The Edge of Winter
It is an overcast day. Brightly colored birds stand out like jewels in the greyness. The sparrows blend into the wooded grey/brown of snow-covered shrubs. The ever-present sparrows and the winter birds– jays and cardinals, juncos, black-capped chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches and downy woodpeckers– flock to the bird feeder which now has to be filled up almost every day. The red berries on the bushes are nearly all gone and the feeder is becoming a matter of survival. On our walks we see empty nests held in the bare arms of winter trees. An empty robin’s nest is filled with snow– the hatchlings and the mother long gone to fairer climes. The trees are stripped down to their souls. With ice storms they become tinkling chandeliers. In the rain the few remaining dead leaves drip drops of icy tears.
Occasionally a dove visits the feeder. The chipmunk, who gathered scattered seeds under the feeder all fall, is not to be seen. He must be in torpor in his den. According to Bernd Heinrich in: The Winter World: the Ingenuity of Animal Survival, the eastern chipmunk builds a twelve-foot storage system with a nest chamber some three feet down and a network of tunnels which includes a food storage chamber. Heinrich says chipmunks go in and out of torpor. He reasons that they would not gather food if they were to be in torpor all winter long. We will probably not see our chipmunk for the rest of the winter for, in his stuporous state, he would be easy prey. However he can be roused to eat and venture outdoors if need be, especially in March when there still may be snow on the ground but mating season begins.
The grey squirrels are busy clearing snow from branches as they run along tree limbs. On the ground they dig through the snow for the walnuts we watched them bury in the ground with their noses this fall. They do not need to hibernate for they have food stores which they built up in the autumn– and leafy, well-insulated nests. The red squirrels survive winter by putting on thick, insulating fur.
The back yard is a maze of tunnels. We think they are deer mouse tunnels as many have tunneled their way into our house. But they must get by the feral cat who sometimes waits out a snow storm under our deck. In the woods, the occasional deer waits out the same storm under a squat fir tree. The tracks in the snow tell the story of how they weathered a Nor’Easter.
Beneath the tracks in the snow, in the frozen leaf litter, the insect world is dormant. Some hibernate. Others fill their bodies with antifreeze, glycerol, to stay alive. Heinrich talks about woolly bears hibernating but they are also capable of freezing solid and surviving, coming to life again as they thaw in the spring. The pupae, however, don’t survive being frozen.
In Winter: an Ecological Handbook, authors, James C. Halfpenny, Elizabeth Besiot and Roy Douglas Ozonne, tell us that the reptiles and amphibians pick out a “microclimate for hibernation that does not freeze” for their winter, such as the “bottoms of ponds, streams, or deep in the ground.”
Our stream flows out back in the marsh under ice and snow and one can see the elongated bubbles of running water. In the pond next door the turtles lay beneath the ice in their hibernacula. At the end of the book, The Year of the Turtle, David M. Carroll, the naturalist, author and artist, has his watercolor of a spotted turtle hibernating. This picture is hypnotic and in its spell, I think of all the animals hibernating beneath our feet in lugubrious gloom. It reminds me of the penguins in the film, The March of the Penguins, huddled together for warmth in the harsh, strong winds and snow, taking turns being on the outside of the huddle. Winter can be magnificent in its transformations yet tragic in its harshness. Hibernating animals who freeze to death and deer starving in the snow are among the victims of its violence.
Carroll’s drawing shows the turtle all alone, withdrawn into its shell under less than two feet of water, lodged firmly in the mud under ice and under snow on a sunny winter’s day, a far better clime than the penguin’s– and yet it evokes a certain sadness for this little creature all alone beneath the snow, in a torpid state. The turtle is missing out on the days and nights, sleeping a deep sleep in a “half year of stillness.”
Carroll’s writing is sheer poetry as he describes the turtle’s hibernation: “Mounting layers of snow silently cover the ice. Night after night in the harshest depth of winter, as Orion and the Pleiades burn distant and brilliant in the black sky and strong winds howl off the mountain to the northwest, the turtles rest beneath the ice. With the life in them nearly suspended, reduced to its most tenuous hold, all but extinct in the vast, inhospitable regime that reaches above them to the limits of the universe, they lie within their shells, waiting for the earth to make its required turnings and return them to the sun that will awaken them to another season.”
I think of the turtles below, along with all the other beautiful creatures, and wish them a kind sleep from which they will safely stir as the life force surges through their veins again when the sun brings them to the fullness of life in spring. The death of some, and the half-life of so many, proffers the poignancy of winter.