Happy New Year from Stormhorn

A white-breasted nuthatch was at my bird feeder a few minutes ago searching hopefully for seed. Poor little thing! The seed stash has been low these past few days. Monday I sprained my left ankle while hiking in Yankee Springs, and I haven't been up to replenishing the feeding station. In fact, my life has been largely reduced to sitting in the couch keeping my leg elevated and my ankle iced. Lisa has been taking great care of me. Still, I like to do what I can for myself, so for three days I hobbled around gingerly, thinking that, c'mon, I hadn't hurt myself all that badly. But I had, and I wasn't doing my ankle any favors. Yesterday I finally concluded that maybe crutches wouldn't be a bad idea after all. I've never used them before, and these ones have taken some getting used to. I wish they came with training wheels. But I'm getting the hang of them, and taking the stress off my ankle is definitely helping. Maybe in a few days I won't need the crutches anymore. Anyway, I just refilled the finch sack with thistle seed and both feeding tubes with sunflower seed. A couple of chickadees have already discovered the fresh supply, and it won't be long before the rest of the birds do as well. I think it'll be a matter of only minutes before the finches arrive and my balcony will once again swarm with bird action. What a wild and difficult ride this year has been! And now we've arrived at the last day of it. Poised on the brink of 2012, I look back and think, whew! No repeats, please. Nationally and globally, this has been a year of horrific natural disasters, economic turmoil, and unprecedented political upheaval. On a personal level, I have struggled financially as copywriting projects for a key client slowed down from what had been an abundance to a trickle and finally to nothing. The tight finances massively hampered my ability to chase storms, and consequently I had to sit out some incredible events. Missing them was more than frustrating; it was painful, and it has taken a toll on my sense of identity as a storm chaser. Thankfully, there have been good things to even out the bad. I published The Giant Steps Scratch Pad Complete, which duplicates the material in The Giant Steps Scratch Pad in all 12 keys. That has been a major accomplishment. I also began chasing locally for WOOD TV's Storm Team 8, and my first chase for them resulted in a pretty solid coup during a damaging straight-line wind event down in Battle Creek. Also I got to experience Hurricane Irene down in South Carolina, and while I opted out of catching the eye at landfall, I saw enough both on the coast and inland to satisfy my curiosity. Moreover, Lisa has been recovering nicely from a horribly painful frozen shoulder that she incurred at the beginning of the year. And while Mom's knee replacement sidelined me from chasing what turned out to be a history-making super-outbreak of tornadoes down in Alabama on April 27, the result has been more than worthwhile; Mom's knee is now pain-free and Mom can walk again. As for my copywriting and editorial business, The CopyFox, other opportunities have been coming my way. I definitely miss the steady flow of business from my key client, but I much enjoy the new kinds of projects I've been getting from Bethany Christian Services and Baker Books. I'm currently in the middle of editing a book for Heart & Life Publishing, a new publishing service operated by my friend Kevin Miles. If there's one bit of wisdom that I continue to prove through the years, it's to step through open doors and embrace new opportunities to learn and grow in the talents God has given me. It's important to know when to say no; but that being understood, there is a lot in life to say yes to. I have no resolutions for the New Year. There are and will be goals big and small to reach for in their proper time, and I find that approach to be more realistic than making resolutions. I do hope, though, that I'll get in a few successful chases this coming storm season to make up for the ones I've missed this year. Still no snow, by the way, and it looks like that's how it'll stay through tonight. The 1723 UTC station obs show 38 degrees at GRR, and we're forecasted to get up into the low 40s, so a green New Year is in store, just like last year. But it won't stay that way for long; West Michigan's first major winter storm is set to dump six to eight inches of snow on us tomorrow through Monday, and these warm temperatures will soon be a thing of the past. January is poised to swoop in with fangs bared. So it's a good thing I got those bird feeders filled back up. The finches still haven't arrived. But the chickadees have been doing steady traffic, a couple of rosy-breasted nuthatches are making sporadic appearances, and the woodpeckers have been bellying up to the suet all along. The birds are taken care of. Now it's my turn. It's early afternoon and I'm still sitting here in my robe; time to shower up and get the rest of this day in gear. Lord, thank you for this difficult but nevertheless gracious year. When disappointment and hardship hit, I find it easy to complain. But you are always there in the midst of my life, and I have no problem seeing your goodness when I seek your priorities over my personal wants. My part is to do my best, but you're the one who calls the shots. Thanks for tonight's gig with my good friend Ed. Thanks for my dear, dear woman, Lisa, and for my mom and siblings and friends. Thanks for the gifts of storm chasing and music, which not only make me come alive, but also shape me as a person. Thanks for the beautiful Michigan outdoors which I love so much--the wetlands, the wildflowers, the sandhill cranes ratcheting in the marshes, the rivers and streams and lakes filled with fish, the blonde sweep of dunes along the Lake Michigan shore, the forested, glacial hills at sundown. Thanks for the gift of my senses that lets me drink in all of these things, and for emotions that let me feel the wonder of it all. Thank you for the gift of life. Thank you for love. Thank you, precious Lord, for you. I hope that a few of you will make it down to Fall Creek down in Hastings this evening to catch Ed and me. But whatever you wind up doing, have a fun and safe night. Happy New Year, one and all!

Autumn in Grand Ledge

I don't normally post twice in the same day, but I thought I'd share this photo. I took it this last Saturday, October 8, on the island in Grand Ledge, Michigan. Autumn was at its peak, and this shot captures well the flamboyance of this past, spectacularly beautiful week. Click on the image to enlarge it, then lose yourself in the almost overwhelming collage of color.

Evening of the Gentians

Welcome to September Land. It's not a location you can pinpoint on any map, but it exists just the same. It's a place of being; a juncture of time and mood; a coming-of-age of the summer when the sun's lengthening rays gild the late-day hills, clown-colored maples stipple the forests, and yellow hues infiltrate the long, green rows of corn. September Land is where the year goes to receive its golden crown of wisdom; and where, as the hazy, blue sky of early autumn stretches, glowing, over meadows filled with asters and birdsong, you and I arrive to contemplate with nostalgia the months that lie behind us, and to quietly adjust our souls for the ones to come. Now is the season of the gentians. Here in mid-September, they dot the wetlands with pointilistic splashes of purest blue, as if God had strewn pieces of sky like confetti over the fens. I love the deep purple asters, the burnished goldenrods, and the bright, butter-yellow wild snapdragons. I've been a sucker for wildflowers ever since I can remember. But of all the autumn flowers, I like the gentians best. A number of species inhabit my state of Michigan, but the fringed gentian is the one I see most often, and the one I fell in love with as a boy roaming through the wetlands of southern Kent County. The fringed gentian opens only in the sun. On bright days, it quietly unfurls its cerulean gown, and, like a shy young woman unaware of her own breathtaking beauty, captures the eye and heart of every beholder. Among the many who, over the years, have been smitten by the gentian was the 19th-century poet William Cullen Bryant. Like me, he sought for words that could pay adequate tribute to the gentian's loveliness, and set them down in his jewel-like poem, "To the Fringed Gentian": Thou blossom bright with autumn dew, And coloured with the heaven's own blue, That openest when the quiet light Succeeds the keen and frosty night. Thou comest not when violets lean O'er wandering brooks and springs unseen, Or columbines, in purple dressed, Nod o'er the ground-bird's hidden nest. Thou waitest late and com'st alone, When woods are bare and birds are flown, And frosts and shortening days portend The aged year is near his end. Then doth thy sweet and quiet eye Look through its fringes to the sky, Blue—blue—as if that sky let fall A flower from its cerulean wall. I would that thus, when I shall see The hour of death draw near to me, Hope, blossoming within my heart, May look to heaven as I depart. Here in Caledonia, Michigan, the woods of September Land are not bare nor are the birds yet flown. As I write, the hummingbirds still flit about the feeder out on my balcony. But frost has already visited counties to the north, and in these shortening days I, like Bryant, sense that "the aged year is near his end." Yesterday, Lisa and I enjoyed a spontaneous picnic out at Gun Lake State Park. With Labor Day behind us, the crowds of summer were gone and we had the park to ourselves. We sat at a picnic table, eating and talking and watching a great blue heron patrol the shoreline a stone's throw away. Then, after strolling a bit through the southern tip of the park's peninsula, we hopped into the car and headed back toward Caledonia. However, I had one stop-off to make in Middleville: a small but diverse prairie fen on the south end of the town. While Lis drowsed off in the car, I hiked down the trail into the fen with my camera to photograph fringed gentians. With the sun waning and occasionally disappearing behind tufts of cumulus, many of the gentians had closed. But a few flowers remained open. I set up my tripod next to a likely looking cluster and began snapping photos. This page contains a few of them. Click on the images to enlarge them. "Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow," said Jesus. "They don't work themselves to a frazzle, nor do they weave clothes for the wearing. Yet I tell you that even Solomon in all his splendor was not arrayed like these humble wildflowers." (Matthew 6:28–29, my rendering.) I suspect that if gentians had been at his disposal, Jesus would have pointed to them as his object lesson of the grace God bestows on quiet, lowly hearts that look to him. In these times of great national and worldwide distress, may you and I, like the gentians, learn to turn our heads upward with trust and a willingness to let God determine for us what life is truly about--and in so doing, find a peace rooted in something, in Someone, far more steadfast than the changing seasons of this world.

To Photograph a Hummingbird

Hummingbirds are hard to photograph. At least, I find them so. I'll grant you, my camera skills are a notch or two down from professional, and I might do better if my selection in glass were broader than a single Sigma 18–200 mm zoom lens. But that's what I've got to work with, paired with my now somewhat dated but nevertheless trusty Canon Rebel XTi, and so I make do. And I'm often pleased with the results. The two photos on this page were culled from several dozen photos taken on two separate days. I set up my tripod out on the balcony a couple feet away from the hummingbird feeder, then hunkered down on the other side of the sliding glass door with my remote shutter. Six feet of cable gave me ample distance. You'd think it would have been easy. But hummingbirds, feisty as they are, are nevertheless skittish when it comes to the click of a shutter. Plus--and I know this will come as a surprise, but it's nevertheless true--the little buggers don't sit still long enough for a person to get them in decent focus. Yes, of course I pre-focused, but I still had to attain a decent balance between depth of field and shutter speed--and believe me, with hummingbirds, you can't have a fast enough shutter speed. You're barely starting at 1/250; those wings will be nothing more than a blur. Today I worked at 1/320 and 1/400, and even at those faster speeds it was like trying to photograph a rocket in flight--a rocket that backs up in a trice and sideslips on a whimsy. But I'm not complaining. Not really. The little guys are fun to watch and just as fun to photograph, and if I've only got a couple decent shots to show for my efforts so far, well, at least I got those. Something to remember the hummingbirds by over the long winter. They won't be around much longer. One morning, maybe just a few days from now, or maybe in a few weeks, I'll wake up, look for the little rascals carrying on their miniature dogfights with the hornets and with each other around the feeder, and they'll be gone. So now is the time to get some pics. And I have to say, the practice is addictive. Once a body gets started on hummingbird photography, the drive is on for new angles, just the right light, and exquisite sharpness. In other words, for the perfect hummingbird photo. It's a Holy Grail that continues to elude me, but I keep on trying, and I guess I'll continue until the hummers are gone. Then I'll sit back and enjoy my photos, perfect or not. These are the first of the lot. I like them fine, and I hope you do, too.

Distant Storm: Impressions of the Michigan Summer Sky

With the humidity scoured out of the air by a cold front that had passed overnight, and with high pressure dominating the area, yesterday was hot but pleasant. Patches of fair-weather cumulus grazed overhead like sheep in a high, blue pasture, but they disappeared as the afternoon progressed. By evening, the sky was a flawless blue, except to the north and northeast, where a few isolated turrets were trying to push through the cap. Thinking they wouldn't succeed, I paid them little attention. So I was surprised when one of them muscled up into a nice little multicell thunderstorm near Mount Pleasant. I was in Portland at the time, and with the storm almost directly to my north and me having nothing better to do, I decided to get a better look. It was a weak cell with a high base and a mushy anvil, but it was also the only storm going. And there is something about a solitary cumulonimbus drifting through the broad blue heavens that captivates me. Even a garden-variety, multicell summer storm is a sublime thing when mounted in the gracious frame of azure sky and green Michigan landscape, with miles and miles of farmland and forest stretching outward from one's feet into forever. Naturally I snapped a few photos. Then I let the storm go. It was too far away, and it wasn't anything worth chasing. But it was lovely to watch, and a beautiful accent to a pleasant late-July evening.

Sunset at Hall Lake

The biggest weather news lately has been the heat wave that continues to brutalize the central and eastern United States. Thankfully, these last two days have been easier to take here in Michigan. Friday evening a weak cold front passed through and dropped the dewpoints down into the livable mid-60s for a short while, and since then, variable cloudiness has helped to modify the temperatures. Yesterday we were in a slight risk area, but with a warm front laying along the Indiana border, the southern tier counties are where convection broke out in Southwest Michigan. One cell near Cassopolis showed sustained, deep rotation on the radar, and Kurt Hulst and I discussed going after it. Given the distance and marginal conditions, we decided to let it go. Instead, I headed out the door later on with my saxophone and my fishing rod, as well as my camera and laptop just in case storms developed within easy range. Not that I expected any, and none materialzed to divert me from casting a line into the water for the first time in a couple of years. It felt good to get back at fishing, and picturesque Hall Lake in Yankee Springs Recreational Area was the perfect place to do so. Forty-two acres in size and sporting a small island in its middle, Hall Lake attracts just a handful of fishermen, to whom it offers a tranquil option to the much larger, all-sports Gun Lake to its west. Tucked in a wooded valley, where it is bordered to the south by Gun Lake Road and cradled by the glacial hills of Barry County, it is a place where a man can go to withdraw from the madly rushing world, stand at the water's edge casting topwater lures into the evening, and let his thoughts slow down to a casual stroll. I'm no great fisherman. What I do with a rod and reel is more accurately described as dredging. But the fish were eager feeders yesterday, and it took only a few casts before I landed a nice little 12-inch bass--big enough to keep, but I released him. I viewed it as my Father smiling at me for getting back to a hobby that I've never mastered but always enjoyed. More casts netted me nothing, and presently my interest shifted to the sky. The sun had slipped below the treeline, and a flock of fractocumulus passing overhead articulated the twilight. No fiery sunset, this, no Van Gogh sky; just a gently fading afterglow filled with nuance and calm emotion, silhouetting the forested shoreline and glimmering, spirit-like, in the quiescent mirror of the lake. It was a scene worth capturing with my camera, and I have done so. Click on the images to enlarge them. I like them, and I hope you will too.