Snowdrops in December

I took this photo on December 15 just outside my studio. Yes, a snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) blooming in mid-December. It is not unusual for this to happen on the south facing bank in January, but unprecedented in December. A January warm spell can both cause snowdrops to bloom and be warm enough to tempt me outside to paint them.

These snowdrops have me wondering – were they inspired to break dormancy by lengthening nights or did the November cold snap give them enough chill hours (hours of coldness) for them to believe spring was here when daytime temperatures rose into the 50’s and 60’s for a few days in December.        

I always marvel that when some snowdrops do jump the gun on the start of spring how they can survive the following snow and cold which makes very clear their optimism was misplaced.

Storm-Driven Oak Leaves

storm driven oak leaves

During my regular morning walk with the beagles, sometimes the rawest weather rewards me the most for being out. In this case rain squalls were sweeping across the valley below, pushed by a wind that was gusting to 30 mph. What looks likes birds fleeing before the wind were the last of the leaves being stripped from an oak tree. Oaks and beeches can hang on to their spent leaves until spring when the replacements push the old out of the way. Nonetheless, thiswind was stripping hilltop oak bare.

Like a flock of small birds, the leaves darted about the sky even as they move in a single general direction. Those that hit the ground flitting along, sometimes rising back into the sky. They brought to mind a belief from childhood – if you put salt on a bird’s tail, it would not be able to fly away and then you could catch it.

The groundling leaves reminded me of how birds used to stay just ahead of us kids when we tried the salt method. They always flitted along just out of reach, sometimes rising to land a little farther on. In this case, I was trying to catch some of the leaves so I could identify the type of oak trying so hard to retain its leaves. It was a probably a black oak (quarus velutina). But someone more of an expert than myself would need to sort out some of the oaks by their leaves alone, because the leaves from the wild seldom match the ones in leaf identification books.

All Herefords in a field look the same until you really get to know the herd.

Mutinus elegans

Mutinus elegans JCBright
Mutinus elegans JCBright

I have walked the same field almost daily for over thirty years and never noticed this fungus although I am sure it has always been there. Mutinus elegans did not recently hop off a shipping pallet from Asia – it was first recorded in Virginia in the 1600’s. I need to be more observant since its bold red, a strong contrast with the grass, makes it hard to miss.

Once tuned in I found several more. They first appear as slightly smaller than a golf ball bubble in tan. They hold hard at that point until the autumn rains and the temperature are to their liking.  Then stand back. These fungi grow to their full height (about 3 inches) in less than 2 days.  Within a few days they start to wither, fall over and totally disappear.

What looks like it might be a red leaf caught in the grass, is in fact a sweet sticky mass containing spores. Insects are attracted by the sweetness, at which point the spores tag along for rides to points unknown. 

Cyclamen in the Japanese Garden

cyclamen Japanese water garden Bright 1
Cyclamen in Japanese water garden – J. Clayton Bright

There is one section of our Japanese water garden that is barren and dry-looking throughout the summer. Then, in autumn, rains start and the first flowers of the hardy cyclamen (cyclamen hederifolium) appear, followed shortly by their leaves. They linger on for weeks giving the garden one last moment of glory.

Somebody occasionally snacks on a flower head. The browsers, I suspect, are mice, but they never seem to make a habit of it. Since each plant has enough flowers to be able to spare a few, there is no cause for concern. Besides the loss gives the cyclamen patch a feeling of naturalism, which is not altogether bad.  The cyclamens are at the garden’s edge where plants are not as controlled, so a little blending helps the transition.


Clayton Tom and Walter Moving The 10 ft Kick
Clayton,Tom and Walter Moving The 10 ft Kick

Loading the bottom 2/3 of the 10 foot Kick for its trip to the mold maker required teamwork. Tom and Walter already proved their teamwork skills this fall, when they helped rescue flood victims trapped outside their car, just before it was swept away.  Here they are at work again, showing that their teamwork has other uses. Thank you, Walter and Tom!

The Kick at Ten Feet

The Kick almost finished

Nearing the end of my summer’s project, The Kick is now 10 feet tall.  I disassembled the clay sculpture to allow for easier finishing before I trucked it to the mold maker. 

The KIck disassembled
The Kick disassembled

Finding the Unexpected

two striped grasshopper on Queen Annes Lace
Two striped grasshopper on Queen Anne’s Lace

I had a new, for me, sighting of striking beauty last week. A male Thomas’s two striped grasshopper (Melanoplus thomasi). We like to leave our road vergers un-mowed until all the wildflowers have had their say for the year. To some it looks a little rough and neglected but there is beauty there for those who look. I was collecting ripe seed heads of Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota) for use in pepping up an area where it had a weak showing. There on a seed head was the grasshopper. His neon colors a striking contrast to the dull tans and browns of the seed heads I was clipping. It’s turquoise blue topside, with coral red legs and a lime green undercarriage, made it looked more like a gaudy item from a souvenir shop, than a bug in a field.


goldenrod 2020

In a moist, lower meadow where I often, walk the blooming of the Goldenrod (I am pretty sure Solidago gigantea in this case) is a harbinger of shorter days and the coming of fall. Its flower is one of the strongest yellows of any flower because it has just a hint of red mixed in. This flashiness trips up Goldenrod’s reputation, for few notice the Ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia) blooming nearby. Ragweed puts all its energy into creating pollen (of hay fever fame), so it has a very inconspicuous flower, leaving poor Goldenrod to take the fall.

The Fox and the Grapes

Fox and grapes

What Aesop did not say – fallen grapes are quite tasty.

The back story:

When Clayton designed our house, he wanted a lot of light, which of course meant a lot of window space.  At the same time, he didn’t want to waste energy cooling a house that was being heated by the summer sun.

Having an engineering type of mind, Clayton measured the angle of the sun in the summer, and decided to plant grapes which could be trained up a pergola which would be constructed on the south and west sides of large plate glass windows.  This way, the fully grown summer grape leaves would provide shade from the top of (and spilling over the edge of) the pergola.  In winter, the grapes leaves have died back and the sun pleasantly warms the room.

What Clayton didn’t anticipate was all the animals which would appreciate the sweet grapes: birds, especially catbirds, raccoons and possums (which have climbed up the grapevines, sometimes with their babies in tow) and now, apparently, teenage foxes.

Why is creating a painting like going to the grocery store?

There are options on how to shop for food, just as there are on how to create a painting. When shopping   A) One can just go grocery shopping and buy what strikes one’s interest once there. B) One can write a shopping list before going shopping, and then zoom all over the store looking for those items. C) One can write the list according to the layout of the store and pick up the listed items in an orderly fashion. D) One can make the list knowing the store layout, and still deviate from the list as inspiration strikes.

In painting, as in grocery shopping, planning and inspiration combined can produce the most interesting results.

First Poppy of the Year

A solitary bit of red. This reminds me of the rivalry between John Constable and J.M.W. Turner in the early 1800’s.  The rivalry broke into very public view at the Summer Exposition of the Royal Academy in 1832.  Their entries to the show were hung next to each other (in this post, Constable’s Opening of the Waterloo Bridge is above Turner’s Helvoetsluys), setting up a direct comparison in style and technique.  At the last minute (on Varnishing Day, when artists are allowed to make adjustments to their already hung work), Turner took it one step further; he added the red buoy to his seascape, thus overwhelming all the red on Constable’s canvas.

I have always though the single red buoy greatly improved Turner’s painting, even if it was done to needle Constable.