Fall has faded like the colors of the leaves as they change from the fresh, bright hues of the early part of the season into the somber tones appropriate to Winter. We - like the animals and plants - have had our frost-warning of what is yet to come and are all “gathering our nuts” (so to speak), each in our own way, in preparation for the cold dark that is to come. The migrators have gone south, leaving only us hardy (and some not-so-hardy) souls to survive - and even thrive - in another Catskills winter.
LEAVES OF LIFE - How very much our seasons in the Northeast are all about trees and everything to do with them. Of course, the most obvious way this is the case is when the deciduous trees like Ash, Beech, Oak and Maple (to name only the most common) magically change into a full-spectrum rainbow. In a way, we don’t really appreciate them, or ever really SEE them, until their leaves turn color and depart ground-ward (with the exception of Beeches and some Oaks that turn when others do but keep them on the branch until Spring when the new shoots push them off). In Summer we take the leafy shade provided by our tree-friends for granted as we let them encompass us in their rich verdure - the very Greenness of Life. Unconsciously, and sometimes, consciously, we all respond positively to being enveloped in green. I think what probably stands out the most in our memories is the utter joyousness of Spring - to have new leaflets unfolding and shoots, well…shooting up, and surrounding us with the new, fresh, nitrogen-rich, bright-green of spring-time and all the hope it signifies, particularly after the drab, grayness of winter. Then, when all the leaves of woodland and meadow fill in with their dark-green fullness as summer approaches it slowly becomes an everyday occurrence to have lush greenness around us, shading and soothing. Now, in the lurch (in the Larch?), as we gaze around us at the trees with the last tattered remnant of their foliage hanging, waiting for a breeze to deposit them onto the forest-floor, to insulate their roots through the harsh winter and eventually become nurturing soil, we (belatedly?) value their presence. And we will do so continually through the brown and gray time that is almost here. Of course, the exception to this, the trees that serve to remind us of the timelessness of Life, even during the darkest time, are those that are always green - Balsams, Firs, Hemlocks and Pines.
LEAFLESS LIFE - Another amazing thing about the hardwoods and their leaves is how very different the woods are without leaves on the trees, without its canopy. No longer is the near-distance a mystery just beyond vision in the forest. Suddenly everything opens up and we can see far among the bare boles, observing downed trees, hummocks and holes, as well as other plants and shrubs of the forest understory normally shrouded from view. This effect certainly strips away some of the woods mystery but indeed not all. There are always secrets hidden in the forest. For instance, if the forest was so rich in life just a short time ago, then where did all that life-force - its essence - go? Did it just disappear or evaporate? Neither, really, and the major clue on this is what the trees do to store safely their all-important sap, their life-blood. They pull it down under the freeze-layer in the soil,, to be drawn back up into the trunk and branches when the right cues of light and temperature tell them to do so. Our most obvious example is the wonderful Maple because we have learned to use this sap for our own purposes. I suspect that most deciduous trees engage in this behavior, this migration-in-place. I also sense that their more subtle life-forces also withdraw in a parallel fashion. Don’t forget - our tree-, plant- and shrub-friends are sentient beings and experience many of our own sensations but in an extremely slow way that is totally alien to us now and difficult for most to comprehend. I think that the entirety of the forest is one large entity that knows when its members fall or are cut down. In our time at least we’ve grown to appreciate our tall, verdant, woody friends and don’t take them for granted as much as our recent ancestors did, cutting them down mindlessly for charcoal, lumber and tan bark - destroying the land (the reason the Catskill Park was created). It’s possible that the woodlands themselves remember this and are glad of our new-found understanding of our own long-term effects on the land.
THE ROOTS OF IT ALL - On the surface of it (hah!), one might say that the deciduous hardwoods can rest now, having seemingly finished their work for the year, but I’m not sure that the forest ever rests. In addition to the growing evidence that trees help each other when leafed out, warning about impending threats, they also have symbiotic relationships with different fungi that inhabit their roots and which help the trees share certain enzymes, from tree-to-tree, underground. I’m certain that this activity must continue - maybe even increases - in the winter. Picture the bare branches blowing leaf-free in the wild winter winds, etching stark shadows on the sparkling snow, while down deep the sap is safely stored. The entire forest is connected through those vast roots, communicating its needs and exchanging nutrients amongst various members. For more on this, I highly recommend The Overstory, by Richard Powers. Now, the greenwood is preparing to hunker down into itself for the coming cold. Maybe this is the time when the trees tell stories of vast amounts of nuts dropped or of fallen friends. I’ve dreamed with the forest and have had glimpses of what it is like to be The Great Tree-Tribe, a vast interconnected, multi-species, green and brown being that is literally the very essence of the Land, perhaps the greatest, true Steward of the Earth, with roots running deep and branches reaching high. Perhaps this is the ideal model for us to return to responsible stewardship of the earth.
GREEN BEACONS - All spring, summer and fall we bathe in an abundance of sunlight - so much so that we expect it to last forever. As we approach the Winter Solstice (Dec. 21), and our days get demonstrably shorter, we will start to appreciate the importance of that light and its prerequisite for life. It is no wonder that the ancients considered this a powerful, sacred time when the forces of darkness were at their strongest. When obvious signs of life can be hard to find, as we turn into a desert of snow-dunes in a bleak, cold landscape where mice scurry to avoid the hawkish-knife, there will be one beacon of green that will literally standout in our winter woods, offering shelter to many creatures as well as showing us the hope and permanence of life amidst the season of death - the Evergreens. It is no wonder that many cultures consider them to be the Tree of Life.
WEATHER OR NOT - Besides the eternal evergreens being, well…ever green, there are still patches of verdant life about, lawn- and field-grasses are still exposed, bright green ferns flourishing in micro-climate niches among mosses at the bases of south-facing trees. It could well be that these will be soon 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, I love them!) is a lack of protective snow-cover, allowing herbivorous grazers, like White-tail Deer, to over-graze and destroy substantial amounts of under-protected plants and shrubs. This helps account for their unhealthy lack in our forest understory. Even the Endangered/Threatened Spring Ephemerals - Jack-in-the-Pulpits, Canada Mayflowers, Dutchmen’s Breeches, Trout-Lilys and all the rest - are left unprotected when snow is minimal or non-existent. The danger to them is not just from over-grazing herbivores but even from the effect of human feet that stray from trails, accidentally destroying these little beauties we all love (hence another reason it is important to wear proper footwear and staying on the trails - year-round).
WINTER SOLSTICE - If the Summer Solstice is the peak of the time of growth in the year - the high-tide of life - then the Winter Solstice is the low-point - the low-tide of the cycle. It can be a demanding inward-looking time for us. With the shorter and colder days we tend to spend less time outside and therefore get less exposure to daylight. This contributes to Season Affective Disorder (SAD) which just adds one more challenge for us in what is commonly a challenging time. The Winter Solstice has long been among the holiest of days, special to many cultures. We know that in the ancient Northern Tradition of Europe this was a time to celebrate Life and Light, when they were waning, when the day was the shortest of the year. This is why I love the ever-green Yule Tree. It is the greenness of Life and Light personified, persisting through the darkest time, when it seems that barrenness, cold, darkness and death dominate the world around (and sometimes, within) us. One positive occurrence of the solstice is that immediately afterwards the days (ever so) gradually get longer and longer as light and life return with the approach of Spring (seems so far away right now). It also appears that all the major solar events - equinoxes and solstices - were celebrated in Native North America, as well. There are many lithic (stone) structures across the US that, which - like similar structures worldwide - align to these events. One very subtle structure in our part of the world is the Hamonnassett Line, running from eastern Long Island northwest to Manitou Island in Lake Michigan, along which many stone structures are documented, indicating the likelihood of spiritual practices related to the Solstices (see www.grahamhancock.com/hamonnassettline).
WINTER RULES - Always keep a flashlight or headlamp handy when in the woods now - dark can come on fast. Warm accessories are a must now, too - hat, gloves and warm boots/shoes with good tread. YakTracs and trekking poles will help soon on basic trails. Please respect Hunting Season - wear bright clothing, make noise, avoid off-trail and keep dogs on leash. See www.catskillmountainclub.org and NYC DEP for non-hunting places to walk, if you prefer. Everybody, please be extra Safe and enjoy, help and respect each other in what can be a difficult time for many. Thank you all for your continuing support - it means the world to me.
Take Care, “Ranger” Dave Holden (845)594-4863 firstname.lastname@example.org
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