Farewell to a Fish

leaf strewn mereFarewell to a Fish

Oh, Faramir, your lot was clear: to bring us golden bliss.
Six weeks, alas, would scarcely pass ere something went amiss.
We watched you flutter your bright fins and wait upon your food;
My memory of you must not be of your last, darkened mood.

No, let me rather think on days when you were filled with zest
For flakes and bowl, for water clean (you know we did our best).
But, in the end, our wisdom failed: you sickened, and you died.
No healing touch of king had I; yet, Faramir, I tried.

And will we get another fish? But, no, thought cannot bear
To fill your empty bowl so soon: we’ll wait ’til next year’s fair?
For now, the bowl we’ll stow away–the pebbles and the net;
We’ll bury you beneath the clay, but we will not forget.

So, Faramir, float gently down into this leaf-strewn mere:
A final voyage for steward’s son upon a golden bier.

by Sandra Fleming / Copyright @2017

As you will gather from this tribute, our goldfish Faramir, whose arrival was described here and whose exploits were chronicled here, passed away over the weekend. Saturday morning, my son put a Tetra Flake in Faramir’s bowl before leaving to play chess in a Halloween tournament. Fittingly, my son dressed up as Aragorn, who, like Faramir, is a character in J. R. R. Tolkien’s trilogy, The Lord of the Rings; Aragorn is the stalwart Ranger who eventually becomes King of Gondor. My son had named our goldfish Faramir after the younger brother of Boromir, who is part of the Fellowship of the Ring. Boromir and Faramir are the sons of Denethor, Steward of Gondor, who rules Minas Tirith in the absence of a king. Boromir, the older brother, dies defending Merry and Pippin in The Two Towers. Later in The Two Towers, Faramir appears and aids Frodo and Sam. In The Return of the King, Faramir is injured; he develops a high fever and is rescued from a funeral pyre by the quick actions of Pippin and Beregond, a guard. Near death, Faramir is saved by Aragorn, who, as King of Gondor, has power to heal.

Aragorn at chess tournament

Is this his Viggo Mortensen face or his don’t-take-my-picture face?

When I came home from taking pictures at the chess tournament, I noticed that Faramir was very still—too still for a fish that has always been active; typically, he swims to the surface when he sees one of us coming with the bright orange container of fish flakes. He did not swim up on Saturday. In fact, he was motionless, and I saw his breakfast flake floating, untouched, in his bowl. Alas, I am no king of Gondor and do not have the power to resuscitate even a goldfish. I changed his water multiple times, tried a salt-water bath, and even massaged him, per the directions that I found online. When my husband and son got home, I asked my husband to try to open Faramir’s gills, which was one of the suggestions, but to no avail. Fortunately, my son had done well at the tournament, winning all his games and tying for a first-place trophy, so he was in good spirits when we broke the news to him.

Even though my son named Faramir, I developed an affection for this foundling of a fish, whom we acquired at the fair. I suspect his sudden death may have been because of a change in the type of water we used? We switched from distilled water to spring water after I read an article that suggested goldfish would benefit from the minerals in spring water. At first, he seemed fine, but we didn’t consistently buy the same brand of spring water. As I’ve subsequently learned, spring water varies greatly, and the Great Value spring water may well have had bacteria or parasites that made Faramir sick. At any rate, he hadn’t been very active for the past few days; when I went to feed him lunch on Saturday, I realized that Faramir was unlikely to ever eat a flake again.

Faramir seems unwell

I took this photo of Faramir on Wednesday, October 25, to document his apparent depression. By Saturday afternoon, he was gone.

A week or so before his death, my sister had half-jokingly shared an article with me about how fish can get depressed. Earlier in the week, Faramir was hanging out at the bottom of the bowl, and I wondered if he was depressed. We didn’t have time to move him to the tank, so we continued our routine—three flakes each day, water change every few days. Here I thought I was doing the best thing for the goldfish in switching to the spring water, but, as I so often do when I look up something on the internet, I quickly read one article and stopped. On Saturday I remembered these apt lines from Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Criticism”: “A little learning is a dangerous thing. Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring; / There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again.” The irony of Pope’s warning to avoid “Spring” water was not lost on me.

It rained heavily Saturday afternoon and evening, and we put off dealing with Faramir. On Sunday, my daughter had invited a friend over, so it seemed courteous to remove the fish bowl. Then my husband had a brilliant idea; some of you LOTR (Lord of the Rings) fans might appreciate his suggestion. He said, “Since Faramir was Boromir’s brother, perhaps it would be fitting for him to go over the Falls of Rauros, too?” He was referring to the way that Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli had put the fallen Boromir into an elven-made boat, which floated over the Falls of Rauros and down the River Anduin to the sea. Giving Faramir’s namesake a waterfall send-off seemed appropriate. Conveniently, we have a water feature with a tiny waterfall in our back yard—hardly the Falls of Rauros but something.

We went out by the pond—it was very windy yesterday, and we even saw snowflakes. After I read my hastily penned elegy, I quoted Pope’s lines about “a little learning is a dangerous thing.” Nothing went as planned. My husband videoed both the reading of the poem and the floating of the leaf, but he kept the camera on me rather than on the fish; also, Faramir fell off the leaf immediately and drifted under the falls. Ultimately, we buried him near the pond. I apologize if this over-the-top funeral for a fish seems macabre, but somehow the pomp and circumstance were helpful. I do miss seeing Faramir swimming eagerly up in his bowl every morning.

At least my son isn’t too sad about Faramir’s death, although he no longer has a pet to work with on his Pet Merit Badge for scouts. He wants a dog, and a fish—even a gallant goldfish like Faramir—proved a poor substitute.

From The Two Towers:

Now they laid Boromir in the middle of the boat that was to bear him away. The grey hood and elven-cloak they folded and placed beneath his head. They combed his long dark hair and arrayed it upon his shoulders. The golden belt of Lórien gleamed about his waist. His helm they set beside him, and across his lap they laid the cloven horn and the hilts and shards of his sword; beneath his feet they put the swords of his enemies. Then fastening the prow to the stern of the other boat, they drew him out into the water. They rowed sadly along the shore, and turning into the swift-running channel they passed the green sward of Parth Galen. The steep sides of Tol Brandir were glowing: it was now mid-afternoon. As they went south the fume of Rauros rose and shimmered before them, a haze of gold. The rush and thunder of the falls shook the windless air.

Sorrowfully they cast loose the funeral boat: there Boromir lay, restful, peaceful, gliding upon the bosom of the flowing water. The stream took him while they held their own boat back with their paddles. He floated by them, and slowly his boat departed, waning to a dark spot against the golden light; and then suddenly it vanished. Rauros roared on unchanging. The River had taken Boromir son of Denethor, and he was not seen again in Minas Tirith, standing as he used to stand upon the White Tower in the morning. But in Gondor in after-days it long was said that the elven-boat rode the falls and the foaming pool, and bore him down through Osgiliath, and past the many mouths of Anduin, out into the Great Sea at night under the stars.

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A Day without Butterflies

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A light mist hung over the brilliantly colored maple by the parking area.

Last Saturday wasn’t a good day for a hike: my college son, who isn’t a fan of hikes (probably because I dragged him on too many during his formative years), was home for fall break; a football game that my husband and sons wanted to see was on TV; and the sky had been overcast all day.  But I knew that this week wasn’t going to be good for hikes because of my husband’s work schedule, and I hadn’t been on a walk of any length since Tuesday.

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Skipping the North Carolina-Notre Dame game proved to be a smart play for this UNC fan, since UNC lost.

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To the right of the parking area an overlook shows the valley, filled with clouds. A trail on the right leads to the site where George Vanderbilt’s hunting lodge once stood.

Leaving the boys at home with the football game as a temporary bond—their ages and tastes are quite different, but college football has the power to draw my sons together—my self-sacrificing husband and I drove off on the Blue Ridge Parkway, with the summit of Mount Pisgah as our destination. (My husband was divided in his loyalties, but I take it as a compliment that he chose me over the game.)

Although we’ve camped at Mount Pisgah several times, I can only recall hiking to the summit twice before. In 2001, our youngest daughter was only three, but she handled the 1.5-mile hike up to the summit AND 1.5-mile hike down with amazing determination. (That should have clued me in to her strength of character and her physical stamina. She is now studying ballet in college.) In 2011, we hiked to the top again. By then, our youngest son had joined the family, although my middle son was off at Boy Scout camp, so we still lacked a full roster. On both occasions, what struck me even more than the view of the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains were the beautiful butterflies that swarmed around the wildflowers below the observation platform.

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Hard to believe a three-year-old went up and down that trail on her own, but she was determined to keep up with the older kids.

It’s not logical, but somehow I expected to see those butterflies on Saturday, despite the mist that draped heavily over every tree and stone on the trail up to the summit. We’d seen cars with their lights on before we got to Mount Pisgah, but my husband figured they’d forgotten to turn off their lights after leaving one of the tunnels; it wasn’t raining, and there didn’t seem to be a National Park Service ranger on the prowl for speeding vehicles. Silly us: we got to the Mount Pisgah trail lot, looked around at the creeping fog, and said, “Oh. That’s why.”

Still, the sun was peeking through the tiniest bit as we started the climb upward. We’d only been on the trail for a few minutes when we ran into someone we knew: a teacher who was gamely shepherding her two young cousins on the way down from the summit. We exchanged greetings but didn’t think to ask her whether you could see anything from the observation platform. She was scrambling to keep up with her energetic cousins, so she didn’t have time to chat.IMG_0385 (480x640)

You can see where this story is going. After an arduous climb—more arduous than it might have been because we’d forgotten to bring our trusty hiking sticks—we encountered a woman and her daughters coming down from the platform. An unspoken law of hiking is, “Let the faster person pass you,” so we’d stepped aside to let them pass several minutes before. “There’s nothing to see,” she informed us, as we headed towards the creaky wooden steps.

She was right. No butterflies. No view. Just a large antenna, some brown wildflowers, and dense white clouds as far as the eye could see. Frosted with fog, red-oak trees waved their leaves mockingly at us.

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A very Tolkien-ish tree on the trail

But you know what? We had the platform to ourselves. In fact, we didn’t see another person the whole way back down the mountain. I’ll admit I was disappointed that there were no butterflies. I’m no naturalist, but butterflies have been seen as late as mid-October in this part of western North Carolina. Earlier in the week I had seen a blue butterfly at the Arboretum, but the elevation here was much higher. Maybe butterflies only come out when it’s sunny? This could be a learning opportunity.

What we did have on Saturday was atmosphere. The golden leaves glowing through the haze made us feel like we had stepped into a different world. We’ve just finished listening to Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, so Lothlorien, the golden realm of the elves Galadriel and Celeborn, came to mind immediately. Sure, I’d have preferred to see a brilliant blue sky and blue mountains glazed with the golds and oranges of fall leaves instead of a blank whiteness at the summit. But the effect of flaming leaves against the pale mist was stunning. Magical.

IMG_0389 (640x480)Some sunny day, I’d like to try Mount Pisgah again. But mist in the mountains creates its own beauty, particularly when the leaves are golden and brown and the only sounds you hear are the birds calling, the wind blowing, and your feet tramping down the path towards home.

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Welcome to our world, Faramir!

Faramir the Fish became a part of our family over a week ago. I won him at the Mountain State Fair! At the time, I felt bad because my 12-year-old son had clearly hoped to do the winning himself. For $5.00, my husband, son, and I received a bucket of ping-pong balls that we attempted to toss into one of numerous tiny fish bowls (the actual fish were kept somewhere else). Only one of our 35 balls actually made it into a bowl. The midway at the fair is one of those places where it pays to be cynical: they’d lose money if the rate of success was much higher than ours.

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The fair took place the same week that Irma hit our corner of North Carolina. Happily, the weather was perfect when we finally made it to the fair.

Although my son would have preferred to win the fish himself, he was excited to have a pet again. I’ll probably alienate readers by confessing this, but I’m not much of a pet person. Neither is my husband: his family briefly adopted a cat, but neither of our families ever owned dogs. (My parents used to tell us that we had little sisters instead of dogs—no offense, Lesley and Christie!) I’ve concluded that my disinterest in owning a pet is due to a character flaw—a lack of warmth, or affection, or optimism, or interest in the outside world? Owning a dog might help me work through those issues, but it’s a vicious cycle, since I’m unlikely to ever own a dog.

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It feels great to beat the game at the fair.

Most of my children have expressed interest in owning a pet. Poor kids! It’s hard to overcome the anti-pet instincts of not one, but two, parents. Our objections largely had to do with expense and care issues; over the past six years, we’ve put two kids through college, and two more are currently in college, so there have been other places for money to go. Add in the inevitable home maintenance costs and the odd car incident, and there goes any extra money. My husband was concerned that he’d wind up being the one who took care of the dog—and what about when we went out of town? So, no dog. My middle son wanted a rabbit, but his timing was off: we’d just had child #5, and I felt overwhelmed with homeschooling four kids and maintaining the much-larger home that we moved to before the baby came.

We have owned fish on and off through the years, though. My husband’s dear grandmother wanted all the great-grandchildren to have one of those betta fish who lived with a lily (remember those?). Mark lived for more than two years! Lion was next: my daughter won him at a school carnival, and he proved fairly long-lived. If Faramir stays around much longer, we’ll haul up the tank from the basement. Merry and Pippin were its last inhabitants; we briefly owned a Frodo, but he went to the Grey Havens before we’d had him long. (Yes, there’s a Tolkien theme; check out this post for more about my Tolkien obsession.)

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The setting sun was a challenge during the high-diving show.

Currently, Faramir inhabits a classic goldfish bowl on the island in our kitchen. At the moment, he only has rocks to keep him company, but, as my daughter pointed out, he might appreciate a plant or two—something he could hide behind. I’m excited that he’s alive, because we’ve heard reports of other fish acquired at the fair that didn’t make it a week. From our previous fish experience, we knew to use distilled water rather than water from the tap: maybe that’s helping? Or maybe it’s the devotion from my son?

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Fish aren’t that easy to photograph.

While I’m not thrilled about pets, I am thrilled about the name that my son chose: Faramir, continuing the Tolkien tradition. His name could be spelled “Fairamir,” as a nod to his place of origin, but I’d rather be accurate than cute. David picked the name “Faramir” in gratitude for my winning the fish (we were down to our last five balls when I made the lucky toss). Faramir is possibly my favorite character from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (turns out he was Tolkien’s favorite as well). It’s hard to pick a favorite LOTR character when there are so many good options: Frodo, with his desire to do the right thing and his openness about his weakness; Sam, whose folksy comments and sturdy courage get him and his master through many a dark moment; crusty Gandalf, whose bark is much worse than his bite; Éowyn, a feminist trapped in the wrong time and place; and, of course, Aragorn, the humble, healing would-be king who veils his glory in the tattered garments of a ranger.

Faramir, the undervalued younger son of Denethor, proud steward of Gondor, is more approachable than Aragon, although he resembles him in his humility, patience, and wisdom. Both soldier and scholar, Faramir takes a chance on the halflings that he encounters on the borders of Mordor, even though he suspects that his father will not approve of his assisting Frodo rather than dragging him back to Minas Tirith. Without the respite that Frodo and Sam received under Faramir’s care, would they have had the strength to complete their task? In fact, Sam uses the staff that he was given by Faramir to whack Gollum, when Gollum finally betrays them to Shelob. And what a resolution to Éowyn’s heartbreak: ultimately, she and Faramir, both convalescing in the Houses of Healing, find one another; Faramir’s kindness and love melt the bitter frost of the shieldmaiden of Rohan.

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I skipped the Twister for the second year in a row (but I rode the Tilt-a-Whirl).

Yes, David could hardly have chosen a better name than Faramir for our new fish. Initially, I was excited about Faramir’s black patches, since those in the service of Gondor wear black-and-silver livery. When my daughter heard me comparing our goldfish’s black spots to Gondorian armor, she said, “Mom, I hadn’t wanted to tell you this, but David and I think Faramir is developing more black spots. He may have ammonia poisoning.” Oh, dear. I did some research, and it appears that she is right: before he came to us, Faramir was apparently kept in a waste-filled tank and was burned. The black patches mean that he is healing, but we should not overfeed him, and we need to change his water several times a week (at least as long as he is living in the little bowl).

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See his black spots?

For Faramir, every day of life is a miracle. Actually, that is true for all of us. May I make the most of having life today!

Ginger All the Way

My children's Hansel and Gretel gingerbread house, November 2006

My children’s Hansel and Gretel gingerbread house (November 2006).

For 22 years, the Grove Park Inn has sponsored a gingerbread house competition: these edible creations take gingerbread architecture to a new level! Many hours of planning, baking, assembling, and decorating go into the construction of each gingerbread “house” — and, usually, some heartbreak as well. Aside from the base, all components of the house must be edible.

Little House in the Big Woods gingerbread cabin (November 2002)

Little House in the Big Woods gingerbread cabin (November 2002)

Despite my lack of domestic skills, my kids have entered houses in the competition three times. I learned the hard way that, yes, you can get food poisoning from Royal Icing. My older daughter’s Little House in the Big Woods cabin even made it to the Top Ten in the children’s category one year!

As you can see from the photo taken in our kitchen the last time a Fleming entered the Grove Park Inn competition, making a gingerbread house wreaks havoc on your actual house. The kitchen chaos is more than repaid by the fun of finding creative ways to use candy, crackers, pretzels, cereal, and, of course, marzipan.

My daughter's rendition of the arrival of Gandalf, Bilbo, and the dwarfs at Beorn's Hall

My daughter’s rendition of the arrival of Gandalf, Bilbo, and the dwarfs at Beorn’s Hall from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit (November 2010).

She ran out of time, so several plans for embellishing Beorn's Hall had to be abandoned.

She ran out of time and had to abandon plans for embellishing Beorn’s Hall. All 13 dwarfs are rendered with correctly colored capes, however.

Beorn's bee hives, on the other side of the hall.

Beorn’s bee hives, on the other side of the hall.

With several out-of-town guests here to see my younger daughter in The Nutcracker, we decided to make the trek to North Asheville to view the winners — and the non-winners, which are often just as impressive — of the 2014 Gingerbread Competition.

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My photos are a sampling of the teen, adult, youth, and child entries in this year’s competition. If you’d like to see even more gingerbread houses, you can watch a video of the Grand Prize winner or check out photos from the judging at the 2014 competition. The wonderful smell of gingerbread permeated the Grove Park Inn!

And now, back to wrapping those presents . . .

A Swarm of Trees: “Till the Wood of Birnam Rise”

The folks at Photo 101 are forcing me to get creative with my camera. Photograph a “swarm” in late November? An old poem about swarming mentions only the months of May, June, and July:

A swarm of bees in May is worth a load of hay;

A swarm of bees in June is worth a silver spoon;

A swarm of bees in July isn’t worth a fly.

I might add, “A swarm of trees in November is worth a photo.” Looking along the Blue Ridge Parkway for “something that overruns your scene,” I was forcibly struck by the bare trees seeming to march towards me, line upon line of bark-clad soldiers with outstretched arms.

Encroaching trees (Coolpix L320)


Parkway trees prepare for attack! (Coolpix L320)

Parkway trees prepare for attack! (Coolpix L320)

Was it looking through the narrowed view of my camera that made the trees appear to move? Trees without leaves seem threatening, somehow — although trees with leaves can be hostile, like the apple trees in The Wizard of Oz. But bare-branched trees, thronged against the sky, create an eerie effect:

Trees on the Blue Ridge Parkway

After I posted this photo, my brother made it into avideo of swarming trees for a joke — I think it was a joke? While not high quality, the video is unnerving. (Panasonic Lumix)

As I sought “swarming” trees to photograph, I began to think about literary examples of trees that moved. The most famous instance of moving trees occurs in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The witches hint that a moving forest will precede Macbeth’s defeat: “Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be until / Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill / Shall come against him” (4.1.91-93).

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Panasonic Lumix photo, edited in PicMonkey

Confidently, Macbeth asserts:

That will never be:

Who can impress the forest, bid the tree

Unfix his earthbound root? Sweet bodements, good.

Rebellious dead, rise never till the wood

Of Birnam rise, and our high-plac’d Macbeth

Shall live the lease of nature, pay his breath

To time and mortal custom. (4.1.93-99)

Macbeth’s arrogant optimism is ill-founded. In Act 5, soldiers camouflage themselves with tree branches cut from Birnam Wood as they march on Dunsinane Hill, creating the illusion of “a moving grove” (5.5.37). The “forest” that advances on Dunsinane is, in reality, an army of men who overwhelm the castle and force Macbeth’s downfall at the hands of Macduff.

In J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, Treebeard leads an enormous army of bonafide trees to the Battle of the Hornburg. This time, the trees can walk — vengeful Ents and Huorns, who uproot themselves to aid the desperate men of Rohan at Helm’s Deep:

The land had changed. Where before the green dale had lain, its grassy slopes lapping the ever-mounting hills, there now a forest loomed. Great trees, bare and silent, stood, rank on rank, with tangled bough and hoary head; their twisted roots were buried in the long green grass. Darkness was under them. (J. R. R. Tolkien, The Two Towers)

Haw Creek Valley Overlook (Panasonic Lumix)

Aroused, Tolkien’s Ents and Huorns decimate the terrified Orcs at Helm’s Deep. The next morning, the mysterious forest of Huorns has vanished, leaving instead an enormous mound of dead Orcs.

A moving forest does not have to be fantastical to cause destruction. In Edith Nesbit’s The Railway Children,  trees suddenly begin swarming down a rural hillside toward the railroad tracks. Had it not been for the quick thinking of Bobbie, Peter, and Phyllis, the landslide might have caused a tragic railway accident:

And, as Peter pointed, the tree was moving — not just the way trees ought to move when the wind blows through them, but all in one piece, as though it were a live creature and were walking down the side of the cutting.

“It’s moving!” cried Bobbie. “Oh, look! and so are the others. It’s like the woods in Macbeth.”

“It’s magic,” said Phyllis, breathlessly. “I always knew the railroad was enchanted.”

It really did seem a little like magic. For all the trees for about twenty yards of the opposite bank seemed to be walking slowly down towards the railway line, the tree with the gray leaves bringing up the rear like some old shepherd driving a flock of green sheep. (Edith Nesbit, The Railway Children)

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Panasonic Lumix photo

In western North Carolina, incidents of trees that suddenly begin to move are rare, although there are occasional rock slides along I-40 heading west. While I am being fanciful with the idea of trees that swarm, landslides and mudslides are a real danger in mountainside communities not far from my home. An actual swarm of trees, caused by erosion or earthquake, would be terrifying.

I have made much of the oppressive character of bare trees on a bleak day, but I like to walk in the woods in late fall and winter. Stripped of leaves, the hardwood trees reveal their clean lines and rough texture. Depending on the time of day and the light, row upon row of leafless trees can create a soothing effect. This cluster of trees suggests not a restless swarm but a graceful gathering of grey-clad Quakers.

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Panasonic Lumix


Photos taken November 2014 by Sandra Fleming with a Nikon Coolpix L320 and  a Panasonic Lumix. Text and photos copyrighted by Sandra Fleming © 2014.