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Winter is here

Spring flowers, autumn moon;
   summer breezes, winter snow:
With mind uncluttered,
   this is the finest season.

      –Wumen Huikai

 

Winter is, in some respects, the most interesting season. Sparse simplicity and more measured movement bring clearer focus on what is, what changes, and what may come. Over the scenes where dramas of spring with new life and the reappearance of old, summer with relaxed ripening, and autumn’s dropping away of the unneeded and broadcasting of the future is drawn a fluffy curtain through which only the largest forms protrude into unsoftened light.

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Flying Squirrel Hollow

Omnipresent life—warm and dry, furry or feathered—hides patiently in the reliably tempered depths below iron-hard topsoil; scampers and flutters madly in search of gleanings or prey;

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Vole, from pole to hole

or—slick and moist—swims beneath ice, burrows in mud, or (with adaptive biochemical preparation) freezes into soft humus. And the carefully wrapped packets of life-to-be

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—seeds, spores and others—

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rest where they fall, if not eaten first, counting cycles of warmth and other signals against their internal programming to decide when it might be safe to emerge into a new year.

Winter begins, by our convention, at the beginning of the coldest season, rather than its depth around the midpoint: at Imbolc, as some who lived closer to nature’s cycles styled it. So winter begins as the mercury drops,

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but also as the days lengthen and brighten.

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When frost embraces both waters

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and windows

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we tend to observe nature—and perhaps our own natures—through different filters.

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(For those who care, the progression from more or less uniform clouding

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to chiaroscuro

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is the result of a somewhat lifelike process called “Ostwald ripening” (AKA “the Matthew effect”), in which even very cold water molecules freely skate about the surface to enhance larger crystals at the expense of thermodynamically disfavored smaller ones or amorphous films.)

Except where dynamic flows

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supply enough energy to prevent it, Farrar Pond now is largely

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if not always securely frozen,

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allowing dry-shod access by people to interesting sights

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Clethra alnifolia

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Loosestrife-threatened cattails

and by hunters to a broader field:

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At this time of the Cold, Wolf and Hunger Moons, for most endothermic creatures food equals warmth equals life. The flicker that until snowfall pierces earth for fat- and protein-rich grubs

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must now prospect in bark furrows already explored by nuthatches and squirrels

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or make do with a calorically inferior meal of corn and millet

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when it can find an opening;

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while its more orientationally flexible cousin can dine from the bottom of a crow-proof suet feeder:

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Nonetheless, it is not always such a time of famine as many imagine; feeders may remain largely unattended even when snow cover is complete, while native seeds sit for many weeks, ripe and plainly visible for the plucking, like this red, white and blue trio of staghorn sumac, northern bayberry and eastern red cedar:

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Birds are not alone in consuming seed, by preference or necessity, like these four-footers

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who, well after, dark come snuffling and licking around whatever spillage remains from the afternoon

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and evening cleanup crews.

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Of course, birds themselves represent a concentrated food source for both fast-moving animals and other birds,

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as the ghost of this mourning dove might attest:

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And in accord with the principle that there is always a bigger predator until, at the top, we are all consumed by minutiae—

Big fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite ’em,
And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum.

And the great fleas, themselves, in turn, have greater fleas to go on;
While these again have greater still, and greater still, and so on.

(after Swift, De Morgan et al.)—night brings sharp senses and sharper teeth

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often lurking perilously at the very edge of vision

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Look again – you’re under surveillance

to harvest the incautious.

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Not all contests are so bloody, unless sap be counted. Instead of feathers, scattered foliage

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and spherical droppings show where a lagomorph ate just the youngest shoots—disdaining both bud and leaf—

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of a rhododendron valued by bipeds for less vital purposes. Sweet bark, too, is at risk. Sometimes, as with this buckeye, the shrub will survive;

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others, as this hibiscus, perhaps not:

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Nor is predation the only means by which herbivores do harm to herbs. At this time of year, for example, bucks rub turf boundary and social-position marker scents from forehead gland. Fragrant bark seems to be the preference, so magnolias, arbor vitae and virginiana juniper are especially at risk:

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Though most arthropods have long since died, hidden deep or departed for warmer climes,

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another seasonal plant pest remains: the dread and teeming winter moth, implausibly active well into the new year.

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We wish well to the birds that devour its eggs before they hatch to inchworms consuming many times their weight in valued greenery.

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Winter is a season of flowers and what follows them. Not colorful or fragrant as those of summer, but as beautiful in quieter ways. Like climbing

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and mop-head hydrangeas,

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pokeweed

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evening primrose

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wild carrot

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and goldenrod (here with mountain laurel).

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A few dried leaves persist into winter, all the more spectacular for lack of visual competition;

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as do a very few herbaceous perennials like this slightly chewed fern

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and of course that nearly immortal fungus/alga (or cyanobacterium) symbiont, the lichen:

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Cicatrice

And speaking of fungi… While mycelial life goes ever on below (and sometimes above) the frost line, last year’s fruiting bodies in many splendid forms may persist uneaten until warmth hastens their decay:

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And as ground-warmed waters seep and flow steadily beneath and across the ice throughout a long winter,

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and creatures of all sorts hasten toward reproductive assignations,

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so does sap rise to plump what will, absent late frost, become the darling buds of May:

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Rhododendron carolinianum

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Magnolia amoena (or biondii)

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Pieris japonica