.

However the name I had heard much about, without ever identifying the actual plant it referred to,  was “shadbush”. Back a few hundreds of years ago shadbush told you the shad were running, and then all else was dropped. Few shad came as far upstream as these hills, but a wonder of ancient, local laws was that people had to drop all quarrels when the shad, herring and salmon were running. You could be a Hatfield, and could travel to the hunting grounds of the McCoy’s, but you weren’t allowed to fight your worst enemy, when you were fishing. (Strange but true, and perhaps an example for modern man.)

Shad, dried and turned to powder, was a local ingredient of a local wonder-food called “pemmican”. Pemmican was one third powdered meat, one third powdered nuts and berries, and one third pure fat. The hunters who carried this food could travel a week or two with breakfast, lunch and dinner in a small bag.  Apparently a spoonful now and again was all you needed, even while burning a lot of calories hunting. The ingredients varied from place to place, but it was common from coast to coast in America in the old days. Out west they likely substituted buffalo for shad, but eating three tablespoons a day didn’t seem to stunt anyone’s growth. When the first Europeans arrived in New England their men averaged around five feet five inches, as New Englanders averaged six feet.

The children regard me suspiciously when I tell them such tales. After all, I’m the same old geezer who tells them about walking trees. However they are interested in eating, and today they sampled wild mustard leaves, yellow dock leaves, and the inner part of the root of burdock. (These are the same kids who refuse to eat the really good food some mother’s prepare.) (One trick I use is to tell them, “You can spit this out if you want to. You probably won’t like it. Only grown-ups like it.” ) (To prove they are grown up, they try to like it even when they don’t.)

Locally the berry used in pemmican was usually blueberries, dried and powdered, probably because blueberries are easiest to dry, (but perhaps because blueberries have wondrous, modern stuff called “antioxidants” in them), (not that the word “antioxidants” was invented, back in the day.) But other berries were used as well, including a small berry that grows in the straw. Darned if I can remember its name, but the commercial variety is now as big as plum, while the native variety is as small as a pea. Whatever this berry-that-grows-in-the-straw is called, it usually blooms around now, but this spring has been so retarded I didn’t expect to see any. I checked, just the same, and there it was! The what-cha-call-it berry, blooming in the dead straw! (The children were not all that interested, likely because you can’t eat it yet.) (But they did tell me I was a dope, and the plants are called “strawberries.”)

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And this is how I entertain myself, as the dull, gray, wet day passes. It may not seem all that entertaining to Flatlanders, but then, I am not the one going absolutely bonkers, just because the leaves don’t come out in April.

It’s a damp day, bright May-gray clouds low,
With spring holding back like eyelash’s tears;
Blossoms blinking, wet and drooping, although
Most remain buds, and the forest appears
Like winter’s, except for a green haze
Indistinct midst wet twigs that string bright pearls
Like veils over depth-green hemlocks.
                                                                             This day’s
Drenched though rain’s stopped; boughs bow; and white curls
Of shredded fog stand still on the dark slopes
Of breathless hills.
                                       The clouds are so bright
That all wet things shine; even shadow gropes
With bright reflections.
                                                 The shrouded might
Of rebirth blends wild hope with foreboding,
Silence with the sound of blossoms exploding.

However I should confess that entertaining myself in this manner takes a lot out of me. I huff and puff planting potatoes in a way that is downright embarrassing. Where entertainment once knocked my socks off, now I just wind up too tired to take my socks off.

Wives don’t approve of husbands flopping in bed with dirty socks on, but neither she nor my children will take pity on a weary old man. Granddaughters, however, are different. When my wife complains about socks, and I whine I’m too tired, a two-year-old granddaughter springs into action:

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It all goes to shows you that, in terms of true intelligence, trees come in first, a two-year-old comes in second, and everyone else comes in a very, very distant third.