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.
DARKNESS RULES, SHADOWS LENGTHEN
As the days get shorter and shorter, as we wend our way darkly to the Winter Solstice and as the magical, scary time of year approaches when light itself seems to disappear, seemingly sucked into the cold, dark vortex of mid-winter, life drawing in on itself, we can be forgiven for wondering - as our ancient ancestors most certainly did: - when the hell is the Sun ever going to return? We know rationally that this great time of change draws near, this watershed of light, one of the major markers of our natural yearly solar cycle, when finally light and life will ever-so-gradually start returning to our corner of the southeast Catskills, yet it is natural for us all - creatures of light - to yearn for relief from the unending darkness. Nature is reminding us of our small place in the universe.
HOW WE GOT HERE
Saying it has been a strange Fall in Waghkonk is an understatement. Some of our autumnal color did peak but many trees were left with brown, dead, permanently-attached leaves, ready to catch accumulating snowfall and wind. What leaves did turn were knocked off early in the season by unending rains, which - as of this writing - continue, keeping the Sawkill in an unprecedented state of continuous flood. This occurs because the ground, continually saturated, has never really dried out since June when, (believe it or not) we were on the verge of a drought. With the earth so thoroughly saturated, any and all rains simply wash off into the consistently-swollen streams, keeping us constantly on the verge of flooding. I’ve lived here 50 years, with all of that time closely familiar with this land and its waterways and I’ve never seen conditions like what we’re experiencing. What this bodes for our winter, I hesitate to say. On one hand I have four fingers and a thumb...er, I mean, the weather could change and the northeast could experience a mild winter (my own hope), but the most likely scenario is that the steady precipitation will continue and at some point will start freezing and we could end up with a lot of snow (the same 20 in. of rain in our summer could translate to 10 FEET of snow, if this process continues).
WEATHER OR NOT - EFFECTS ON FAUNA & FLORA
The temps have vacillated between cold and milder, with few fluctuations in the seemingly unending grayness and wet. It has not been a sunny couple of seasons, yet it seems that life persists, as it usually does. Besides the eternal evergreens being, well...ever green, there are still patches of verdant life about, from lawns to fields, to little bright green ferns and whole mini eco-systems of mosses flourishing in micro-climate niches at the base of south-facing trees and ledges. It could be that these will soon be buried in white, protectively frozen and padded from inadvertent crushing ‘til spring, for that is one benefit of layers of snow. One of the detrimental effects of recent mild winters (God, how I love and miss them!) is a lack of protective snow-cover, allowing herbivorous grazers, like our ever-present White-tail Deer, to overgraze and destroy substantial amounts of under-protected plants and shrubs. This helps account for the unhealthy lack in our forest understory. Even the Endangered/Threatened Spring Ephemerals - Brown and Green Jack-in-the-Pulpits, Canada Mayflowers (also called Wild Lily-of-the-Valley), Dutchmen’s Breeches, Trout-Lilys and all the rest - are left
unprotected when snow is minimal or nonexistent. The danger to them is not just from over-grazing herbivores but also from the effect of human feet that stray from trails, accidentally destroying these little beauties we all love (hence the importance of wearing proper footwear and staying on the trails, year-round). If we do have too little snow the small rodent population (to be clear - the rodents themselves are small but their population is very large) - Meadow Voles, Moles, Short-tail Shrews, White-footed and Jumping Mice - will be left relatively unprotected. Historically, since time immemorial, layers of snow - the crustier and thicker the better - have helped to protect these little critters from their natural nemeses - Eastern Coyotes, Grey and Red Foxes, Hawks and Owls. We also have Fishers back in the area as well and they love to feast on the little furry ones, too. All of the small rodents will build extensive tunnel-systems under the snow (sometimes evident after snow-melt) which, unless the snow is deep and covered by an icy-hard crust, is still no proof against these predators. Foxes and Coyotes are famous for listening patiently to hear tell-tale movements under the snow, then slowly creep up quietly, to rise suddenly and dive down snout-first through the layered white to - more often than not - ruin that creatures day. Even more amazing, really, is the ability of owls to sit in a tree next to a field or meadow and, from that distance, hear their prey under the snow, then pinpoint the unsuspecting rodent, dive from above, lunging through with their talons to grab it. There are so many small rodents because their birth-rate is truly tremendous. A shrew can have a litter of twelve every 30 days and half those litters will be females that can do the same. Do the math - the numbers are staggering and the predators will never totally deplete their populations. They are literally made for each other. The larger wild animals are making their own winter adaptations, as well. Local Bald Eagles are already spending more time on the Hudson where they’ll take advantage of young-of-the-year fish-runs, as the fishing on more local reservoirs thins out. They’ll be extra-busy, though, because this is the time when they nest, either fixing old nests or making new ones, in preparation for their spectacular mid-air, mid-winter mating. Black Bears will be trying to nap now (not true hibernators, they will wake hungry in milder temps, so be prepared to bring in bird-feeders - there is nothing bear love more than birdseed and they can literally smell it for miles), holed up in hollow trees and under deep ledges. Again, we’ll have to see how the winter shapes up. If a lot of snow, the deer can have a hard time getting around and even break their legs. A lot of snow also helps the small predators reach the places where Deer and Wild Turkeys will be hiding. So, as you can see, the snow - or lack of it - can have a lot of bearing on survival for the wild ones. Also, traditionally in our region, most of our ground-water comes from a gradual, long snow-melt of deep snows hidden among the ledges and gullies of our craggy Catskills. Well, it’s pretty obvious now that all the old ways of estimating, gauging our seasons are invalid. In recent years, when we’ve had mild winters, we were fortunate to get bailed out by spring rains, barely avoiding serious drought and fires. At this rate, it certainly doesn’t look like rainfall and ground-water will be issues in 2019, but I wouldn’t bet on any of it. Because of Climate Change all bets are off, bringing much more climatic instability to our region. If indeed the Forest is now mostly withdrawn down into its rooty underworld, hoping for its sacred sap to be protected by its own recent leafy addtion to the surface and a frozen layer of earth beneath that, I wonder what it must think of all these goings on up above.
GATEWAY BETWEEN SEASONS AND WORLDS
It is a difficult time for many as we try not to be depressed by the dark. It becomes a challenge for us to find the Light within our selves and can also be difficult for us to see the Light in others. Nothing like darkness and cold to make humans appreciate light and warmth - and each other. This is probably why in many cultures in the northern hemisphere, Fire-ceremonies are paramount at this time (Cherokee, Iroquois and Umatilla in North America, the Celts and Teutonic peoples of Northern Europe, as well, for example. I’m sure there are more.). Another interesting correlation found across cultures is the Sacred Tree, usually an evergreen to symbolize the steadfastness of Life. Watching the Sun - the source of light and life - steadily dwindle in strength could not have been easy for the ancients (heck, it’s not easy for us!) and therefore it was of paramount importance to know
that it would gradually resume its former power - the Unconquered Sun of old. That day, when the sun was at its weakest, when darkness seemed to rule, was when many cultures chose to celebrate the return of the sun in myriad festivals of light. For archaic Northern European and North American peoples who were strictly subsistence-oriented hunter-gatherers, having to depend on the plenitude (or lack thereof) of wild foods, this must have been a scary time. Sometimes clans or even whole tribes had to attempt to migrate in midwinter to seek the assistance of other tribes, at times being absorbed by them. As time progressed, and peoples settled down and became more agrarian, it also became important to know when to plant. Kind of like how we now know how many days ‘til Opening Day of baseball.
LIKE EMBERS FADING, BUT THE FIRE WILL RETURN
As the fall colors of 2014 slowly dissipate, melting into the Catskills landscape, they gradually change into the more somber tones we associate with winter. Sort of like a fire, if you consider midsummer the highest fire-flame, then now you might see the embers fade, almost as if the fire is going out. Luckily for us, the fire of life in the earth never really goes out, but just hides in plain sight, hidden under bark or deep in root, waiting for warmth to return. It's almost like a fire that has been well-banked to keep the buried embers hot to wait for the spring-time, the season of life, for them to be stoked back to warm, vibrant life.
Yes, the Sun will return and the days will lengthen. In the meanwhile, we have the opportunity for introspection that only winter can bring. Time to contemplate what we’ve learned from the past year and how to apply those lessons to the coming spin around Sol. Another way I like to look at it is we need to gather together all of our leaves from last years cycle, like taking a look at our works (if any!) of that period, and contemplate what they add up to, what was accomplished, then compose (compost?) our thoughts on what we’ve learned, applying those new thoughts into the fertile soil of the coming New Year - such is the process of personal growth.
HOW LUCKY WE ARE
How very fortunate we are here in the Woodstock Valley, anciently called Waghkonk. As winter takes hold and the Yuletide approaches, we can look back and see now that the season could have been worse. Yes, It’s been a rough patch as we’ve all had to endure seemingly unending rainfall and a surfeit of sunshine, but we’ve avoided major disasters and if we all can keep backing each other up, supporting each other (which Woodstockers are really good at when it comes down to it), we can all get through this - together. It is a time for our entire community to come coalesce, in Light and Love, to celebrate the passing of the night and the beginning of a New Year.
Please be careful out there. Always have a light with you when venturing into the winter woods - even just for a short walk - our wan sunlight fades fast. Dress warmly in layers, keep your head, hands and feet warm and dry. Most important, though - think warm thoughts! (?)
Thank You All for having shared this last run around the sun with me, for always supporting my endeavors, both inner and outdoor. I hope that I can do better than I did last year and I pray that we can all help each other, particularly in this very dark time (and I do mean that in different ways). I wish that I had more to give to everyone and I truly hope that this - my small gift of words - will be accepted as a mere token of my thoughts and prayers for us all. Please, let’s all try to be kind and extra patient with each other in this (and any) time. I want to try to understand that the other person could be going through a lot right now, too, and that maybe I can even help them, as I might want them to help me (hmm, that sounds familiar, doesn’t it?).
Take Care, “Ranger” Dave Holden
Have a Cool Yule and a Happy, Safe New Year.
(When you read my next Note, the days will be longer and we'll be on the “downhill” side, heading towards Spring! Yay!)
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