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(Excerpted from my soon-to-be-published “Waghkonk Notes - A Cycle of the Seasons in the Valley of the Sawkill”.)

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 WOLF MOON - This is a coldly beautiful month with a bright, harsh beauty. So much is going on, but very little of it is obvious, visible. The land is usually frozen over and buried in snow, hiding much of the life that is present. Animals have a difficult time trying to feed their inner furnaces as seeds, grasses or meat can be hard to find now - either buried (or hiding) deep under snow and ice, or frozen in the ground. All the predators can starve in this time, as their prey can seem virtually nonexistent and hard to find. This includes people (we do like to think of ourselves as the prime apex predator, the top of the food chain), who may have a rough time hunting in this season. Pre-settlement and up through the settlement era, there were many Wolves (mostly Grey, I believe) still in the northeast until they were finally exterminated in New York around 1900 and like every canine, wild or domestic, they loved to hear themselves talk and, of course, in midwinter their howling carried far in the bitter cold air. While many people associate wolves’ howling only with hunger, they - like the more recent canid migrant, the Eastern Coyote - have many calls - hunger, yes, but also pride of the kill, warning and even happiness, I believe, of new young and springtime and sometimes just happiness, in general. Even the trees struggle in this time, with young saplings or the newer branches of older trees sometimes “popping” in the bitter cold as the residual sap freezes (another name for this month is Moon of Popping Trees). Many tribes had their own name for each moon, some calling this moon the Snow Moon, but most keep that for February. My Abenaki ancestors tell of their Creator-god, Glooskaps darker twin, Malsum, who took the form of a wolf. Other peoples tell of the Good Wolf of Wisdom battling with the Bad Wolf of Anger. “Which one do you want to feed?” These are examples of Wisdom Stories that would be shared mostly in this cold and dark time around bright, warm fires, sometimes as real wolves howled in the distance

FAUNA & FLORA - In the harsh beauty that is our winter landscape, that which doesn't hide to survive has to hustle to get by. 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 may help explain why so many Indigenous 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.

THE 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 Chickadee 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 wan 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.

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 at least Yak-Trax or other traction-devices. If muddy, mud-boots. Either way, walk straight ahead through the mud or on the ice - do not go around. 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.


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