WINTER GREEN(part 1)
As the polar winds plunge south, driving summer into a faint memory, all of us - animal and plant - hunker down, waiting for warmth. We dream of warmer days to come and watch as the lost light slowly returns. It’s that typical winter conundrum - that which can be so uncomfortable - the cold, ice and snow - can also be a source of comfort and safety for many well-adapted native animals and plants. Winter has great beauty, as well - sometimes subtle, other times overwhelming in bright, reflected light.
THE GLORY OF SNOW - Not too many weeks ago a friend was half-heartedly grousing about how it didn’t seem like much of a winter yet. I suggested that he might want to be careful what he wished for and to enjoy the mild weather (in the 40s!) while it was here. I didn’t mean to be so prescient. Well, here we are, in serious cold, icy, snowy winter. I was just thinking about any creature that was outside - the deer yarding up in the Hemlock and White Pine thickets, huddled together to share meager warmth, some with little future fawn embryos growing inside, cute little Bambis-to-be; all the small birds fluffed-out in down, like all the small rodents, hunkered down for the bitter night, trying to stay warm, waiting for cold daylight to continue their incessant hunt for sustenance. Thinking of the larger birds, roosting on branch and bough, waiting for warmth - like all of us.
WHITES AND 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 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 somber, barely reflected, dark grays found in among darker, denser woods. In this sense snow is a mirror of winter light - sometimes bright and piercingly transcendent, reflecting 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 - These colors describe the few leaves left on the deciduous trees - the Beeches and the Oaks, mainly. The Beeches keep last years leaves on the branch (or try to, at least) ‘til the new spring shoots come out. It is called marcescence and is a holdover from ancient times when hardwoods kept all their leaves. A side-effect of this (at least to my way of thinking) is to help add to our winter experience by the addition of their golden beauty and delightful leaf-chattering when otherwise the winter woods can seem lifeless and quiet. Also, maybe the leaves forget to “leave” or perhaps its just an oversight. Who knows, they might even get possessive and want to keep a few of their crispy ecru creations around to remind them of summer past and to come. The only other items of this shad in this season are the few of last years leaf-crop that may poke out from under the snow as the paltry winter sun warms the day (although, in truth, the increased amount of sunlight is distinctly noticeable now).
GREEN, GREENER, GREENEST - Our eyes are color-starved right now without the color- overload of spring, summer and fall, so that when we do find color in the woods it really stands out. Sometimes it seems to me that the smallest plants make the largest impressions in this season, perhaps in the same way that the hardiness of the small birds do the same. Not to downplay the ever-green of White Pines and Eastern Hemlocks, or the curled-up verdure of the Mountain Laurel, but 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 Blueberries, Mountain Laurel and Wild Azalea, it is a member of the Heath family and it is no surprise that they all are commonly found together. Wintergreen was the original natural source for Oil of Wintergreen used in early beverages and candy (and, yes, 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”, page 364). In the 19th- and early 20th centuries, large amounts of it were harvested and distilled in the Town of Kingston, on - surprise! - Wintergreen Hill. The top of the hill is still thick with the shiny leaves.
PROMISES TO KEEP - This is an amazing time of quiet in the woods that are “lovely, dark and deep” as Robert Frost says so well in his Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. No leaf- blowers, few chainsaws - just the persistent pecking of a Downy Woodpecker among the tree- boles that seem so dark now against the snow-gleam. In one sense many things in the forest become so self-evident right now. You can tell which direction the snow came from, only plastering one side of the trees. We can see so far into the woods, without leaves (remember them?) to block our view, seeing birds and squirrels in the near-distance that would have been hidden. Tracking becomes so easy, each track telling its own story. Sometimes a second track intercepts the first one - one story ends and another continues on. The person walking in the woods has to be extra-careful. If bushwhacking, we have to watch out for hidden dips and holes covered over by white and it’s not a good idea to go too close to stream-banks or the edges of ponds because snow may overhang the water. It is no fun at all (and can be extremely dangerous, possibly leading to hypothermia and death) to take an inadvertent “dip” in ice- water. Even walking on trails involves extra caution as ice easily hides under snow. Unfortunately, snow also hides things we wish would remain hidden - our scarred land and the trash which inevitably follows us, for example. Let’s take this time and enjoy the peace and quiet it can bring, to escape - if only momentarily - the turmoil of our world, to watch the many shades and shadows of the subtle reflections of bright light on snow, while breathing clean, crisp air. Indeed, this is a time for us to reflect, as well. Please stay Safe and Warm.
MUST-HAVES right now: warm boots, hats and gloves; polarized sunglasses will help with glare off the snow and ice; sunblock; ice-grippers on footwear (at least YakTrax); trekking-poles can be a big help; flashlight and/or headlamp.
Thank you all, “Ranger” Dave Holden
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