Exploring Winter in The Last Green Valley
Our region’s first appreciable snowfall arrived Dec. 1. It was the first “plowable” event for local communities and town and state plows were out in force soon after flakes started to fall. Winter arrived despite the calendar indicating it is still autumn.
The winter solstice is Saturday, Dec. 21 at 11:19 p.m. The pessimist will look to this day with dread, for it marks the start of the cold winter and brings the shortest day and longest night of the year. The optimist knows from this point forward to the summer solstice we are gaining daylight. The outdoor enthusiast will look with anticipation to the winter season and the myriad of outdoor activities that come draped in snow and ice.
In his Pulitzer Award winning book, “Wandering Through Winter,” naturalist, author and Hampton resident Edwin Way Teale beautifully describes the exact moment of the Winter Solstice. Edwin and his wife Nellie were standing on the California coast facing the setting sun dropping from the Pacific Ocean horizon. From this point they’ll begin their long wandering journey eastward through winter and into spring.
“Darkness comes swiftly in the Long Night Moon of December. At the end of this twenty-first day of the month, this shortest day of the year, this time when, in other ages, men lit bonfires to strengthen the expiring sun, the Silver Strand fading rapidly from sight. Picture yourself standing with us in the gathering dusk. The evening mist increases. The low rumor of waves sweeping across sand is in our ears. My wristwatch ticks on. Its hands reach 6:20 p.m. The year has reached the instant of the winter solstice. In that moment, the northern hemisphere leans farthest away from the sun. A season dies; a season is born. We took one breath in autumn, the next in winter.”
What does the winter season mean to you? For me winter kicks off with the frenetic holiday season of family gatherings, shopping lists, gifts and religious celebrations. I’m relieved when the holidays are finally over and winter settles in. I enjoy the cold months as much, if not more, than the warmer ones. Notwithstanding the shorter daylight hours, the cold, ice and snow, it is a season that still fills the senses, though perhaps in more subtle ways than the greening gardens of spring, deep heat of summer and blazing foliage of autumn.
To me winter smells like a fresh cut Christmas Tree with spruce and pine scent filling the house. It tastes like slow-cooked venison stew simmering on the back burner, a deep savory combination of seasoned deer meat, onions, potatoes and carrots. Winter sounds like a northeast wind through pine trees and the crunch of snow underfoot. On Dec. 2, I awoke to the scraping sound of the town plow passing my house. I mumbled the wintertime words “it’s snowing” and drifted back to sleep. Winter means a numb, cold nose, tingling fingers and toes and the comforting warmth of a down blanket.
The hibernation season has arrived, and our resident chipmunks and woodchucks are snoozing below the frostline within their series of tunnels and dens. Despite the cold, many animals are out and about in constant search or food and shelter. They leave their tell-tale footprints in the snow for us to discover.
When there is snow on the ground, I like to take our dog, Russell, for walks in our back field. He noses his way through the snow and together we follow the tracks of wild turkey, deer, coyote, fox and mice. By the way, if you’re still looking for that perfect holiday gift you might consider a guide to animal tracks. They make great gifts for kids and there are several to choose from. An internet search will lead you to several publications. I use the “Peterson Guide to Animal Tracks” by Olaus Murie and my favorite is “Tracking and the Art of Seeing: How to Read Animal Tracks” by Paul Rezendes.
Winter means keeping the bird feeder full for resident winter birds and cold season migrants from the north. I don’t feed birds from late spring to late fall. There are plenty of insects, seeds and berries for our local avian populations during the warm months but starting in late November I fill my large (squirrel proof) feeder with sunflower seed and hang two suet feeders as well.
A true sign of winter is when 10 or more dark-eyed juncos are gleaning seeds from below the feeder. They’re ground feeders so I make sure to spread a few hand-full of seeds below the feeder – though the messy blue jay and cardinal leave plenty of drops for them to pilfer. Junco’s breed and spend most of the year in Canada and northern states and for me are a true harbinger of winter.
I’ll also be on the lookout for the beautiful ruby-crowned kinglet – our tiny winter visitor from the north with its bright red patch atop its head. Hopefully they’ll be found within the stand of snow-covered white pines at the edge of our property.
If you’re looking for a winter celebration to attend, here are three events happening Saturday, Dec. 21 in The Last Green Valley to consider.
- From 6 – 8:00 p.m. you’re invited to join The Last Green Valley as we welcome the winter months with a celebration of our Starry Sky. Lead Night Sky Rangers Kim and Geoff McLean will point out the constellations and share constellation stories of the First Americans. We’ll use telescopes for “deep sky” viewing of the Dumbbell Nebula, Andromeda Galaxy and Owl Cluster. The Ursid Meteor Shower will give us some shooting stars, too. This is a family friendly event and a great way to celebrate the season together. The location is the West Thompson Dam, Overlook Shelter, 162 W. Thompson Road, North Grosvenordale.
- From 6 – 9:00 p.m. the Connecticut Audubon Society invites you to the Edwin and Nellie Teale Audubon Society sanctuary property at Trail Wood, 93 Kenyon Road, Hampton to celebrate the beginning of the sun’s return. Hot cider and chili by the fire. Stargazing with clear skies permitting. Potluck items welcome. Free, but please register online at ct.audbon.org/trail-wood-home
- From 3- 5 p.m. join the friends and members of the Wyndham Land Trust at the Lyon Preserve in Pomfret to watch the sun set on the shortest day of the year. Light refreshments will be served with marshmallows to roast. The Lyon Preserve is located on Wright’s Crossing Road, just north of the intersection with Route 101. Look for the gate and Wyndham Land Trust sign.
We live in a beautiful place called The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. Each season is to be celebrated and enjoyed. This year the winter solstice is Saturday at exactly 11:19 p.m. As Edwin Way Teale described so many years ago, at that instant of the winter solstice we’ll be taking one breath in autumn and the next in winter.
Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for more than 35 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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