Snow Stuff

Snow Stuff

By: Steve Roark

I have never outgrown my love of a fresh snowfall, which takes a bleak winter scene and transforms it into a wonderland.  The quiet a snow brings is both eerie and wonderful, and a walk in the snow on a moonlit night is something you simply must experience.

A lot of folks think that snow begins as rain that freezes on its way down and turns into snow.  It’s usually the other way around, with rain beginning as snow, which melts as it falls.

Snowflakes are formed by ice crystals that have a hexagonal pattern, often beautifully intricate.  The size and shape of the crystals depends mainly on the temperature and the amount of moisture present when they develop. Large, fluffy snowflakes form under relatively warm and moist conditions, while small, compact flakes form in colder, drier air.  One large snowflake can have up to 100 crystals.

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It is said that no two snowflakes are alike, but in an average snowstorm an estimated thousand billion snowflakes (that’s a one with 12 zeros) fall.  Mathematically, the odds favor duplication.  It takes more than one million crystals to cover two square feet of ground with 10 inches of snow.  Multiply that by the 23% of the Earth’s land surface that is covered by snow each winter and somewhere in that vast number there must be two look-a-likes.

Our local average annual snowfall is around 13 inches, but lately we just aren’t getting much. Blizzards are rare, but memorable.  I still remember back in 1994 standing 15 feet from the house and not able see it for the snow, which was falling sideways.  What made the scene even more eerie was it was thundering…amazing.

The worst snow we ever had doesn’t touch the record snowfall from a single storm that occurred in 1959, where a 7-day blizzard covered the Mount Shasta area of northern California with 189 inches (15 feet) of snow.

If we do get some snow this winter, you might want to try your hand at making snow cream.  Mix in a bowl 1/2 cup of sugar, 1/2 cup of milk, cream, or evaporated milk, and a teaspoon of vanilla.  Stir in enough clean snow until it has the right consistency.  When snow does come, try not to be too humbug about it.  Let the kid inside come out for a little while and go start a snowball fight with somebody.  And don’t forget that moonlit walk.  It’s worth the cold.

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The Christmas Tradition of Advent

The Christmas Tradition of Advent

By Steve Roark

Advent Wreath.JPGMy church celebrated the beginning of Advent December 1st by carrying out the “hanging of the green” tradition of decorating the church sanctuary for the Christmas season.   Our pastor explained the meaning of the Advent tradition, which was good because while I had heard of it, I didn’t really know what it about.  I’m all about old traditions, and so it sparked my own research on the subject, which I thought I would share.

It’s unclear when the tradition of Advent started.  Some think it began in 586 A.D. when some Monks began fasting during the month of December to help them concentrate on preparing to celebrate Jesus’s birth.  Over time this eventually transformed into traditions that focus attention on Christ during the Christmas season and the importance of His coming to Earth. The term Advent means “The Coming” in Latin, and it spans the four Sundays and weeks prior to Christmas.

Some traditions of Advent still practiced today include the Hanging of the Green, which has been around for centuries. It’s done on the first Sunday of Advent and use to involve decorating the church with sprays, garlands, wreaths and trees from evergreen trees such as pine, fir, and holly. Now about everything is from the plastic species. Using greenery for indoor Christmas decorating got its start from German priest Martin Luther in the early 1500s. He felt it helped people appreciate God’s creation and the use of evergreen plants as symbols of the unchanging nature of God and the everlasting life that Christians receive through Jesus Christ.

Another tradition is the Advent Wreath, which is a table display involving an evergreen wreath and candles, and there is a lot of symbolism here. The circle of the wreath is a reminder of God, who has no beginning or end. The green speaks of the hope and renewal of eternal life, and the candles symbolize Christ as the light of the world. Normally there are five candles, each lit on one of the four Sundays of Advent, with the fifth one lit on Christmas Eve.

Christmas trees are commonly used for decorating churches, but there is also a tradition of setting up a Chrismon tree, which is an evergreen tree decorated with only white lights and “chrismons”: ancient symbols of Christ’s ministry.  Things like a dove, fish, Shepard’s crook, chalice, Christian cross, Celtic Cross, Jerusalem cross, and others. The purpose of this tree is to direct attention to the nature and ultimate work of Christ.

Christmas is deeply steeped in traditions, and I find great joy in learning about them and especially carrying them on. I hope you have your own and enjoy them this Christmas season. Just don’t forget who it is about.

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The Roots of Thanksgiving

The Roots of Thanksgiving

By Steve Roark

Thanksgiving is one of the high holidays of the US, involving traditions of being with family, eating a bountiful meal of traditional foods, and hopefully taking time to give thanks for what we have been given.  You know the traditional story of the first Thanksgiving involving Pilgrims, Native Americans, feasting and all that, but history is always good to review occasionally, as you often learn something new.

American Thanksgiving may have its roots in mother England, where harvest-home ceremonies were common. Here certain days in the autumn were reserved to thank God for blessing the people with good harvests.  The first recorded observance of Thanksgiving in America was not done by the Pilgrims, and did not involve any feasting, but was entirely religious in nature.  On December 4, 1619 a group of 38 English settlers landed at a spot on the James River near present day Charles City, Virginia.  The charter of this group required that the day of their arrival be observed as a Day of Thanksgiving to God.

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Our modern traditions of Thanksgiving do have roots with the Pilgrims, however.  So who were these guys?  A group of people set sail from Plymouth England in September of 1620 on the Mayflower.  There were 102 passengers, of whom less than half were known as Separatists, or Saints, people who wanted complete separation from the Church of England. The rest were called the “Strangers”, hired men, servants, and others who wanted to start a new life in the New World. When land was sighted the two groups met and formulated the Mayflower Compact, an agreement that assured equality between them.  The passengers as a group became known as the Pilgrims, but not until around 1840. Someone pointed out that William Bradford, leader of the Plymouth colony, had once noted that the Saints left England, which he said was a good and pleasant place, but “they (the Saints) knew they were pilgrims, and looked not much on those things, but lift up their eyes to ye heavens, their dearest country, and quieted their spirits”.

The Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in December of 1620. The harsh Massachusetts winter killed around half of the original 102; the survivors included only four adult women and almost 40% children. In the Spring of 1621, the Pilgrims were taken under the wing of the nearby Wampanoag Tribe, and taught to plant corn, pumpkins, and beans, and how to hunt and fish local game. In early autumn of 1621, the Pilgrims arranged a harvest festival to recognize the help given by the natives, and to give thanks for having survived. The festival lasted three days.  Wild game and fish of all sorts was served, no doubt including turkey, a plentiful game bird.  The term “turkey” by the way was used by the Pilgrims to mean any type of wild fowl. Vegetables included berries, boiled pumpkin, watercress, leeks, dried fruit, wild plums, and cornbread. The celebration was a onetime event, and it was 55 years before another Thanksgiving Day was officially proclaimed.

Our modern Thanksgiving is chock full of enjoyable activities that include family, food, and football.  But remember to take time to look up and reflect on where it all comes from throughout our lives. Remember to give thanks to the Giver.


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A Spooky Tale: The Deathwatch Beetle

A Spooky Tale: The Deathwatch Beetle

By Steve Roark

With a nod to the season of Halloween, I would like to share a tale about something that has creeped people out for centuries. A superstition that came across with settlers from Europe and established itself here in the eastern U.S. It involves death and a bug.

Back in the day people did not die in hospitals, but in their own beds, and it became a tradition to watch over the dying until the end and this became known as the death watch or vigil. During this time the house was kept very quiet, with limited activity and conversations held in a whisper. With the house this still, a tapping sound could often be heard that seemed to come from all over the house, and occurred often enough that the sound became synonymous with impending death, and superstitions arose as a result.  One thought was that the tapping sound was the grim reaper tapping his bony fingers impatiently waiting for the loved one to die.  Another was that it was the sound of time ticking off the dying person’s last moments. Records of the phenomena date back to the 17th century, so it was a spooky occurrence that’s been around a while.grim-reaper.jpg


The science of entomology eventually identified the sound as not paranormal, but sexual. There is an insect (Xestobium rufovillosum) that was named the Deathwatch Beetle because it was the source of the tapping. It is a woodboring beetle that sometimes infests the structural timbers of old houses, with larvae hatching from eggs boring their way into the timber, eating and digesting wood with the help of enzymes in their gut. They stay at it for quite a while, feeding for up to ten years before finally pupating and emerging as adults with a desire to mate and lay eggs to start the life cycle over. To attract mates, the adult beetles go about it the hard way by literally banging their heads against the inside of the bore hole, making a series of tapping sounds so they can find each other. The sound resonated throughout the house, which was somewhat unnerving. The taps are normally about 6-8 taps long, but are sometimes only three, which according to the death watch superstition meant that death was imminent. And once again the association of old houses with spooky phenomena lives on.

A version of the death watch lives on today among some mountain people in the form of a wake. This was an old Celtic tradition in Ireland where family and close friends should stay awake through the night with the deceased in order to offer protection from evil spirits until burial occurred. While the evil spirits part is no longer considered, the ritual of staying up with the body before the funeral lives on in many families, and I was told stories of my grandparents doing it decades ago.

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Boxelder Bugs

Boxelder Bugs

By: Steve Roark

Boxelder bugs can make a nuisance of themselves by gathering around the house in large numbers.  They usually do this in the autumn in preparation to move into protected areas to over-winter.  While they do not cause physical damage to the house, they may stain walls and curtains with brown fecal matter.

Boxelder bugs (Leptocoris trivittatus) are flat insects about ½ inch long, dark brown to black in color with three red stripes behind their head.  Their lifecycle goes like this: Adults over-winter in cracks and crevices in walls, rock piles, tree holes, and other protected places.  In the spring the females emerge and lay eggs in crevices of tree bark and other objects near host plants.  Eggs hatch in 14 days, with nymphs appearing about the same time new tree leaves develop.  In July new adults lay eggs that result in a second generation by early autumn.

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The bugs feed primarily on boxelder trees by sucking sap from the leaves, tender twigs, and developing seeds.  They also sometimes feed on maple, plum, cherry, apple, peach, and grapes, causing some scarring or dimpling of the fruits.

Boxelder bugs seldom develop into nuisance populations unless they can feed on seed-bearing boxelder trees.   If you’re having trouble with the bugs, chances are you have boxelder trees nearby.  Removal of these trees should eliminate high populations.  Other preventive actions involve making your house tighter, especially around doors and windows.  Repair any holes where the bugs can enter.  Eliminate potential hiding places such as piles of boards, rocks, leaves, grass, and other debris close to the house.

Controlling the bugs themselves mostly involves using insecticides. To prevent potentially large populations in the autumn, spray boxelder trees near the home with an approved pesticide (always follow label directions).  In the Fall when they gather on sidewalks and walls, treat the area they are occupying with the same insecticides.  A non-chemical control method involves the liberal use of a vacuum cleaner.  For more information on controlling problem bugs, contact your County Extension Agent.



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Plants That Use Dinner Bells

Plants That Use Dinner Bells

By Steve Roark

It’s nice to think that plants produce fruit for our pleasure and that of other creatures.  They do want us to eat them but have an ulterior motive of getting their seeds dispersed to other areas.

If all the fruit that a parent plant produces were to simply fall to the ground, few would survive.  The adult plant already has a claim on the available sunshine, soil, water and nutrients needed for healthy growth.  Since plants are not mobile, they use other means to get their seeds dispersed and thus continue the species.  Many do it through bribery, providing a tasty food source that a mobile animal eats and then moves on.  The hard seeds inside of fruit pass through the animal’s gut undigested, and eventually get deposited somewhere with fertilizer to boot.

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To assure their fruit is seen for consumption, many plants display what is called pre-ripening fruit flags, going through a series of color changes as they ripen.  Fruits like blueberries, cherries, mulberries, blackberries, and raspberries all start out a green color.  As they mature, they turn a pink to red, then purple, and finally black or blue when fully ripe.  This color change serves as a signal to animals that fruit is about to ripen, encouraging them to stay in the area and feed.  This ups the chances of getting the seeds dispersed.

Another trick some fruiting plants use is to go through an early leaf color change in the fall.  The bright red or yellow leaves are very distinct against a predominantly green background and are thus attractive to animals (especially flying birds) from a distance.  This early flush of color is called foliar fruit flagging, and is used by poison ivy, Virginia creeper, sassafras, blackgum, wild grapes, dogwood, and spice bush to announce ripe or nearly ripe fruit.

The next time you enjoy wild fruit of some kind, keep in mind you are being played, but in this case both sides win.


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House Dust

House Dust

By: Steve Roark

Those trying in vain to keep a house clean detest house dust.  It floats in sunbeams and accumulates on furniture.  Most assume the dust comes from outside, and about 60% of it does in the form of dirt or pollen, but much of it is generated inside the home. If you look at floater house dust under a microscope, it appears to be small flat plates, usually six sided and slightly wrinkled on the surface.  It’s is mostly skin cells from us or from pets.  We shed them constantly in fantastic amounts, and it’s the body’s way of keeping itself clean and free from invading pathogens.

Surrounding us is a cloud of shed skin cells too small to be seen with the naked eye.  The formal name for this cloud is “dander” and the only time you may notice your own dust cloud is if you wear black and see white flakes on your shoulders.  We call that “dandruff” and treat it with medicated shampoos like it’s an ailment. But skin cells and tiny hairs are shed from every square inch of our body except the palms of our hands and soles of our feet.  We produce a constant rain of dust that settles and accumulates everywhere we sit or stand.   house dust.jpg

Nature is very efficient, and if there’s something to eat, there’s usually something to eat it.  And so we have living with us in our house, dust mites (Dermatopyagoides farinae) too small to see.  They live in the carpet, in our bed, and on all our furniture. Having tiny live-in vacuum cleaners wouldn’t be such a bad thing except for one problem.  They are so tiny we unknowingly inhale a mites or mite parts, and there are lots of those in our house too.  Some dust allergies are caused by an allergic reaction to dust mites.

Getting rid of dust mites in your home is impossible, as is getting rid of house dust.  All you can do is vacuum regularly and try to forget the mites are there. But it is interesting that the indoors has its own version of wildlife.  Disturbing, but interesting.



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