SHADOWS LENGTHEN, DARKNESS RULES
As the arctic winds race down from the ice-cap, having swept across frozen tundra where Caribou hunker down to escape the blowing cold, and after unleashing their lake-effect snows on the frigid Finger Lakes, those same winds force their way through the protective peaks of the southeast Catskills, howling through the deep mountain cloves - Winter finally comes to Waghkonk. If Midsummer is the High Tide of Life then this cold, dark time must be its Low Tide, when our region comes closest to resembling a desert, albeit a frigid, snowy one. And like most deserts, while the frigid landscape might seem lifeless, it is not, but life is hidden - one just needs to know where to look. Hiding under bark of tree, shingles on house and barn, buried half-frozen in muck of pond and bog, napping in hollow log and burrowed into banks of earth, life is here, yet dormant. Some, like the lively small birds - Bluebirds, Bluejays, Cardinals, Chickadees, Juncos, Sparrows, various Woodpeckers, Wrens, are with us all winter, showing us what true hardiness is. The Hawks and Owls that didn’t migrate hope for the small rodents - Moles, Voles and assorted Mice to become prey. Local Bald Eagles will spend time fishing on the Hudson as they also neaten up their huge nests, readying for mating. Wild Turkeys will - like the deer - be hiding from the winds (and the Eastern Coyotes) in the shelter of thickets of White Pine and Eastern Hemlock. So yes, Life is still here, with all of the drama that accompanies the natural world as it deals with another northeast winter.
I was thinking that maybe this Winter Solstice I would write about something different from what I’ve written about at other Mid-Winters - but there is just no way getting around it - this is truly an astounding time of year and it is ruled by Darkness, which challenges us - no, it demands of us -
to find the Light within ourselves, within others and in the world around us. This is so because we are - by definition (at least in a natural setting) - creatures of light. Everything about us is dependent on the Sun - our vision, our food, our very existence depends on solar rays which have traveled 93,000,000 miles - a fact which never ceases to amaze me. Maybe our dependence doesn’t seem so direct now that we can import food grown from where the summer sun is still shining, but never forget that importing that food - from whatever distance - depends on burning fuels made from decayed plants that eons ago metabolized ancient sunlight. Also, we should always remember that - right up to our last visual retina imprint - without even the faintest sunlight, our eyes require manufactured light, whether from burning wood or generated directly from sunlight or from the same fossil fuels that power our vehicles. In ancient times, it was not easy for humans to venture outside their villages once the sun set, so that it was rare to travel at night (torches were more for psychological effect, for the illusory comfort of “beating back the dark”). The rare exceptions were nights when the moon was full or when the nocturnal air was so clear that people could see by the faint light of the Milky Way. For this reason, some ancient roads were made to travel in the same direction as, and underneath, that brightest mass of starlight. While it is true that the average human eye does adapt to the gloaming - the gradual dimming of sunlight after sunset (as an outdoorsman, I can attest to this and it gets hunters into trouble who find themselves hunting illegally after the actual sunset) - for a rare few with the condition I’ve heard referred to as Catseye, they can virtually see in the dark. Nevertheless, the great majority of us cannot. Then, on top of that, when you add other natural conditions like rain, fog, snow and cloud, it becomes even still more difficult, even with some form of light aid. This is why this season is so amazing - because it takes us back, all the way back, to the most ancient of times when humans were at the complete and total mercy of the long, long oh-so-dark, cold nights of winter. Our fear of the dark is a natural thing, learned over long millennia. At times like this I remind myself that no matter how dark it seems, there is always light - we just can’t see it.
THE WINTER SOLSTICE
This is why the solstice was always, is now, and forever shall be, such an important time. It serves to remind us of our true nature as creatures that are totally dependent on the light. In ancient of times, midwinter was a very dangerous time for hunter-gatherers in the Northern Hemisphere. Game was scarce in the cold season, right when people needed it the most. Wood could be hard to come by to feed the fires that kept the darkness at bay. And depending on the success of the previous year’s crops, there could either be a bounty of grains and vegetables stored to get a clan, family or tribe through the harsh season - or not. Don’t forget, it was not unusual for these groups to either starve or to merge with others. As the days got shorter and shorter and the nights got longer and longer, a dark fear may have settled on the land, to be dispelled only by the knowledge of the Elders, who knew that right when it seemed that the sun would never come up again - that it would. Many different peoples of the northern hemisphere had rituals that would help them get through this time and those that counted the days, who watched the sun and the stars would know that beginning from the time of the solstice that the days would very gradually become longer - generally speaking - it would be only a hundred days until their seeds could be planted, until the advent of glorious Spring-time. So there is a plus side of this dark time but still a hundred days seems like a long, long time. The other positive product of this period is that, as much as it is a time for inner reflection of the individual, for introspection on one’s last cycle around the sun and how to apply that experience and knowledge to the coming year, the darkness draws communities and families closer together, as well.
FAUNA & FLORA
Now the game is on for real - the game of life and death. The Ground-Cedar and other lycopodiums are mostly covered by snow now, as well as the Partridgeberry, Wintergreen and numerous other ground-dwelling plants of our forest, frozen in time and protected temporarily from the grazing of White-tail Deer and the tramping of human feet (still, please stay on trails). As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, the snow will give the numerous small rodents some shielding from the predation of Coyote, Fox, Hawk and Owl but not complete protection because they’ve all developed strategies for these conditions (like being able to hear movements under the whiteness and pouncing precisely through it to grab their hapless prey). Speaking of “strategies”, one that some humans will envy about now is hibernation - the complete hibernation of local turtle-species, frozen in mud and the partial hibernation of the Black Bear, waiting to wake on a mild day (a mild day sounds good as the heater cranks up to beat back the cold). The most interesting form of suspended animation in our area (in my humble opinion) is that of the Wood Frog. In areas adjacent to vernal pools, hidden under frozen leaf-litter are thousands of Wood Frogs, antifreeze-like blood keeping their cells from bursting in the cold, waiting for the first signs of early spring to emerge among the ice floes in their pools. Amazing - amphibians on ice! Think about it. All of our other local amphibians (warm-blooded, requiring warmth) are solidly sleeping, never to emerge until the weather warms.
MIDWINTER ON THE TRAILS - LIGHTS! TRACTION!
Please remember everyone that we lose the light real fast in this season, so don’t forget your flashlight. Even if you don’t think you will need it yourself, you may need it to help someone else, who doesn’t have one. In addition, I suggest that if you’re doing any real trail-hiking right now, that you keep a head-lamp handy. For one thing, it can allow you to have more light than just a hand-held light gives you, and can free your hands up for either (both?) using trekking-poles and/or grabbing hand-holds (like on the Devil’s Path). I also recommend Yaktrax for some trails and conditions.
They give great traction on ice and you’re less likely to trip on rocks and roots than with other, more heavy-duty, devices with cleats or sharp points on them (these are more appropriate for higher up in the hills or for off-trail). The other benefit of Yaktrax is that they also do not harm tree-roots like the more aggressive ice-grippers do.
HELPING EACH OTHER
As the Lady dons her snowy mantle for the season, and the northern part of earth tilts away from the sun, with darkness dominating like the closing of an eyelid, let’s all remember what a stressful time this can be for many of us - some more than others. Please be patient with each other as we would want others to be patient with us. Environmental (emphasis on mental?) factors like the seemingly unending darkness and dealing with cold, ice and snow, whether at home or on the roads, are stress-factors (whether we know it or not) to many, as is the holiday season itself - a difficult time for many families, for a myriad of reasons, so please try to understand if someone is angry or impatient - they may be “just” having a bad day. Try not to take it personally. Maybe you can even help them out. After all, we are ALL part of a greater community.
May the dark days ahead be filled with Light. Please stay Safe and Warm.
Thank You - “Ranger” Dave Holden
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