Sunday, October 12, 2008

Sun dogs, serendipitous searching, and sunsets

This pair of sundogs were in the sky the other morning over Paris Mountain east of Blacksburg. Sundogs, which appear like little partial rainbows, are also called parahelia, or mock-suns, and are the result of atmospheric ice crystals refracting light. The ancient Greeks considered them a harbinger of rain, and various American folklorists have documented similar ideas in Iowa, Illinois, and the Ozarks. See a sundog, Ozark folklore contends, and the weather's going to change. Seems like they're called sundogs because they accompany the sun, but that might be apocryphal. Or just wrong.

Serendipitous searching for sundogs and folklore led to this posting in a hitherto-unknown blog, The Celestial Monochord, which immediately grabbed my attention with its curious subtitle: "Journal of the Institute for Astrophysics and the Hillbilly Blues." Allright! Now we're talking! The author, Kurt Gegenhuber, is a hardcore folk music aficionado, stargazer, and ardent Dylanophile. And seems somewhat smitten by Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music and Griel Marcus' Invisible Republic. In short, a kindred spirit of sorts. A romp through his postings revealed much about such seemingly disparate things as the New Lost City Ramblers, Barack Obama, astronauts, John Prine, and cracked sidewalks. Plus Tom Waits, which is always a plus. Slapped the ol' Monochord into my Google homepage RSS feed just to see what Kurt's got on his mind.

Ramblings and blog postings aside, it's back to our trusty hilltop venue for some sizzling sunset shots, revealing the lovely New River Valley in all its splendor. As winter comes in this will be harder to catch on a weekday, as my daily sojourn to libraryland will bring me home after the horizon has slipped up past this giant celestial orb. But I'm enjoying it in these autumn days.

Here's another sundog, the warmly backlit Asta this time,
gazing off at something across the golf course :

And finally the horizon slips up and swallows the sun. Goodbye!

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Let us now praise the humble apple...

Apple trees at Handy's Orchard, Woolwine, Virginia
Autumnal signs over the last week:
  • Winter constellations twinkle above in the pre-dawn hours: Orion, the Pleiades, Cassiopeia, Taurus, and Gemini greet me in the morning;
  • I woke up with cold toes. Donning a pair of socks and climbing back into bed, I grudgingly decided it was time to turn the heat on in the bedroom. Need to add the fleece layer to the bedding - cotton alone will no longer suffice;
  • It's in the low 40's, with a bit of a breeze, requiring a jacket on my morning walk with Asta;
  • Things are afoot! Asta was dashing back and forth across the road this morning, running to the end of the 16 foot leash, nose excitedly on the ground. Scampering squirrels storing foodstuffs?
  • And, best of all, it's apple time in Southwest Virginia.
Apples! One of the great, simple joys of living in the Virginia Highlands is apple season. Apples have a long history in this part of the world. According to the Monticello website around 17,000 different apple varieties were recorded in 19th century American publications. Thomas Jefferson cultivated 17 varieties in the orchards of his "fruitery" at Monticello, including Hewes' Crab and Taliaferro for cider making and Newtown Pippin and Esopus Spitzenburgs for desert fruits. Apples have been a cash crop in America for some time. From the Monticello website:
When comparing the fruits of Europe and America, Jefferson wrote from Paris, "They have no apple to compare with our Newtown Pippin." Known later as the Albemarle Pippin, this apple supported a large industry in Jefferson's home county (Albemarle County) based on export to England. Like the Pippin, the Spitzenburg originated in New York and ruled the nineteenth-century pomological charts when apples were often critically reviewed and competitively rated.
A number of local growers have been bringing apples to the Blacksburg Farmers' Market for the last month or so, and there are plenty of small orchards in the surrounding counties. Last weekend we journeyed down the mountain to visit my mother, stopping at Handy's Orchard on Hwy 8 for apples. Tucked in a beautiful valley outside of Woolwine, Handy's is one of my favorite Virginia orchards.

Bushels of Staymans at Handy's roadside stand
Apples are a big cash crop in Virginia, according to the Virginia Apple Growers Association. There are more than 100 commercial orchards in Virginia, producing between 5-6 million bushels each year and bringing about $235 million to the state's economy. Popular varieties include Red and Golden Delicious, Staymans, Galas, Winesaps, Granny Smiths, and Yorks, but lots of heirloom apples are showing up at the Farmers Market. Handy's had a Winter Banana Apple, a green apple that was sweet and crisp. Rural Ridge Orchard, near Charlottesville, runs a company called Vintage Virginia Apples that offers more than 200 varieties of apples and apple trees.

I'll close with this quote from a fine essay entitled "Heirloom Apples in Central and Southern Appalachia," by Paul Gallimore of the Long Branch Environmental Education Center.
No more important fruit tree graces the homesteads, farms, and backyards of Appalachia than the apple (Pyrus malus, also known as Malus pumila and Malus domestica). A member of the rose family (Rosaceae), the gently fragrant and delicate apples blossoms in springtime resemble miniature roses, and their nectar is sought after by bees, which are essential for their pollination ... Apples are the most prolific fruit grown in the northern temperate regions across the world, so Appalachia is no exception. As many as eight tons per acre can be harvested from a properly-managed orchard. In addition to the nutritional value and the health promoting aspects of the fruit, apple wood is hard, durable, and very fine-grained, which makes it ideal for cabinetmaking. Even apple wood chips are prized for use in imparting flavor to smoked fish.