Take A Walk in Winter Woods

Take A Walk in Winter Woods

“On this, the shortest day of all the 365, I wander over covered paths of the garden hillside. I wade through the drifts along the swamp edge. I walk over the snow-covered ice among the cattails. The wind is gone. The day is still. The world is decorated with unmarred snow. This is winter with winter beauty everywhere,” from “Circle of the Seasons: The Journal of a Naturalist’s Year. December 21” by Edwin Way Teale.

Welcome to December, the month of darkness punctuated by the winter solstice on the 21st. The solstice is the day of the year with nearly 15 hours of night, but a silver lining follows the solstice. The days will be lengthening, even as the cold and dark of winter looms. The ancients knew there was reason for hope and optimism, celebrating the winter solstice as a day of both death (darkness) and rebirth (light).

If you’re looking for an outdoor experience to enjoy on the day of the winter solstice, I invite you to join TLGV and our partner organization, the Friends of Pachaug Forest, for our annual winter solstice celebration and hike. We’ll be meeting in the morning at the CCC Camp Area at Pachaug State Forest on Rt. 49 in Voluntown. We’ll hike and then enjoy a campfire together. Contact me for additional information.

I am enjoying the cooler weather of late autumn, and this past month I spent time hiking a few of the many trails in The Last Green Valley. The early signs of the changing season were obvious with the arrival of our cold season resident dark-eyed juncos, which nest in northern regions and reside with us in southern New England during the winter. Another late fall visitor, the beautiful northern flicker, also passed through on its journey southward, stopping to glean any insects still to be found among the grass and withered foliage in our yard and fields.

In the quote above, Edwin Way Teale reminds me to seek the forests and fields in winter, to walk and observe what nature may offer to the discerning eye. Being in the “out of doors” always lifts my spirit and offers great joy any time of year. As winter approaches, I’ll make time to visit locations that take me deeper into the woods, free of leaves and plant life, affording greater visibility. Here is a sampling of what nature “gives up” to enjoy and observe during the winter months.

The Christmas fern is one of my favorites. Firm and upright, it’s shaped like a Christmas stocking. The rich deep green of its fronds stands out among the brown hues of the forest floor, and even more so when the woods are full of snow.

The leafless trees reveal abandoned homes of our summer songbirds. A few winters ago, I found a beautiful bird nest and cut it free from its low-hanging branches and brought it home with me. Shaped like a dipper and woven between a forked branch, it was the natal home for nestlings of the red eyed vireo. The female had carefully constructed the nest from strips of thin wild grape bark, grasses, pine needles and even wasp-nest paper. Today is resides on my bookcase shelf, testament to a clever, diminutive bird and pleasurable winter woods ramble.

This month I’ll visit a few of the bald eagle nests in the Heritage Corridor to see if the adult pair are rebuilding and repairing their nests from the previous year. Early winter is courtship season for bald eagles and by mid-winter one or two eggs will hatch, and in late spring to early summer, they too will join their parents in flight. I’ll return every couple of weeks to check on their progress, and of course to report my findings to the staff at CT DEEP Wildlife Division, which tracks the return of our national symbol to the state. For those interested in bald eagles, check out the TLGV website later this month for information about upcoming programs offered in January during Eagle Month in The Last Green Valley.

I always enjoy discovering long-forgotten drystone cellar holes, some are old mill sites, and others are evidence of our region’s agricultural past. I like to poke around a bit and sit for a spell to imagine the work of the miller or the life of the farm family who lived there. The old mill sites are easy to distinguish with proximity to a woods stream with remains of a stone dam and sluiceway. Farm sites are identified with drystone house cellar holes, old wells and large stones placed strategically on the ground for holding up a small livestock barn. The pastures for cattle and sheep, orchards and gardens are long gone. Only their shadows remain, hidden among the now mature forest and years of foliage and forest duff from the 100-plus years of regrowth of our eastern hardwoods.

This is also a good time of year to discover evidence of our region’s fascinating Indigenous people’s stone ceremonial sites. I am thankful for the knowledgeable people who have shown me rock cairns, chambers, stone rows, serpent walls and more. For many years, these unique stone structures were thought to have been constructed by Yankee farmers. More recently, several publications have put forward conclusive evidence of their use and purpose by Indigenous people who lived in our region long before the colonists of the 17th century arrived. Some publications provide science-based analysis to discount the Yankee farmer theory, while others include essays by today’s members of our region’s tribes who share their people’s oral traditions as to the purpose of these stone structures.

A few weeks ago, I hiked the Tri-Town Ridgeline Forest Preserve in North Stonington that is owned and managed by the Avalonia Land Conservancy. The ridgeline landscape includes several examples of this ceremonial stonework. The site is indicative of the type of topography and habitat where the Indigenous residents would visit to assemble these structures and return to perform ceremonies. For those interested in learning more about Indigenous stonework I suggest a new book edited by Lucianne Lavin and Elaine Thomas, “Our Hidden Landscapes: Indigenous Stone Ceremonial Sites in Eastern North America.” Information about the Tri-Town Ridgeline Forest Preserve can be found at the Avalonia Land Conservancy website at: https://avalonia.org/tritown-forest/

Deer hunting season is here so I’ve been wearing my bright orange Last Green Valley hat and an orange vest to alert hunters of my presence. Several of my friends hunt, and each fall and winter season take to woods, forests and fields in search of that elusive 10-point buck. I enjoy their stories of time spent in the woods and always learn something of value from their careful observations of nature. The hours, still and silent in the woods, hoping for a possible well-placed shot are a time they cherish, whether successful in the harvest or not. They are the eyes and ears of what is happening in our region’s forest with many years of experience to share with an appreciative listener like me.

Here is more from the essay from Teale’s book “A Walk Through the Year.” “Autumn is finally, officially, gone. Like the evening of the day, the fall has been a time of ceaseless alteration. All around, in recent months, there has been a passing, then past. Birds have departed. Threadbare trees lost their final leaves. Nuts fell from branches. Pumpkins and corn turned yellow in the fields. For animals and men alike, this was the time of harvest. The chorus of the insects died away in nightly frosts. The windrows of fallen leaves have withered, lost their color, merged into one universal brown. Autumn, the evening of the year, is over; winter, the night of the year, has come.”

I don’t despair the “night of the year” and know with each passing day, in our ceaseless journey around the sun, we always move forward to a new day. I urge you to look for joy on each day of the month in each season. We are fortunate to live in a beautiful place called The Last Green Valley. Join me, and together let us enjoy it, care for it, and pass it on.

Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. He can be reached at bill@tlgv.org or by calling 860-774-3300.


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