a muted rainbow
FAUNA AND 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, as well as the seeds and stems of all of the Spring Ephemerals, Partridgeberry and numerous other ground-dwelling plants of our forest, frozen in time and protected temporarily from predation by White-tail Deer and the tramping of human feet (still, please stay on trails). Even the trees of the forest can face challenges at this time. Their sap is generally safe, ensconced as it is in roots deep under the frozen ground, awaiting (like us) the warmth of Spring. However, the youngest, thinnest saplings and trees can be vulnerable to the deep-freeze, even causing them on occasion to split open. You can hear the trees "popping" on a brutally cold day - hence one Native American name for this month: The Moon of Popping Trees. In the harsh beauty that is our winter landscape, that which doesn't hide to survive has to hustle to get by. As I've mentioned in earlier posts, the snow will give the numerous small rodents some shielding from the predations of Coyote, Fox, Hawk and Owl but not complete protection as they've all adapted strategies for these conditions also. Speaking of "strategies", one that some humans will envy about now is hibernation - the complete one 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 this in our area (in my humble opinion) is that of the Wood Frog. What they do is really a type of suspended animation. 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. In some ways, the most awesome of our waking winter denizens are both the smallest birds - the Blue Birds, Blue Jays, Cardinals, Chickadees, Juncos and Sparrows - and the largest - the Bald Eagles. No matter how cold or windy it is, the small birds will always be out hunting for seeds or whatever else they can find. It might be bitter, bitter cold - 0 degrees with a biting wind - and the Crows and Hawks will be sheltering in Hemlock or Pine, but the little ones will still be out there, puffed-up with all their down (probably copied from our down coats). Same with the Balds - whether freezing rain or snow, once their egg(s) are laid, they will huddle low, wrapped around their future (big) beauties.
SOLSTICE- MID-WINTER’S DAY
We are just past one of the the most ancient of Holy Days - the Winter Solstice - and the days will start getting longer now (no, really). Okay, so it will only be a few minutes a day to start with, but by February the longer daylight will be noticeable. With all of our modern conveniences - modern heating and lighting, as well as shipping fresh food from afar - we forget how much we all depend on - physically and mentally - the presence of natural sunlight. Our ancient ancestors - whether agrarian or hunter/gatherer - were well aware of their total dependence on the sun for their sustenance. By necessity they were excellent skywatchers (which helps explain why so many Ceremonial Stone Landscapes (CSLs) all over the northeast, North America and our world, in general, have astronomical significance), observing all of the heavenly bodies to learn about the seasons and when they could look forward to planting their vital crops (and the beginning of baseball season?). At our latitude this is usually in about 100 days. It was a time for rejoicing and celebration then as it is now. We erroneously (in my opinion) call the Winter Solstice the first day of winter. I think we should call it Mid-Winter’s Day, like we call the summer solstice Mid-Summer’s Day. Really, it has already been winter for a while before we get to December 21st.
THE STARK BEAUTY OF WINTER
When we do venture out into the mid-winter landscape we’re confronted by the stark contrasts between the seasons, contrasts of light, temperature, sound and feeling. Perhaps the most jarring and immediately-noticed is the stunning silence of the winter woods (once you get away from traffic- and other human-sounds). In direct contrast to summer’s in-your-face raucous cacophony of life, the initial quietude of winter can be quite striking and beautifully peaceful. Therefore, when a Black-capped Chicadee cheekily announces his hardy presence to all, or when a Belted Kingfisher calls out as he cruises along the stream, it is truly appreciated as one reminder of life in our seemingly desert-like winter environment. Both birds are here all year but their lively calls are buried among the auditory avalanche of summer. If we look carefully, there are other reminders of the persistence of life - the tracks of a mouse, mole or vole will be on the snow as they look for fuel to stoke their ravenous internal furnaces, and the faint rustle of Beech- and Oak-leaves that may remain. AH, SPRING! - Sounds so far away right now, but as each day gets longer we get closer and closer. Now, our goal is to survive, and if we can - enjoy - winter. Once we get done with shoveling, make our way to the trail-head and can strap on a pair of snowshoes, we get to enjoy the crisp, cold air and sun-glint on snow. If we’re observant, we may find an animal-trail to follow, to watch the tiny tracks of a Meadow Mouse disappear into a snowy crevice, as it attempts to avoid the hawkish glare. We may flush a Ruffed Grouse from somewhere in the Mountain Laurel (the truth is, I’d rather us not startle any wild creature in this time because they might use up the last of their fat reserve needed for their survival - please don’t let little Buffy chase wildlife). But getting to the viewpoint is worth the effort, just to see the wonderful winter vista of the Catskills spread out before us, all of its secrets bared for those who want to see. What a great place to live!
TIME OF CONTEMPLATION, OF INDOOR WORK AND STUDY
Winter is a time for us to contemplate on our own individual paths as well as the very real, physical paths we tread, where we seek quiet and peace in the world around us. There are groups of like-minded souls dedicated to protecting these same treasures. I encourage you all to become active, in whatever way you can, to support any entity that is doing so. Locally, I recommend supporting the Woodstock Land Conservancy (WLC) (woodstocklandconservancy.org), Catskill Mountainkeeper (catskillmountainkeeper.org) and the Catskill Center(catskillcenter.org). All of these groups “have our back” re: the local environment and deserve our support.
WINTER WELL/THINK WARM THOUGHTS
In this time of stark beauty, I suggest that we all enjoy it as much as we can but I also suggest that everyone be very careful in this season. All of the elements are not as much our friend as in the summer, so please dress accordingly, particularly when on the trails. Hats and gloves are suggested now and it's very important (as always) to wear proper footwear and to stay on the trail, whether icy or muddy. If icy, please wear Yak-Trax or some such. If muddy, mud-boots. By going off-trail we not only endanger small threatened plants just under foot but we create erosion which the trail-crew will have to spend time and energy repairing. If venturing into the woods in the afternoon always have a light with you. While the light is (thankfully) not disappearing as fast as it was, darkness can come on you rapidly. Dog-walkers, please don't let Fido jump up on others. This is rude behavior any time, but it is downright dangerous when the footing is already precarious.
Happy New Year, everyone. Have a safe January. Please keep warm and watch out for each other as the Light gradually returns.