Northwest winds sweep through the hills, bringing their cold message of winter, transporting snow from Lake Ontario all the way down here to the southeast Catskills. Swirling snow-devils dance their white dervish dance, tearing reluctant leaves, themselves remnants of this season past, from branch and bough. Only the brazen Chickadees and Bluejays venture forth, hardy creatures bred through the millennia to persevere - even thrive - in this harsh season. Winter is our desert, when life hides and folds itself into nooks out of the wind, under the bark of trees or into burrows dug deep by creatures trying to sleep through 'til Spring-time and warmth. I can identify, in a way. Until I get used to the winter thing I basically feel the same way - "Let me sleep and wake me when it's warm again". I will get into it eventually, I always do. I become fascinated by the illusion of lifelessness, knowing much is hidden, and will poke around, under leaf and rock, looking for that vibrant dormancy, the eternal conundrum of life amidst death, of the eternal Will to Live even in our cold, white, snowy desert.
RIGHT ON SCHEDULE
One day it was Fall. The next day Winter arrived. That's how this season has progressed - from a long, dry Autumn to a suddenly bitterly-cold and windy Winter. Yes, we all got lulled by the mostly mild September, October and early November, rarely punctuated by clouds and rain. I include myself. I loved it - except the drought part, that is. I've enjoyed exploring in these conditions, though wading through tinder-dry leaf-litter is as noisy as it can get in the woods. I also know how close we've come to experiencing the same major large-scale wildfires that the southeast is having. At least we've finally started getting serious rain that actually penetrated the new leaf-litter lining the forest floor and hopefully this trend will continue. Recent snows blanketed the hills with enough snow to avoid fires but down here in the valleys we need to keep getting precipitation in any form. Snow is good, though 6" of snow is equal to only 1" of rain and constant winds do nothing but dry out our woods again.
THE GAME OF LIFE AND DEATH
While it is true that it is a "dog-eat-dog" (strange saying!) in the wild world 24/7/365, it is always most apparent to me when Spring, Summer and Fall are past and our world seems like it is stripped down to its basics - just the bare winter sky and the seemingly barren, brown earth. Now that Winter is finally upon us, let the Game begin - the Great Game of Life and Death. As the cold penetrates our bones and makes its hoary way into bark and under ground, the eternal natural cycle of life and death, hunter and hunted, predator and prey comes into clear and sharp focus. Until such time as the snow (if any) becomes deep enough to hide them readily from the hawkish glare, small rodents have to scurry quickly from one newly-fallen leaf to the other, hoping not to be seen. For their part, the wintering hawks (mostly Red-Tail and Red-Shoulder locally, with a smattering of Goshawks, Merlins, Peregrine Falcons and others) and owls (most commonly Barred Owls, I believe) know that they must feed to keep warm in order to survive.
That's one reason we should always try not to spook wildlife in this season. Sometimes their fat-reserves become so low that just one or two flights can sorely deplete them and put them at risk of starvation. I've seen someone let their dog chase over-wintering Mallards in the Sawkill in midwinter, without realizing that, by doing so, they may have made the duck use its remaining body-fat in that one burst of energy, frantically fleeing what it perceived as a predator, possibly leading to the slow death of cold starvation.. Luckily for the hawks and owls, nature has provided a plethora of mice, moles and voles for them to watch for. These same rodents supply much of the winter diet of the local wild canines - Eastern Coyote, Grey and Red Foxes. I have heard Coy-Wolves locally and suspect they feed more on larger prey like Wild Turkey and White-tail Deer. Which brings me to humans. It is hunting season for deer so hikers and walkers should be aware of the possible presence of hunters, staying on trails and wearing bright colors, preferably bright orange. Black Bear have pretty much gone to ground by now, settling in for a (hopefully) long nap. Notice I said "nap". The Black Bear doesn't truly hibernate. They sleep deeply, unless awoken by a warm spell, in which case they are apt to wake up and wake up hungry. And what's the first thing they might smell with their most-powerful-of-all-mammals nose? Any birdseed someone put out. So remember, if the weather does warm up, bring the feeders in. Smaller creatures also play the predator-prey Great Game. Woodpeckers look under bark for insects and their larvae. Skunks will do the same thing on your lawn while it is snowless. Higher up in the hills, Fishers will be hunting for whatever they can find, including Porcupines. They are not fazed by the Porcupines' quills, having perfected a method to flip over these pointy-spined critters and attack their soft underbelly. Then there's the "clean-up crew", our local Crows, Ravens and Vultures (Black- and Turkey-), who assiduously find and dispose of the roadkill remains of Squirrels (Grey- and Red-), Raccoons, Opossums and deer. It's all part of the process, the checks and balances of Mother Nature, keeping wild populations under control. Also, it's almost like the cold, darker half of the year is the hunter, continually consuming the lighter, warmer half (or maybe the other way around), then being reborn and renewed again - Hunter and Hunted - over and over.
THE LOW-TIDE OF LIFE
Coming up on December 21 is the Winter Solstice. If the Summer Solstice - the longest day and shortest night of the year - is the High Tide of Life, the Winter Solstice - the shortest day and longest night - is the Low-Tide. We've been watching the sun set earlier and earlier. On the 21st it will rise the latest (5:44 EST) - that's the moment of the solstice for us. It is literally a "watershed moment" for us because from that day on the days will get gradually longer and longer. Make sure to check your shadow at noon - it will be the longest of the year. Not only was this an extremely special time symbolically (the ancients believed the forces of darkness were at their strongest) but it was very important for all peoples in the northern hemisphere to know that from that day on it was only a certain number of days 'til planting season. Another analogy would be "the Light at the End of the Tunnel" - Spring is just around the corner (sort of). Every culture on earth has a Solstice celebration.
Yule (or Jul) was the ancient northern European solstice celebration, which became Christmas. However you choose (if you do) to celebrate the Winter Solstice, I hope it is enjoyable.
DARKNESS AND LIGHT
In this season of greatest darkness, it is only natural that humans seek light in its many forms. On a practical level, please don't forget to take a flashlight into the woods with you. December light fades fast and it is not good to be caught out in the dark. On another level, it is easier for any of us to be depressed at this time because of the dearth of sunlight. This is a proven medical condition called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD - perfect acronym, huh?). I think what it all boils down to, right now, is for us all to be particularly considerate and helpful to each other at this time. Let's all try to provide Light to each other, whether it means helping show someone the way out of the dark physical woods, or to try to be a little extra patient with others, who may - for reasons not immediately obvious to us - may be going through their own moment of great darkness. Let's all try to let the Light prevail - inside and out. Thank You All.
Take Care, Dave
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