Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Halloween: Ghosts, Bonfires, and ...

For centuries, Halloween celebrations 
have been devoted to a mixture of fun and fear. says that Halloween was based on the Celtic festival called Samhain,
during which people dressed in costumes and lit bonfires to scare off roaming spirits,
who were thought to come out on the night before the New Year (then November 1).

Read more about the ancient traditions of Halloween here:

The idea of roaming ghosts and goblins seems like fantasy to us now, 
but in those times, the fear of such creatures was very real.
There is a fascinating collection of writings called The Denham Tracts,
a collection of British folklore compiled by Michael A. Denham between 1846 and 1859,
later published by the Folklore Society (London) in 1895.
They are fascinating to read. 
From Denham's list, here is just a very brief number of spirits people once feared:
bloody bones, bonelesses, breaknecks, scrags, fetches, and kelpies; 
hell-wains, fire-drakes, clabbernappers, and galley trots;
 mawkins, corpse lights and gringes.

There are dozens more.
There is speculation that Tolkien
may have taken some of the names for his Hobbit series from the Denham Tracts
since hobbits and wraiths are among the list of spirits.

Today, Halloween spirits are more benign, even charming.
These little spirits appear around my neighbors' tree each Halloween and I love them:

In my neighborhood, the only ghouls, goblins, and ghosts are children in costume.
(At least, as far as we know.)
They are the ones that tromp through the twilight looking for candy.
And getting candy, preferably chocolate,
on Halloween night is a ritual that never gets old.

When I was a kid, my brothers and sisters and I couldn't wait for Halloween.
It wasn't the costumes or the parties that we anticipated so eagerly.
It was mainly the candy we got from the "trick-or-treating."
When their parents were still living, my folks would drive us ten miles
to their hometown and my mom would take us door-to-door to her relatives.
Usually they could all be counted on for chocolate Halloween candies,
or at least the chewy black-and-orange wrapped Mary Jane peanut butter kisses.
But not our great Aunt Rose.

We always dreaded going to Aunt Rose's
partly because my mom would linger there talking,
interrupting our candy grabbing momentum,
and partly because Aunt Rose only offered two treats:
an oatmeal cookie and an apple.
Normally, that wouldn't have been such a bad treat,
except that Aunt Rose always put the unwrapped oatmeal cookie into our bags first,
then tossed the heavy apple in on top of it
with the force of a medieval mace.
At the end of the night, we'd return home,
dump our candy loot to see what treasures we got,
and then devote considerable amounts of time
to brushing the crushed oatmeal cookie crumbles off of everything.

Tonight, little trick-or-treaters will don costumes
and roam through the darkness in search of candy.
Let's hope they don't run into any fantasms or hobgoblins or flay boggarts.
But just in case, I think I'll keep a couple of heavy apples handy.

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Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Around the House

After a week of preparing for and keeping a vigil during the hurricane,
and for some of us, cleaning up or contemplating the rebuilding after the mess,
I think it is safe to say everyone here in this part of the world
 is suffering from acute storm fatigue.
So today, I'll recount a little trip I took around my house late last week, 
before the rains set in. 

Recently, I mentioned my pineapple sage 
and my prediction that it wouldn't bloom in its current shaded location.
But when I came out my door recently, there it was:

Rather than the entire plant turning fire red with blooms,
only two red flower stalks emerged this year. 
Sometimes that kind of scarcity makes what blooms are there more precious.

One of the main reasons the pineapple sage is encumbered 
is its proximity to the two legacy redbuds,
here turning a lovely golden yellow:

Autumn leaves are always the main draw, what people drive for miles to see,
but sometimes I like the fallen leaves better.
The redbud's scattered leaves lay around its slender trunk
and form their own special pattern.
In this photo, I can see the faintest shape of a star around the tree:

I realize I've shown hydrangea blossoms in the recent past, 
but I can never get enough of them. 
Perhaps it is because they present a paradox:
the hydrangea's tiny blossoms, when alone, are nice but have little impact.
Clustered together, they form a huge, round colorful and fluffy flower head
whose grace and form capture our attention.
Here is one taking on that light green color I am completely enamored with:

Flowering kale could be the hydrangea's distant cousin, 
given its propensity for forming miles of ruffled leaves,
each encircling the other.
Oh, to be a bug tucked into the safety of those leaves:

Although flowering kale is beautiful, I don't have any planted here.
I took this photo when I was at the garden center.
I opted for pansies instead.

I had wanted to include the drape of bright red Virginia creeper
that I see through the window every time I enter my living room.
But each photograph I take fails to capture the experience of its intensity.
So, imagine a large picture window, 
one that brings daylight into a perpetually shaded room.
And in the center of that window, against a backdrop of green,
see the most vivid shock of a leafy red vine spreading across,
its tendrils gently bobbing in the autumn breeze.
Sometimes the view from inside the house is better than the one around it.

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Monday, October 29, 2012

The Golf Fox Returns

In late July, I wrote about the foxes that live at a course
where my husband plays golf.
This weekend, the sly fox made another appearance,
this time bedeviling the golfers with its antics.

It seems one of my husband's golf buddies hit a shot onto the 13th green,
and while he was walking over to mark the ball,
the fox ran onto the green and tried to run off with the golf ball.
A clever attempt, but ultimately a failed one.

Later my husband went to retrieve one of the golf balls
that had rolled off  the green into a shallow ditch.
And when he walked over to pick it up, he startled the fox,
who had been preparing to make off with the ball himself.
The golf fox didn't run away though.
It sat sulking as its "prey" was carried off.

Here is the golf fox contemplating what to pilfer next:

Golfers harassed by crows who steal the junk food out of the golf carts,
foxes who try to steal the golf balls off the greens and the rough,
it's a wonder these poor golfers get to finish a game at all.
So far they've been able to outfox the fox,
but there's always tomorrow.
And I'm pretty sure the fox isn't in any hurry.
Or the crows for that matter.

Weather alert: today is the last day we are under a hurricane warning.
So far, so good. But if things change and we lose power, 
please continue to check for the Still Waters blog.

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Sunday, October 28, 2012

When Halloween Comes to Call

When October skies begin to darken and storms begin to brew: 

when vultures keep watchful eyes trained upon the ground:
vulture photo compliments of

. . . then it must be Halloween.

Nowadays, a lot of people celebrate Halloween
by reveling in the creepy and the macabre.
I went into a Halloween store this week
in search of a friendly ghost to hang in my arbor,
and I was a little surprised at the number of truly grotesque items for sale:
dismembered limbs, bloody monsters, and mangled corpses
were all lined up behind high price tags.

That is one way to celebrate Halloween in the United States, I suppose,
but thankfully, it's not the only one.
For many of us, Halloween is more about decorating . . . 
I couldn't resist these black, orange and white chrysanthemums
when I was shopping yesterday, 
even though I already had fresh flowers in the house:

And my husband brought home these cupcakes laden 
with mounds of orange frosting shaped like pumpkins:
They are tasty, but rich, so I usually scrape off most of the frosting.
I like these cupcakes, but I'm always a little anxious about eating food-dyes.
Especially since we had bright-green frosted cupcakes for St. Patrick's Day
and I accidentally dropped a few on the concrete floor in the garage.
(I still haven't learned to make two trips.)
That was seven months ago and the concrete still has green splotches,
despite being scrubbed.
I fear those green spots will always be with us now.

On a more fun note, here's a house whose owners have no fear.
This place in the Shire pulls out all the stops every holiday, 
and Halloween is no exception: 
They always succeed in making their whole house look like a big holiday party.
It's a pop of color and delight in the midst of some very conservative abodes.
I bet they give out great Halloween candy when tiny ghosts and goblins
show up at their door for a "trick or treat."

Of course, young children aren't the only ones who present themselves for a treat.
Some pekingese know a good thing when they see it:

So we are ready here for Halloween, 
assuming that Hurricane Sandy, 
which some weather forecasters are calling the "Frankenstorm,"
doesn't disrupt our plans and blow all of our Halloween decorations away.
On Wednesday, October 31st, look for more about Halloween in the U.S.
Weather alert!! If "Sandy," the massive tropical storm/hurricane, 
makes landfall here in southeastern Virginia, we may lose our electrical power.
Consequently, the Still Waters blog may be interrupted for a short while.
If that occurs, please check back daily for my return.

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Saturday, October 27, 2012

Luck, Hope, and the End of the Trail

Last Saturday, I set off for Chickahominy Riverfront Park
in search of my own moment of serenity. 
And I discovered some absolutely bucolic, restful landscapes,
some obstacles in my path,
and some breathtaking waterviews--
the kind that makes one feel a small, 
bubbling sense of happiness at being alive in nature. 
I would say "joy," but I'm at heart a pessimist,
so I don't want to confirm that I felt joy just yet,
but it was close, very close.

But here's what I can confirm: 
when I looked at this next scene, 
I noticed something in the distance along the shore line--
a few white dots, virtually invisible in this photo:

I counted one, two, three, four ... seven white egrets
all in an evenly spaced row:

Seven is supposed to be a very lucky number
although I don't know if the sighting was really fortuitous.
Perhaps seeing seven white birds resting in a row does bring one good luck,
but the timing of this symmetry was one of those things 
that made me stop and marvel at the balance nature offers.

I turned to walk back up the bluff and saw these cypress knees along the river bank:

And here among them, growing persistently,
was this hopeful green seedling:

I could see autumn at its edges, 
but it exuded a sense of springtime optimism, 
popping up among the barren knees as it had.
I'm sure it expects to be a tall tree someday.
I hope it makes it.

I climbed to the bluff and took one last look:

 Very tranquil.
Weather alert!! If "Sandy," the massive tropical storm/hurricane, 
makes landfall here in southeastern Virginia,
we may lose our electrical power.
Consequently, the Still Waters blog may be interrupted for a short while.
If that occurs, please check back daily for my return.
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Friday, October 26, 2012

The Water Side

Yesterday I recounted how an encounter with an oiled, unpaved road 
led to the sudden end of my hike into the forest
near Chickahominy Riverfront Park.

Yet, all was not lost, as I remembered 
 there was one more place I had wanted to walk:
along the bluff and down to the boat ramp on the opposite side of the park.
So I returned to the Park.
Once I got to the bluff, the first thing I saw 
was this "you are here" map,
which showed the Virginia rivers and peninsulas 
that reach into the Chesapeake Bay:

I always enjoy these maps because I like to understand "the big picture."
And this map really shows that the big picture contains a lot of water.
If there is one thing we have here in southeastern Virginia, it is water.
And it is beautiful life-giving water, full of fish, and crabs and oysters
that attract lots of waterfowl and gulls and songbirds, too.

So when I walked down to the boat ramp, 
the first view I enjoyed was this wide expanse of water 
flowing from the Chickahominy.
The rivers in this part of Virginia meander, 
and from those curving main channels,
smaller branches flow, leaving creeks like this:

Here's some more of that October blue and gold I've written about before:

This scene caught my eye because it shows the beauty of the marsh
and tree line reflected in the clear water:

But there was something else in the scene that I noticed.
Something quite surprising, and I would say, even a little magical.
Join me tomorrow and I'll reveal what I saw there along the shore,
and why it may just be a sign of good fortune.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Into the Fall

The closer to the forest I walked outside of Chickahominy Riverfront Park, 
the more I felt I was walking "into the fall"
because  more autumn color began to show itself.

Here's a sweet gum tree whose leaves are dressy in rust, red, and burgundy:

I thought this next tree--it might be an ash--
 was interesting because its autumn coloring is unlike others. 
Its green leaves have morphed into shades of brown, olive, and burnt orange,
all covered with tiny umber speckles.

Usually when people speak of autumn color,  they mean reds and golds.
This tree's sun-dappled autumn colors are a prototypical,
yet breathtaking, variegated red and orange:

Dogwoods, the state tree of Virginia, have fall foliage 
that ranges from burgundy to a vermilion red.
And when the autumn sun shines on them, their crimson leaves 
take on a hue that looks much more like scarlet. 
This next young  tree's leaves weren't  as red as those of the mature dogwoods at the park,
but its plump red berries were more robust than any I've ever seen.
I bet the the cardinals and titmice have chosen this dogwood 
as one of their favorite places to dine.

My favorite fall leaves? The orange ones, of course.
This delicious golden-orange always make me happy.
The leaves look like butterscotch:

I wanted to walk further into the forest, but to get to that part of the trail,
I had to cross Highway 5, which ordinarily would not have presented a problem.
But on this particular day, the highway was being repaved.
When I got to the crossing point, 
I discovered the road bed was awash in gooey black tar,
glistening and oily and oh-so-sticky. 
Rather than risk my shoes being tarred, 
and with all the birds around, possibly feathered;
 I turned around and headed back.
I admit to being a little disappointed that my trek into nature was interrupted.
But as I made my way back into the Park,
I remembered there was one more place  to visit.
Join me tomorrow for a view from the other side of the park.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Left Turn

After my excursion on the "road less traveled,"
I crossed back over the Chickahominy Bridge.
It's funny how differently things look when one's physical perspective changes.
The view to the south revealed a few long wooden piers stretching out into the water.
I hadn't noticed them when I was walking north over the bridge, 
nor had I noticed before the sun sparkling on the river 
like so much glitter cast on the water.

As I walked back toward the beaten path, I saw this old barn with a gambrel roof:

A little further a lone horse grazed in a pasture along the river.
The scene is pastoral and picturesque. 
I can't imagine having this as one's view every day, 
but it would be tranquil.
It would be lovely to walk across this meadow
 as the summer sun was climbing in the eastern sky.
I could just visualize the mist rising, the dew twinkling in the sunlight,
and the warming rays of the bright yellow sun
as it casts soft shadows across the land.

But my revelry ended as my footsteps drew me back to the present.
I walked further down the trail, to these cattails
growing in a wet, low spot and already bursting:

I always thought the brown cattails were solid,
until the time my husband showed me how to make
the cattail "fur" fly off into the air by sliding our hands over the spikes.
Their was something childishly fun about sending the cattail seedlings
wafting out over the breeze.

Not far from the cattails, dried foxtails massed
as tawny as dried wheat stalks after the harvest.
The winter winds will eventually flatten the dried stalks into thick mats
that will hold the snow.

After my "left turn," so many of the sights along my path
were adorned in colors of green and gold.
But as I walked on toward the forest,
the more varied  the colors in the landscape appeared.
Although many of the leaves have not yet changed here,
what I saw told me that more autumn color is on its way.
Tomorrow, some of the vibrant fall leaves along the trail.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Other Side of the Bridge

In yesterday's post, I mentioned that I had crossed the Chickahominy River
via a pedestrian walkway that followed Virginia Highway 5 for some miles.
When I walked out of Chickahominy Riverfront Park, 
I was confronted with the proverbial fork in the road.
Should I go left where the hiking path extended itself a few miles along the forest, 
which was the direction all the other Park visitors seemed to be going?

Or should I go right, over the arching bridge, the direction no one chose
save a couple of serious bicyclists 
decked out in racing tights, fingerless gloves, and helmets?
I figured if I waited to try the bridge after I walked a few miles toward Jamestown Park,
I wouldn't do it at all, and I really wanted to see the river from "bird height."
So I turned right and huffed and puffed my way over the windy bridge.
The view was worth every gasp of breath:

And taking the turn across the bridge yielded a couple of small delights and mysteries.
I do like the unexpected little treasures that life often delivers if we pay attention.

For example, the first thing I saw as I trekked along the path was this street sign:

I had never seen such a street name in rural Virginia, 
and I wondered if the resident at the end of the road really had a blue cat--
I'd heard of a breed called Russian blue, after all.
 Then again, maybe the only thing one would find at the end of that street 
was someone with a good sense of humor 
or a well-developed appreciation for the quirky.
I decided to let the mystery remain and went on by.

The next unexpected thing I saw, a good half mile from the river by now,
was this empty snail shell. Apparently the escargot in residence got up and went:

At first I thought a bird had dropped it.
But as I bent down to look at it, 
I mulled over the possibility that the snail may have gotten this far 
onto dry pavement on its own.
And if so, it had plainly been a creature of intentions,
but not one with the means to realize them.
So now I had two mysteries to contemplate as I walked on.

The last thing I noticed was not so much a surprise, but it did present a puzzle.
I know these look like small daisies, but they aren't called that. 
The petals are not fringed enough to be fleabane,
but just what the plant is I don't know.
I do like how these tiny, soft white flowers with optimistic yellow centers 
have escaped the bounds of the heavy black chain-link fence.
It's another pleasing contrast.

I walked on until I could see the end of the trail disappear into the woods.
And that's where I turned around and started back over the bridge.
Tomorrow, some of the sights along the more travelled path.

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Monday, October 22, 2012

Along the Chickahominy

Recently I enjoyed a brisk hike across the Chickahominy River,
thanks to a pedestrian pathway that traverses the Virginia Highway 5 bridge.
October days in Tidewater are especially beautiful,
and the view from the bridge reflected the slate-blue river and the blush of autumn color 
that stretched out for miles beneath a cloudless, sun-lit sky:

The Chickahominy River flows just northeast of the James River in Virginia.
It is named for the Chickahominy Indian tribe, 
an independent Algonquin tribe that was part of the Powhatan nation, 
whose member tribes resided in Virginia long before the Colonial era.

According to local history, in 1607, Captain John Smith
was denied assistance by all the Indian tribes he encountered upriver
until he reached the Chickahominy, who gave him bushels and bushels of corn.
Indeed, the Chickahominy tribe web site
says the tribe's name means "people of the coarse pounded corn." 
So thanks to the Chickahominy's generosity, the Jamestown settlers
were able to survive and establish the Virginia Company.

I didn't see any corn fields along the paved hiking path, 
but I did see some interesting sights once I crossed the bridge into Charles City County.
Those I will show in tomorrow's post when I describe the rather quirky,
unexpected things I came upon after I crossed the bridge.

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Sunday, October 21, 2012

And a Time to Every Purpose

Mary Reid Barrow, who writes about gardens and nature
for The Virginian-Pilot newspaper,
once wrote about leaving a portion of the landscape to its own ways.
She  promised that native plants left to own their devices would yield many surprises.

I thought about that when I explored the autumn garden around my house this week.
And Barrow was right, I did find a few surprises.
For example, we had a lot of rainwater 
and condensation from our air conditioner late this summer.
Apparently all that moisture created the perfect environment for moss
because it overtook the bottom row of the stone edging.
The stone is barely visible under the beard of encroaching moss:

Moss is one of those plants that seems to thrive under different conditions
although it clearly has its favorites.

Although begonias are not my favorite summer flower,
I've developed an appreciation for them these last few years.
They too handle different conditions effortlessly.
I'm amazed at how their flowers and leaves remain unfazed 
by fluctuations in water and temperature. They still look like summer:

The creeping jenny and the black sweet potato vine 
also embody summer days well into autumn:

But even if some flowers and plants refuse to heed the call of autumn,
many others gladly change into their fall apparel.
The legacy redbud leaves are turning a deep yellow gold: 

The Virginia Creeper vine continues creeping toward soft red:

Such vivid colors in leaves prompted Camus to write:
"Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower."
I myself always mourn the passing of summer,
but every season has its gifts and bestows its own grace.
And there is a time to every purpose.

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Saturday, October 20, 2012

To Everything there is a Season

The Shire has been favored by some mild weather these last  few days, 
so I have been outside more than I usually would be this time of year.
Yesterday I walked around the house to see how flowers and shrubs, 
so eagerly anticipated in the spring, have fared.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, 
the rainy days of late summer finally tapered off
some time in September,
leaving my hundreds of volunteer impatiens looking emaciated and pale. 
Lush blooms that normally would still look like this in October:

Ended up looking like this dismal representation of impatiens:
gangly stalks cloistered by pine needles:

Since they didn't flower, they didn't produce seeds to scatter into the soil,
so next spring I may not have any volunteers for the first time in a decade.
I'm a little sad about that, but I can't complain, 
considering how much abundance I enjoyed from them these past years.

On the other hand, the curly parsley 
consumed by a ravenous gang of green caterpillars 
 re-emerged from the soil within days of their departure:

even though few butterflies came back to say thanks or to dine again.
Before the frost comes,
I'll cut  the new parsley and freeze it to add to winter soups.
It's a good way to preserve a little bit of summer.

At the other side of the garden,
my delicate bluer-than-blue hydrangeas have faded to a soft violet color:

I know people use these to make autumn wreaths, 
but I always wait too long to gather them and they end up toast-brown and fragile.
There are too few on this plant to create a wreath,
 and the flower heads on the shrub at the front of the house have well passed their prime.
Maybe next year.

The leaves of my grandmother's Joseph's Coat are a bright spot,
offering a potpourri of color now that the days are shorter, the nights cooler:

A walk around the autumn garden reminds me of this verse from Ecclesiastes:
"to everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose..."
Tomorrow, a few more things in autumn dress.

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Friday, October 19, 2012

The Little Visitor

I mentioned in a past blog about 
some of the wildlife that has made its way into our house.
We used to leave the back door open on nice days
so our dogs could come and go as they pleased. 
The problem was that a few times,
the open door proved irresistible for other creatures not on our approved list.

Such an intrusion happened one night some years ago
when my husband was out of town.
I ate dinner that evening and then settled on the couch to relax.
Suddenly out of the corner of my eye, 
I saw some shadowy thing bound into the room 
and head straight behind some framed pictures 
that I had propped up on the fireplace mantel.
Uh oh. 
A fleet-footed creature that scales walls.
That couldn't be good.

I got up from the couch and crept to the fireplace.
Frankly, I don't know how I got the courage to move the picture, but I did.
And as I did, a small flying squirrel sailed from the mantel and lit on the floor.
But he didn't stop to assess the situation.
 He raced through the kitchen 
and up the stairs to my husband's office 
where, from the looks of it, he had spent some serious lounge time
after the door had been opened that morning.

I got one of my neighbors to come over
and help me evict the flying squirrel.
That was a comedy of errors. I didn't help the situation by my squealing 
and backing away every time the squirrel came in my direction.
Exhausted, overheated, and despairing that we would ever catch it,
I opened the window.
The flying squirrel must have sensed the fresh air,
for it bounced to the sill, spread its winged front legs
and leapt into the darkness.

And I thought about that because one night this week, 
another tiny creature graced us with a visit--
this one considerably less furry.
About bedtime, I noticed something on the inside of the back door 
that looked very much like a large bug.
I understand that bugs have a valuable place in the eco-system,
but when they enter my house, it's survival of the fastest.
Ordinarily, I would have dispatched the intruder with a fly swatter.
But this time, I hesitated.

And a good thing, because it turned out the "bug"
was the tiniest tree frog I have ever seen.
My husband came over and tried to catch it,
but thimble-sized tree frogs are at least as fast as flying squirrels,
and it easily hopped out of his cupped hands.
Enlivened by our attempts to catch it,
the baby frog ricocheted from door to baseboard to molding,
using its sticky feet to spring from place to place.

Finally, it rested a moment on the screen door.
My husband pushed the frame open ever-so-slightly,
but it was enough for the frog to sense freedom was at hand.
It sprang into the air like a tiddlywink
 and made one final leap into the night.

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Thursday, October 18, 2012

Falling for Autumn

There are many old farms and plantations in the Shire.
Fields of corn, cotton, peanuts, and beans 
are still planted in the spring and harvested in the fall,
as they have been on Virginia lands for centuries.
But many more acres have been developed into strip malls and neighborhoods.
Over the years, large working fields have given way to urban sprawl
--the story is the same all over the United States.
And yet come autumn, suburbanites and city dwellers flock to garden centers
in search of dried ears of corn, bales of straw, squash,
and pumpkins, lots of pumpkins.
Every October, they transform their homes into bastions of old-time harvest.
I call it "falling for autumn."

A local garden center even offers an autumn decorating package,
 which includes a couple of ears of corn, a bale of straw, 
one or two pumpkins, jewel-colored chrysanthemums,
and all the items needed to build a scarecrow on-site.
It's hugely popular.

I'm not much interested in adding those things to my yard each fall 
since what is placed outside must also eventually be removed.
The prospect of lugging a bale of  straw in and out of my car
then dragging it to the yard,
and weeks later after the autumn glow has turned cold,
to the curb on trash day--
I'm exhausted just thinking about it.

But I do like to decorate my front door with a wreath
my father made for me from the grapevines on his farm.
For the past couple of years,
I've added chrysanthemums and pumpkins on the porch.
If I had a black cat sunning itself on the front step,
the display would be about perfect.

This year I've added a few red, ivory, and pumpkin-colored pansies:

It's a fun way to celebrate the change of seasons.
And one of these days, who knows?
I might go all out and build my own scarecrow
and post him next to a bale of straw in the front yard.
And then again, I might just keep the flowers
and wait for that black cat.