Winter Is Coming
The morning of Dec. 9 we woke to a dusting of about 1 inch of snow that had me scraping the windshield and brushing off my truck before heading to the office. For some folks winter starts with the first snow, but for me it is always the Winter Solstice – the shortest day and the longest night of the year. It occurs between Dec. 20 – 23 and this year it is this Tuesday, Dec. 21, at exactly 10:45 a.m. Starting Dec. 22 our days will progressively get longer as we move through the winter season to the Vernal Equinox on March 22, when the duration of day and night are almost equal.
Since prehistory the Winter Solstice has been marked by celebrations and rituals. It was viewed as both the symbolic death and rebirth of the sun and honored with symbols of light and fire as well as life and death. I looked for examples of early celebrations of the Winter Solstice and found an interesting article in History.com. https://www.history.com/topics/natural-disasters-and-environment/winter-solstice
“Humans may have observed the winter solstice as early as Neolithic period—the last part of the Stone Age, beginning about 10,200 BC. Neolithic monuments, such as Newgrange in Ireland and Maeshowe in Scotland, are aligned with sunrise on the winter solstice. Some archaeologists have theorized that these tomb-like structures served a religious purpose in which Stone Age people held rituals to capture the sun on the year’s shortest day. Stonehenge, which is oriented toward the winter solstice sunset, may also have been a place of December rituals for Stone Age people.”
For those who prefer warmer temperatures, there is no escaping that winter officially begins Tuesday. For some residents of New England, winter is a time to bundle up, stay inside by the fire or head for warmer climates. I know many happily retired folks who retreat from the winter months to Florida or other warm southern states. The exodus starts soon after the Christmas holiday.
For me winter still means exploring the outdoors and I am far from alone. I grew up skiing with my family in New Hampshire and being the youngest of four, I got an early start on winter outdoor activities. Snow days off from school had us dragging sleds and toboggans up any hill we could find and strapping on snowshoes for winter hikes in the woods. Skiing is still one of my favorite activities, and perhaps later this month, and certainly in January, I’ll be hitting the slopes — figuratively speaking, I hope.
I love to hike in winter. With trees now mostly bare of summer’s leaves, my vision is no longer obscured. I can see deeper between the trees and the forest gives up its secrets to me. A tiptoeing deer, acrobatic squirrel and darting chickadee are no longer hidden. The forest color is now presented by stands of festive conifers and evergreen trees of white pine, hemlock and cedar.
The unexpected flash of green from a cluster of Christmas ferns peeking up through the snow or waving from beside a stone wall is a welcome sight. The perennial Christmas fern gets its name because it keeps its deep green stocking-shaped fronds year-round and can even be surprisingly lush in January. They are very common to eastern North America with stems in clumps of about two feet tall. You will typically find them in shady forest areas, along rocky slopes and beside stonewalls.
If I am lucky, I’ll discover a patch of winterberry, and the subdued colors of the woods will be interrupted by its startling bright red berries. Winterberry is a member of the holly family, and, despite its name, starts to display its beautiful red berries in late fall. In The Last Green Valley and throughout eastern North America, it will keep its berries into December, a valuable food source for our winter birds. The bright red is beautiful against white snow and with the green Christmas fern provides a fitting gift from the forest — nature’s welcome to the holiday season.
Winter means keeping the bird feeder full for resident winter birds and cold season migrants from the north. I keep my large feeder filled with sunflower seeds and fresh suet in their metal hangers. 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 spread a few hand-full of seeds below the feeder, although the messy blue jay and cardinal leave plenty of drops for the juncos to pilfer. Juncos breed and spend most of the year in Canada and northern states and for me are a true harbinger of 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. Despite the shorter daylight hours with cold, ice, and snow, it is a season that nevertheless fills the senses, though in more subtle ways than the greening gardens of spring, deep heat of summer and blazing foliage of autumn.
This year The Last Green Valley will be celebrating the Winter Solstice in partnership with the Friends of Pachaug Forest. We’ll gather at Pachaug State Forest in the morning, enjoy a campfire, and read from selected authors about the Winter Solstice. Information can be found at the TLGV website at: https://thelastgreenvalley.org/december-member-programs-12-11-and-12-21/ or you can contact me at Bill@tlgv.org.
We live in a beautiful place called The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. Each season is to be celebrated and enjoyed, even the season of cold, snow and ice. Winter is coming, let’s get out and enjoy it!
Bill Reid is Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 860-774-3300.
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