A WILD RIDE INTO A FEBRUARY THAW - What a "rollercoaster" of a winter it has been - up and down, warm and cold, etc. - but I have to say recent wild weather has accelerated the "ride", putting us all inside a giant shredder that removed branches from trees and toppled many others, making for a wild ride, indeed. While our little valley is sheltered by its surrounding hills from most storms - which normally come from either the southwest or northwest - we are wide open to the northeast, and will absorb the full impact of a nor'easter. And here we go again! Just a few days ago, we were in bitter cold and now (and through the next week, at least) we'll be unseasonably warm again, rapidly melting snow sticking to snowshoes and filling racing streams. An amazing (and kind of confusing and maddening) winter thus far.
CANDLEMAS, GROUNDHOG DAY, IMBOLC - This is that ancient time when finally the light is changing in our favor. Each day is noticeably brighter and longer now and the sun’s rays strike the ground from a higher angle, having more effect in snow- and ice-melting. It has been long celebrated by all peoples in the Northern Hemisphere. Most well known, of course, is Groundhog Day (February 2). It derives from the Pennsylvania Dutch tradition that if a groundhog (most of us know them as Woodchucks) emerges from his burrow on this day and sees its shadow, then he returns to its burrow to await another 6 weeks of winter. This is uncannily similar to the Celtic tale of the Caillech - the divine Hag of Gaelic tradition. Traditionally, she gathers the last of her firewood for the winter on or around February 1(Imbolc), and if she wants winter to last another six weeks, she makes sure the weather is clear (casting shadows) so she can gather more wood. This is why, traditionally, Gaels would hope for a cloudy day and a shorter winter. The word “woodchuck” is possibly derived from the Algonquin word “wuchak”. To my Abenaki ancestors there is Grandmother Woodchuck who teaches Patience and Wisdom - two distinct mindsets we need to help us through this time.
FAUNA - Everybody should be ready for the Black Bears to wake from their nap if the weather gets milder. They'll wake hungry and make a bee-line for the bird-feeders, therefore we should be prepared to take them down. Since the birds might be able to feed on the ground soon, they won't need birdseed anyway. Skunks may be out and about shortly, so be sharp when you go out to get your paper! They will probably show up on or about Valentine's Day, which somehow makes total sense to me. If the Black Vultures (Coragyps atratus) come back soon, then Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) probably will follow. I consider them a possible harbinger of Spring because they normally will disappear southward for the whole winter. Bald Eagles are proliferating locally, with pairs of eagles confirmed in the Hurley Flats, along the lower Sawkill, in Ruby, and at least three pairs on the Ashokan Reservoir. Our Woodstock pair have mated and are exhibiting nesting behavior (we keep the location of eagle-nests secret because we don’t want any even inadvertent interference with their nesting). Shortly, the Winter Stoneflies (Capniidae) will start their yearly, inexorable march across the snow, little black exclamation points on a vast white parchment. Whenever I see them, it seems like Spring is not far away. It is interesting how many insects are on the surface of the snow. I also have seen spiders striding along but didn't get a photo (yet).
WHITES & GRAYS - The colors of winter are myriad and subtle. We might think of this season as being monochromatic, unvaryingly white, but if we carefully look around us we see this is not the case. The snow itself is not always white (and I’m not talking about dirty snow or “yellow snow”). It can vary greatly in its coloration - from the bright, startling super-white of daylight on brand-new frozen ice-crystals to the subtle shades of off-white and gray under an overcast sky, to the more somber, barely reflected, dark grays found in among darker, denser woods. In this sense snow is a mirror of the winter light - sometimes bright and piercingly transcendent, reflecting back to us our sunniest selves and other times dark and wan - showing us another part of our winter selves - maybe not quite so sunny and warm. In how many ways are winters time for reflection, literally and figuratively?
YELLOWS, BROWNS & REDS - One of our most interesting winter phenomena, I think, is how some deciduous trees keep their leaves through the winter. Most notably, the American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) graces us with its golden leafy treasure, chattering in the winter wind - both a visual treat in a time of otherwise virtual colorlessness and a welcome aural blessing when the woods can be almost deathly quiet. I tend to approach understanding of this, as in many things, in an emotional, or poetic, manner, picturing the beech's last year's dried leaves as old soldiers staying on the tree to guard the young green shoots of the coming season, only falling off when the new leaves unfurl. Then again, perhaps this is an oversight. Maybe the beeches and oaks get possessive and want to keep a few of their crispy creations around to remind them of summers past and to come. On the more practical side, there's the real-world knowledge of my friend Mike Kudish, New York State's premier tree-expert, who calls this condition "marcescence", a throwback to the ancient times when all trees kept their leaves year-round. Winterberries and Partridgeberries provide some red and the ever-present Bittersweet berries show their bright orange now.
GREEN, GREENER, GREENEST - Our eyes are color-starved right now without the vibrant color-overload of Spring, Summer and Fall, so that when we do find color in the woods in this season it really stands out. Sometimes it seems to me that the smallest plants make the largest impressions in this time, perhaps in the same way that the hardiness of the intrepid Small Birds impresses us. Not to downplay the ever-green of the White Pine and Eastern Hemlock, or the curled-up latent verdure of the Mountain Laurel, but there is something about the waxy, shiny brightness of the little valiant Wintergreen leaves defiantly pushing aside the snow to grab their share of sunlight way down on the very bottom of the forest floor that always impresses and inspires me. Wintergreen (Gaulitheria procumbens) is a shrub that only grows to about 6-inches at its highest. It is commonly found in well-drained acidic soils of conifer- and oak-forests. Like the different Blueberries, Mountain Laurel and Wild Azalea, it is a member of the Heath family. It is no surprise then that the four of them are commonly found together. Settlers learned to use the different Heath-plants from Native peoples and Wintergreen was the original natural source for Oil of Wintergreen, used in early beverages and candles (and chewing gum). Locally, Wintergreen is found widely dispersed throughout the area. There were small wintergreen distilleries in Woodstock (see Alf Evers, “Woodstock: History of an American Town”, pg. 364). In the 19th- and early 20th-centuries, large amounts of it was harvested and distilled in the Town of Kingston, on - surprise! - Wintergreen Hill. The top of that hill is still thick with these shiny leaves (not always green, either, sometimes they are dark red).
TREES AS TEACHERS - they show us: to be firmly rooted in place, yet learn to bend when necessary; grow a little each year; shed a little excess baggage each year; have a tough bark (thick skin); develop an extensive root system, to reach out beyond ourselves; defend your environment - trees protect soil from erosion, add oxygen to the air and provide shelter to smaller ones. Thanks all for your continued encouragement and support. Woodstock Trails has had a fun winter, with numerous hikes, on foot and on snowshoes. Am looking forward to a great Spring season.
Please visit www.woodstocknytrails.com and Woodstock Trails on Facebook. If you like Instagram, stop by at rangerdaveholden.
My email is firstname.lastname@example.org and my cell is (845)594-4863. Have a happy and safe late-winter. Definitely remember hats and gloves and it is probably still a good idea to take a flashlight on walks in the woods and keep the Yaktrax handy.
Take Care, "Ranger" Dave Holden
Please stay Safe and Warm.