Monday, August 29, 2011


            Tropical cyclone activity is not exactly unheard-of here on the North Carolina coast. I admit, it's been 12 years since Floyd dumped 40 inches of rain on us back in 1999, but residents understand what a hurricane is, and all the options for preparing for an incoming one. Our media types, however, must have lost their long-term memories or, perhaps, grew up in caves in Wyoming, because to a man they act like every potential big blow is Armageddon redux.

           "Sixty-five million people imperiled by Irene!" Matt Lauer intoned on The Today Show. (Or, at least, that's what my son Sam told me. Our television stays silent and blank most of the time. I follow important weather events from the National Weather Service website, where pictures trump the thousands of words spewed by broadcasters.) But really—what tommyrot. The implication is the Northeast Corridor is peopled exclusively by idiots. Matt really shouldn’t judge everyone by himself.

            Hyperbole is alive and well just up the road in Wilmington as well. Over the years, the children recruited to be location reporters have given us such gems as:

·         “The waves are actually breaking on the shore!!!!!” This from a young lady standing on Wrightsville Beach on a moderately overcast day with a light breeze ruffling her anorak hood.
·         “The water is right up to this wall!!!!” From a young man posted to Southport, who was apparently seeing the ocean for the first time in his life. The water comes right up to the seawall in Southport twice a day. We call it “high tide.”
·         “There’s actually sand on the streets here in Wrightsville Beach!!!!!” The young woman filing this exciting report after Floyd passed was displaying the media bias against the world south of New Hanover County. Down here in the boonies of Brunswick, more than a dozen houses had washed out to sea.

My own media bias being taxed to the limit by hundreds of reminders to lay in enough bottled water and canned goods for a month-long camping trip and/or to board up the windows and flee during the week before Irene blew by—do they really think we’re that stupid?—I composed a little ditty, which I append here for your amusement.

Twas the week before Irene,
And from every TV
Came moaning and wailing
Of what we might see.

They rolled some old footage
Of Hazel and Fran,
Making all of us think
We should move to Iran.

Their eyes, how they glittered!
Though somber of voice,
“Stockpile batteries, water,
And canned goods of choice!

“Nail up that plywood!
Get all windows covered!
She’s coming! She’s coming!”
Beachside, cameras hovered.

They updated models
Computers kept spewing.
There’re awards in their futures
If viewers keep viewing.

Their eyes, wide and fevered,
Palms dripping with sweat,
Forecasters orgasmic,
As good as it gets.

Twas the day after Irene,
We’d nothing to do
So we strolled to the ocean
To take in the view.

And what did our fully primed
Eyes hope to see?
Torn-off shingles! Hanging stair-steps!
Smashed flat-screen TVs!

Dune breaches! Erosion!
Roofs atilt in the break!
Fronts of homes missing
Showing stuff we could take.

The breeze’s light and playful,
The air crisp and clear;
As we got to the access
Our hearts filled with fear.

The water sun-sparkled
As waves hushed ashore,
We looked for destruction
Till our eyes got sore.

Irene had brushed by us,
We saw with relief.
But the tabloid reportage
Just beggared belief.

Yes, hurricanes are serious.
We know, tis the season.
Why’d the media treat us
Like we’ve all lost our reason?

Now I’m off to get the plants off the porch and perhaps rake up some of those leaves and twigs strewn about by The Great Storm.

Hope your hurricane was as non-eventful as ours was. Thanks for dropping by.


Thursday, August 25, 2011


The scrofulous Fitzgerald lawn
             As regular readers already know, my coastal town of 6300 souls recently installed a $165 million (and counting) state-of-the-art sewer system in its bid to become the next Myrtle-Beach-like tourist mecca. As a consequence of our governing council’s edifice complex, water now costs residents three times as much to go out as it does to come in. Needless to say, the formerly grassy area at my house—can’t really call it a “lawn” because we never did much in the way of maintenance—has received no supplemental water throughout this droughty season. Although it looks scrofulous at the moment, I’ve already ordered the berry bushes and dwarf fruit trees to fill in some of the voids. New raised beds for sun-loving tomatoes and peppers are in the works. By spring, lawn will be all but gone.
            I’m of two minds about turf, though. The inputs required to maintain monocultural grassy swards waste water, employ noxious chemicals, add to air and noise pollution levels, squelch biodiversity, offer little to wildlife, and are a never-ending chore. On the other hand, lawns slow down and filter runoff, have a cooling effect, look pretty, and all that maintenance gives some people pleasure.

            There’s got to be a happy medium between the two.

            Tim and I both grew up in neighborhoods that looked very much like this suburban street. Tim’s dad loved his lawn, and he worked hard to keep it looking like velvet. He’d be out there most clement evenings, spreading fertilizers and weed-killers, digging out the odd rogue dandelion, waging war on moles, voles and insects, mowing, edging, patrolling, keeping the green perfect.

            My dad didn’t much care about lawns. He kept the weeds mowed (“It’s all green,” he’d tell my mom), but would rather spend his time planting nut trees, tending his vegetable garden and sitting in his little boat on the Poquoson River, fishing.

            A true child of my old man, Mr. Fitzgerald’s avocation was not what I’d call fun.

            Therein lies the crux of the matter. As Saxon Holt points out in his latest post at Gardening Gone Wild, gardening is supposed to be fun. Alter your perspective, he admonishes: you’re not “maintaining,” you’re “gardening.” Does tending a lawn make you happy? That’s gardening, not maintenance. Go for it. Although you may want to adjust the regimen so that you ratchet up your environmental responsibility a notch. Paul Tukey’s Organic Lawn Care Manual offers useful information in that regard (see Good Reads list at right). 


Are we having fun yet?
            On the other hand, do you regard taking care of the grass just one more job in an unending series of seasonal chores? If mollycoddling the lawn isn’t on your list of pleasant ways to spend time outdoors, then don’t do it.  

Tim and I fall into the latter camp most of the time. However, we know that grass can be an integral part of an overall design. Lawns offset planting areas in ways hardscapes can’t always pull off. Grass paths make for soft, cooling and serene spaces between beds, as we learned the hard way. (We surrounded our first gardens with brick chips—a nightmare to pull weeds from, a misery to kneel in, and the screaming orange color added 50 degrees to the backyard in summer. We dug it out and replaced it with grass after three years.) Grassed areas offer recreational opportunities, too. Nobody, for instance, enjoys a rousing round of croquet played on pavement. Plus, a lot of us just like having some lawn around: the texture and especially the smell of new-mown grass always remind me of being a kid during the summer.

             Conflicted? Go to’s website. A coalition of writers and activists of both anti- and pro-lawn persuasions, they gently urge you think about the rationales underpinning our lawn fixations. They point readers toward organic turf care, low-maintenance grasses, water-wise management and plans for reducing or replacing all that grass. Evelyn Hadden, one of the founding members, has written a book entitled Shrink Your Lawn (see Good Reads), full of ideas for transitioning from cookie-cutter suburban-mindset grassiness.
              For a historical perspective on Americans and their relationships to their yards, you can’t do better than pick up a copy of From Yard to Garden: The Domestication of America’s Home Grounds (see Good Reads) by Christopher Grampp. Starting with the agrarian Founding Fathers and moving through industrialization and urbanization to the rise of suburbia, Grampp shows how people relate to the land around their homes. He’s not anti-lawn, which may be one reason his book isn’t more widely known. (Like in the art world, gardening elites fall into trendy traps too.) 

 Still, getting rid of all or part of your grass can open up a world of pushing-the-envelope possibilities for the adventurous. Rosalind Creasy’s classic Edible Landscaping: Now You Can Have Your Gorgeous Garden and Eat It Too (see Good Reads) gives lots of suggestions for turning your yard into an artful—and delicious—cornucopia. I’m rereading it at the moment.  

A claustrophobic-feeling
grassless garden
            Not all lawn-reduction projects are created equal, however. Some lawnless gardens feel claustrophobic to me, all encroaching vegetation, narrow paths, and airlessness. Some seem overly arid and barren—especially Southwestern-themed gardens located anywhere other than the Southwest. A cactus garden in a swamp jars the sensibilities, as do palms juxtaposed with deciduous trees.

A Fitzgerald-designed
grassless garden
            Ultimately, it comes down to individual taste—what you think looks nice, how hard you’re willing to work at it, and how much you enjoy the labor. Here’s a photo of one turf-free garden Tim and I designed and installed some years ago when it was just completed. This one is softened and shaped by the woods it backs up to, and has worked well over time.

See how the grass makes
this garden stand out?
            How much grass is too much grass? No one knows. Manicured or missing, the main thing is to make sure you’re having fun with whatever’s happening on your patch. Me? I’m planting fruits in the front yard.

Thanks for dropping by. Will wrap up August next time, if Irene doesn’t wash us away.

Sunday, August 21, 2011


            I regard my email inbox with the same jaundiced eye that used to be reserved exclusively for the telephone. As far as I’m concerned, these communication devices take up space in our house for my convenience, not anyone else’s. Over the years, I’ve perfected the selective deafness required to ignore phone summons (a trait inherited from my dad, the lone male in a six-person household, whose ability to tune out female voices was legendary). The insidious nature of internet technology is harder to circumvent. Email hooks me with written words. I’m the kind of person who reads everything: signs, labels, every word of anything I’m asked to sign. Ergo, it’s hard for me not to read something right in front of my face.

            Yes, there’s a point to subjecting you to yet another of my peculiarities. The emails I’m having a tough time deleting lately have to do with fruits for fall planting.

            Burpee’s started it. Cooks Garden and Gardens Alive! chimed in yesterday. It’s like they know my weaknesses and are out to make a few bucks off them. Opening these siren–song solicitations, however, led me down the unexpected path of discovering how many chilling hours the average Brunswick County winter is good for.

            What’s a chilling hour? you ask.

            A chilling hour is a 60-minute period wherein the temperature is 45°F or less. You add up all these hours between November and February, the result being a number that tells you how much cold weather you have.

            What does that mean for my garden? you persist.

USDA cold-hardiness zone map
for the Southeast
            Chilling hours are the basis for the USDA’s cold-hardiness zone map, a tool to help you decide what plants will most likely survive an average winter where you live. But many edibles and ornamentals also have chilling requirements that determine whether or not they will fruit or flower.

            In my neighborhood, for example, tulips, lilacs, rhododendrons, peonies and fritillaries cannot be counted on to produce the gorgeous blooms that are the reason we grow them in the first place. Why? Not enough chilling hours. We have the same problem with apples, raspberries and cherries. On the other hand, figs, pomegranates, okra and other native hibiscus (what? you didn’t know okra’s a hibiscus relative?) do well here because we don’t have too many chilling hours. Capisce

No peonies for me
            So anyway, I was drooling over the online offerings of berries and stone fruits when it occurred to me that I didn’t know how many chilling hours I can depend on from a regular Brunswick County winter. (It may surprise you to learn that I am not obsessive enough to track chilling hours on my own. Hourly temperature checks around the clock for 18 weeks are required: nobody likes me when I’m sleep-deprived.) Not having a suitable reference work to hand, I went net-surfing.

Minimum chilling hours
across the southeast
           What I found, after some considerable time wandering around in the ether, was this map, at AgroClimate: A Service of the Southeast Climate Consortium. It specifically refers to growing peaches with varying chill needs in South Carolina, but the broader information’s revealing. (What really struck me was that most of the United States has more than 1200 chilling hours per winter: the national map was mostly white. No wonder people are moving south in droves.)

            Searching for chilling-hour statistics segued into learning about heating degree days and cooling degree days. I’ve seen those abbreviations on the National Weather Service’s almanac pages for years, and vaguely knew what the letters stood for, but not what they meant.

            Which is…? you prompt.

Barrow, Alaska
            Heating degree days (HDDs) are a measure of demand for energy to heat buildings. You settle on a base outdoor temperature below which the house gets nippy so you turn on the heat. Most calculations use 65°F. So you average the actual high and low temperature of a day (adding the high and the low together and divide by two) and subtract the result from the base. For example, on January 13, 2011, Oak Island’s high was 41°; the low was 28°. (Brrrr.) The average of the two is 69, divided by two is 34.5; a base temp of 65 minus 34.5 = 30.5. That means Oak Island had 30.5 HDDs on January 13.

Miami Beach, Florida
            Cooling degree days (CDDs) are, as you probably already suspect, a measure of demand for energy to cool buildings. To figure these, you subtract the base from the average of the high and low temperatures of a day. To continue with the Oak Island example, on July 7, 2011, the high was 93° and the low, 79°. We add those numbers, getting 172, and divide by two for an average of 86. Subtracting our base from the average (86 – 65 = 21) gives us 21 CDDs for July 7.

            I hate math, you grumble. But I’m assuming there’s a payoff?

            Well, maybe. Mostly I just think this stuff is fun to know, and I do like math. I found a really cool (pun intended) website called Degree Days that’ll calculate the number of HDDs and CDDs of any location with a reporting weather station, which usually means a controlled airport. Then I compiled a little table, comparing the HDDs and CDDs of six representative cities.
Barrow, Alaska
Los Angeles, CA
Miami, FL
Montreal, Quebec
New York, NY
Wilmington, NC

            Isn’t this neat?

            Payoff? you remind me.

Pink Lady apples: yes
            Well, you can monitor the efficiency of your heating and cooling systems by dividing the total number of HDDs or CDDs for the period covered by your monthly power/oil/gas bill into the total kilowatt hours/gallons/therms used. Establish a baseline, then look for discrepancies. Tim and I replaced our 13-year-old HVAC in June, so I compared the August bills from 2010 and 2011. In 2010, with the old heat pump, we slurped up 2.05 kilowatt hours per CDD. This year, we only used 1.61 KwH per CDD. Now, that’s efficiency! (For a more detailed explanation, read Jack Williams’ “Answers: Heating Degree Days” article linked here.)

Lapins cheeries: no
             Oh, yes. To circle back to the beginning: based on all my new knowledge, I decided which fruits to order. Blackberries, yes. Raspberries, no. Southern highbush or rabbiteye blueberries, yes. Northern highbush, no. Pink Lady apples, a hot-climate cultivar from western Australia, yes. Lapins cherries, bred in Canada, no. Lilac, maybe. There’s a “new,” “heat-tolerant,” “reblooming" version out there called Bloomerang Purple Penda. I’ve tried all the rest of them—without success—over the years: might as well give this one a go. Will keep you posted.

Now all I have to do is find a place to plant them.

Thanks for dropping. Stay cool. Or whatever.


Lilacs: maybe

Wednesday, August 17, 2011


           You will no doubt be pleased to hear that the National Weather Service (NWS) has somewhat gleefully raised its ante in the annual “How many named storms/hurricanes/major hurricanes will develop in 2011?” sweepstakes. This yearly competition annoys me. Don’t know what the prize is. Bragging rights, perhaps? Proving to Bill Gray and the gang at Colorado State that people living in the Rockies know bugger-all about Atlantic cyclones?

Dr. Bill Gray and heir-apparent
Philip J. Klotzbach
            Safe in their mountain stronghold, the hurricane oracles at CSU have been uncharacteristically reticent about upgrading their own prognostications. The bombastic Dr. Gray and his lads have toned down their hubris levels considerably since the embarrassing failure to prophesy the many devastating storms of 2005, followed by years of apocalyptic predictions that served mainly to sink coastal dwellers into a morass of apathy via crisis overload.

The famous Cape Verdean
           Be that as it may, the gavel-to-gavel coverage has begun of every butterfly wing-flutter on the Cape Verde Islands as we roll into the most active part of hurricane season.

The whole animus of weather prediction is fatally flawed, of course. Why? Because anyone who pays the slightest attention to what’s going on outside—you know, the weather—knows that what’s coming next is anybody’s guess. Modern meteorologists dislike this indisputable phenomenon. “But look at our computer models!” they wail, and point at monitors in the climate-controlled, windowless rooms they inhabit. (And what’s wrong with that picture?) They could achieve the same rate of forecasting success they currently enjoy by mumbling incantations over chicken entrails, rolling dice, or playing Rock, Paper, Scissors.

1989's Hurricane Hugo,
from space
(photo courtesy of NASA)
            But I digress. The 2011 Atlantic hurricane season has been satisfyingly active so far in one sense: we’ve racked up seven named storms. The boys in Fort Collins and Miami are salivating. Still, no hurricanes of any category under our belts, and no on-shore death and destruction, just the odd rainy day in the Caribbean and on Bermuda.  That said, it seems to me the entire divination exercise is ancillary. By virtue of being ocean-dependent for development, tropical cyclones always give lots of warning before impacting land: 2005’s Katrina was in the news for weeks before she roared ashore as a Category 4 storm at New Orleans. The devastation that followed was a political failure, not a meteorological one. It’s not comparable in any sense to the tornadoes that flattened Joplin, Missouri this spring. The people there didn’t have days and days to prepare, like the inhabitants of New Orleans did. (Of course, New Orleans’ population is a brick short of a load anyway, building their city below sea-level. How stupid is that? The only places that kind of thinking works is in the Grand Canyon and Death Valley.)

One of my worst nightmares
             Tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, blizzards and floods all afford appreciably less in the way of lead time than hurricanes. In particular, tornadoes top the list of potential severe weather events that scare me silly. They’re freaky and capricious, flattening structures on one side of a street while leaving the other side untouched. They blow up out of nowhere and just as suddenly disappear, only to wreak havoc somewhere else. Or not. In terms of opportunities to prepare, hurricanes are a comparative stroll on the beach. So what’s the big deal with guessing how many will form between June 1 and November 30? What a waste of resources.

I’m one of those people who talk back to the television. One of my pet peeves is the comparison of today’s temperatures or rainfall with the “normal” for that day. “It’s average, you dolt,” I growl, “not ‘normal.’”

Turns out, while semantically correct, I’m technically wrong about that. (And, although I haven’t apologized, I have stopped correcting the TV screen every evening.) Once a decade, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) collates daily temperatures and rainfall for the most recent 30 years, which it then averages before publishing the results as the “normal” for that decade. Words matter to me: not so much to the NWS. I continue to say “normal” in reference to temperature and rainfall with a slight sneer, which translates to using quotation marks in print.

We are currently undergoing the decadal re-evaluation of climate “normals.” If you regularly check the NWS almanac website, you’ll have noticed the “normal” values have been missing since the first of August. NOAA processes millions of pieces of weather information collected daily from thousands of sites nationwide through their super-computers to churn out the new numbers.  Here are some graphics depicting the changes from “normal” for 1971-2000 to the new “normals” for 1981 to 2010.

(Locals, rejoice! Next year I begin my own number-crunching project to reveal the ten-year “normals” for Oak Island! Watch this space!)

The ’70s were an unusually cool decade, statistically speaking. (I thought myself pretty cool in those days as well.) Turns out the years 2001 to 2010 were the warmest on record—but keep in mind that record-keeping only began in 1874, a mere fraction of the briefest blink in geologic time. Calculating the new “normals” by tossing out the ’70s and adding the aughts resulted, unsurprisingly, in warmer “normal” temperatures. “For the United States as a whole,” says Jennifer Freeman in a ClimateWatch magazine article, “it was not daytime highs… but overnight lows… that rose the most compared with the 1970s.”  This statement is borne out by my anecdotal local observations since 2002.

Chicken Little and friend react
to the latest climate "normals"
            Do the new “normals” offer irrefutable evidence of global warming? Hard to say, really. A mere 137 years of systematic record-keeping don’t supply enough data to draw reasonable conclusions. I’m old enough to remember the doomsters moaning about an imminent Ice Age during those “unusually” chilly summers of 40 years ago. Is the climate changing? Of course it is. It always does. Just the fact that our best weather minds seem fixated on a range of “normal” anything on this tiny volatile rock spinning in the inconceivable vortex of space and time sounds more like Chicken Little’s “The sky is falling!” than any preordained cosmic truth.

What the new “normals” do offer is a guideline for day-to-day choices in our gardens. It’s why I participate in phenologic observation projects like the Great Sunflower Project and National Phenology Network’s Nature’s Notebook program. Change is eternal. We have the option either to embrace it or waste our lives mourning what might have been (whether it might actually ever “have been” or not).

On a practical note, I recommend avoiding plants labeled AHS cold-hardiness Zone 8 and lower for long-term survival in southeastern North Carolina. They might require chilling periods greater than we experience.

A funny story about weather instruments, and then I’m done for today. One Christmas, Tim got me a very nice digital weather station from a reputable instruments company. We set it up, wiring the hygrometer, rain sensor and anemometer to the base unit. Despite my hard-core technophobia, I enjoyed the novelty of taking weather observations from inside the house. For a while. Six months later, lightning struck four houses north of us. By the time the reaction hit our house, it still had enough oomph not only  to fuse all our ground-fault interrupter circuits but to blow out the weather receiver as well. Tim called the reputable instruments company and told them what happened. Their service rep politely informed him that their warranties do not apply to instruments out in the weather. “But it’s a weather instrument,” Tim explained. “I’m sorry, sir,” she said, and that was that.

My off-the-grid
weather data-collection
            Now I use a mechanical barometer and a Radio Shack el-cheapo minimum/maximum thermometer. When it starts acting funky, we just go buy a new one. Wind and Weather catalog supplied a professional-grade hundredth-inch rain gauge, which we hung on the outdoor shower. Our front door conveniently faces due west, the bedroom window east; the ocean is 800 yards to the south, the Intracoastal Waterway 800 yards to the north. With a working knowledge of the Beaufort scale, I estimate wind direction and speed by looking at the trees and the clouds. Low tech, sure, but it doesn’t belly-up in thunderstorms.

            Thanks for dropping by. And keep your weather eye out.


Saturday, August 13, 2011


Christopher Reeve as Superman

           Up in the sky!

            It’s a bird!

            It’s a plane! It’s… 

No, not him.

            Because August is kind of a blah time on the ground, let’s raise our perspective. So… Look! Up in the sky!  It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s the Full Sturgeon Moon!

Full Sturgeon Moon rising
over Fishers Island, NY,
August 17, 2008
as taken by Sky-Guy 
            In Hindi, it’s called Narali Poornima or Raksha Bandhan. The Buddhists know it as Nikini Poya. Also known to Native Americans as the Green Corn, Grain, Red, Lightning and/or Dog Moon, the Sturgeon Moon is so called because Algonquian tribes found sturgeon in the Great Lakes easiest to catch at this time, presumably because they (the fish, not the Indians) were spawning. Regardless of what you call it, August’s full moon rose at 2:57 pm EDT today (August 13), just in time to spoil viewing of one of the best meteor showers of the year.

The Perseids over Stonehenge  
            The Perseid meteor shower brings back fond memories for Tim and me: we spent the end of our first date counting streaks of light raining down over Cascade Lake in the Adirondacks. Emanating from Earth’s annual pass through the debris stream of the Swift-Tuttle comet—which, in case you’re interested, orbits the sun every 133 years—the radiants (astronomer-speak for meteor “heads”) seem to originate from the constellation Perseus; hence the name. While probably the best-known of all recurring meteor shower events, the Perseids are only one of nine shows each year. I spent a good bit of this morning lost in the Science section of the online Christian Science Monitor. Follow the link to discover fascinating meteor shower lore.

            A factoid I just learned: a meteor shower becomes a meteor storm when the flaming projectiles blaze into view at more than 1000 per hour. Pretty cool, huh? If you’re not a satellite or in an orbiting spacecraft, obviously.

Comet Elenin
            Turns out comets are not the rare things I assumed them to be. Apparently inner space is chockablock with them. Why, in August alone, Comet Garrard was visible on the 2nd; Comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova (say that three times, fast) streaks past on the 16th; and Comet Elenin, supposedly the agent of Earth’s destruction, will be visible to the naked eye by the end of the month as it passes three million miles wide of us. Too bad for all of you Mayan-calendar end-times conspiracy buffs out there.

The Celtic Wheel of the Seasons
            August always stirs my interest in the heavens because it’s a busy time, astronomically speaking. The month starts off with the cross-quarter holiday of Lammas. Cross-quarters are the celestial mid-points between the solstices and the equinoxes. The druids call it Lughnasadh (lew-NAH-sah), when pagans (and farmers) celebrate the first harvests of the growing season. “Dancing at Lughnasa,” a lovely slice-of-life movie of a rural family in 1930s Ireland, gives a flavor of the modern festival.

(For your edification, August 1 is the only cross-quarter day not co-opted by the Christian religion. The other three are:
·         February 1, pagan Imbolc (IM-bolk), the festival of fire. It became Candlemas, the feast of the presentation of the Christ-child at the Temple;
·         May 1, Beltane or May Day, a celebration of fertility and spring planting. This one morphed into Mary’s Day; and
·        November 1, Samhain (sew-EEN), the end-of-harvest party. The church celebrates All Hallows and All Souls instead, the days of the dead.       

Where to look for Jupiter
             Lest you worry that the crisp days and cool nights of autumn are upon us, fear not: the dead middle of meteorological summer fell on August 7. We have lots more miserable, hot, humid days to enjoy.

Besides the Sturgeon Moon, the Perseids and the comets, the August sky reveals additional celestial wonders to those in the Northern Hemisphere who know where and when to look. For most of August, Saturn sets in the southwest as evening twilight fades. If you have a telescope, you’ll get a good look at its rings and Titan, the planet’s largest moon. Saturn goes down just as the giant planet Jupiter rises in the east. The four largest of its 63 (and counting) moons—Callisto, Europa, Ganymeade and Io, collectively called the Galilean moons for Galileo, who first spotted them—should be visible with binoculars. On the 22nd, take your binocs with you to some dark venue for a shot at actually seeing Neptune, just winding up its first solar orbit since its discovery in 1846. It’ll appear only as a tiny blue dot, but think of the bragging rights! And Sky-Guy urges everyone not to miss the summertime Milky Way, running from northeast to southwest around midnight. Best viewing is after the moon’s last quarter on the 21st. “In particular,” he writes, “look for the ‘Great Rift’ that cleaves the galaxy in two from the center of the Summer Triangle down to the southern constellations of Scorpius and Sagittarius… I can’t think of a more relaxing way to spend a clear summer evening than being lost in that immensity.”

The summertime Milky Way
with the Great Rift visible
(photo by Mike Hankey)
Where to look for Neptune

While taking in the celestial sights this month, consider this: in analyzing the composition of meteorites found in Australia and Antarctica, scientists found adenine and guanine, two of the nucleobases that make up terrestrial DNA. While they didn’t isolate any thymine or cytosine (the other pair of bases), they did discover two “nucleobase analogs” new to science. Read the linked Christian Science Monitor article, “Are We All Extraterrestrials? Scientists Discover Traces of DNA in Space” and ponder the immensity of that.

As the late Jack Horkheimer used to say, “Keep looking up!”

And thanks for dropping by.

        Kathy, Mr. Spock, and the Squeeze Toy Aliens from "Toy Story"  
"You have saved our lives.
We are eternally grateful."

"Live long and prosper."

P.S.--For more information, go to and