The Edge of Winter
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It is an overcast day. Brightly colored birds stand out like jewels in the greyness. The winter birds– jays and cardinals, juncos, black-capped chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches and downy woodpeckers flock to the bird feeder and it 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 icy tear drops.
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 tunnel system 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 a 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, in the dead of an Antarctic winter, 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 to death in the snow 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 under snow in 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 a sunny day, 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. I wish them a kind sleep from which they will safely stir with the life force surging through their veins as the sun brings them to the fullness of life again. The death of some, and the half life of so many, proffers the poignancy of winter.
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Welcome to samples of my writing and art work showcasing “Eye-locks and Other Fearsome Things.” “Eye-locks” is a Bipolar/Asperger’s memoir in narrative form that describes the triumph of love over mental illness.
Spring Seraphic Singing
It is late afternoon and spring by the calendar, although still quite cool. I have just spent some time at our neighbor’s pond, listening to a form of music that some have likened to the sound to bells. Others liken it to bird song. And still others with unimaginable disdain, to “some kind of nature noise.” For me it is one of the happiest of sounds– the act of creation transformed into sound decibels for all to hear. A sound that comes from the earth and resounds to the heavens, unwittingly praising the Almighty. It is a form of ecstasy when the sound surrounds me totally, filling my ears every evening with perhaps the single-most highlight of spring for me– the siren song of the Spring Peepers counterbalanced by the deeper sound of wood frogs.
How have they cast their spell over so many? I cannot say except that their song is uplifting and filled with hope despite the natural perils they face daily. For, as true of all of us, they may die at any moment– say as a meal for a nearby perching crow or underneath murky waters eaten by a snapping turtle. They call for a mate without ceasing, without fear, single-mindedly, without a thought for their own safety. This is nature at her most elemental, in her most singular scope. The peepers all sing out vying to be heard– an a cappella choir of voices. In some spots, I am told, their song is deafening. How nice to be there; I cannot get enough of their sweet music. It moves me to tears– these tiny creatures singing out their heart’s desire.
As I return home to family “situations” and domestic duties, I yearn for the simplicity and total fervor of their song. For if they sing then all is “right” in at least that small part of the world. Progress has not paved over their pond. Disdainful humans have not drained a “vernal pool.” David M. Carroll writes about vernal pools in his books on turtles called The Swampwalker’s Journal. As the title suggests, Carroll walks such places in search of turtles and other amphibians. He defines a vernal pool as a pool of water that fills up in Fall and Winter, swells in the Spring and often dries up by end of Summer. But a vernal pool is utmost a place of magic, not only where turtles lurk, but where mating frogs deposit gelatinous eggs which turn into tadpoles first, and there, later become frogs. And after a requisite series of warm days, followed by spring rains, on the first dark night, vernal pools become the site of the “salamander night.” Salamanders leave their hibernacula to go for a night of endless mating and then return to leaf litter in the woods to disappear for the rest of the year. Some people who know nothing of vernal pools and their function deem them a nuisance, a big puddle to be filled in or drained. Some people know little of spring peepers and wood frogs except that they are “noisy,” “like some sort of insect.” Poor insects are made out to be the pesky lowest of the low. The natural symphony of hormonal, harmonic sounds sometimes falls on deaf ears.
After finishing my evening chores, I try reading, but find the haunting sound of the spring peepers and wood frogs digging deep within my psyche, making me restless, wishing to be part of that pond, surrounded on all sides by the sex song, inebriated with the unbridled joy in the air, submerged in the utter power of nature manifesting in one of her gentler forms. For the song of the Spring Peepers nature celebrates life-to-be rather than the taking-away of life. Most of all, the song of the Spring Peepers is a song of tremendous faith, faith in love, faith that love will propagate, and faith that new life will emerge.
Beyond the Stars
Sitting in the sun, acclimating to the gentle June heat, swatting away an annoysome fly who keeps returning over and over, I know this swatting is definitely wrong—a stirring of the killer instinct. I remember naturalist artist and writer and turtle man, David M. Carroll, keeping his hand steady, while being bitten by hordes of mosquitoes, so as not to scare away the turtles as he paints them . Clearly he is a superior soul in his patient endurance of being bitten and as his, almost spiritual, beautifully poetic, writings and drawings reveal. I remember, too, the words of Pema Chodron, Buddhist teacher and nun, who teaches and preaches practicing compassion on little things, learning not to “bite the hook” of anger.
So I let the fly alight on my ankle and he seemingly happily stays on my leg and does not bite. I begin to try to image feeling kinship with this fly who likes my leg, fighting the idea that he is laying eggs in my skin. Pema Chodron has clearly inspired a city girl, afeared of bugs, to make friends with a fly as I watch the universe of insects beneath my feet. A Daddy Long legs crawls on my camera bag, hitches a ride to our bed when I go inside the house. I bring him back to his home outside.
This compassion things feels right, start small and grow big. As if to reinforce this point a butterfly lands on my chest when I return to my contemplation spot in our back yard. But all is not sweetness and light. Later the same fly (I swear it is) who landed on my leg now activates karma for my earlier murderous impulses towards him. He lands on my toe and bites me. A cautionary tale against getting too carried away with being virtuous. Still worse, later as I walk in the coolness of early evening, a bug lands on my arm and attempts a vigorous bite. In an instant, a reflexive smack smooches him dead.
So it would seem I have to start even smaller with my acts of compassion. How much smaller can one start? I wonder with daunting discouragement about the many, many more lives I will have to live to learn lessons of compassion and no anger. I contemplate the prospect of how many, many more films I will have to view in this movie house of Maya we call life. When, oh when, will I learn all my lessons? When, oh, when, will the sun set for good for me on this circle of life so I can exit the orbit and rest beyond the stars??
“Landscape of Loss”
Sap is flowing through ice and snow
When nature awakens in late March or early April, sap starts flowing in the trees and ice changes to water marking the end of hibernation. This is the grand opening of the wetlands and the pilgrimage to the vernal pools as David M. Carroll writes in his “Swampwalker’s Journal: a Wetlands Year.” A vernal pool is a body of water which fills up in autumn and winter and is swollen in the spring but often dries up completely by the end of the summer. Carroll describes vernal pools so beautifully: “It is at snowmelt and ice-out, the last sleets, first rains, and the earliest warming breaths of spring that they beckon wood frogs, salamanders, and spring peepers from surrounding upland woods, where they have passed the winter in rotted-out trees roots [a reason not to ‘clean up’ the woods], under layers of bark and litter, in small mammal tunnels and other hibernacula in the earth.” The melting snow heralds the march of the amphibians. “Vernal pool habitats hold a galaxy of small things that come to life the instant ice and snow turn back into water.”
Carroll walks the swamps, as the title of his book suggests, in search of mating salamanders and spotted turtles, bogs, fens and all wetland flora and fauna. He tells us that there must be a certain collusion of events– several warm days in a row followed by a darkest of nights with temperatures ideally in the mid-50s with rain preferably two nights in a row. And then the magical migration begins. The salamanders begin their “annual pilgrimage” to the vernal pond to mate.
My husband and I are lucky enough to have a vernal pond on the property next door to us and when Spring comes the sound at night from that pond makes us feel as if we are camping out next to a vast wetland. The music of the spring peepers plays through the night throughout the house, often starting overeagerly in the late afternoon. This manic symphony thrills us every year. It is the first sign of Spring for us. The quality of joyousness and the affirmation of life gladdens our souls. Going to sleep with that sound makes us remember what we so often forget, to give thanks to our Creator for His magnificent creatures.
Inspired by Carroll, one year we awaited the first dark, rainy warm night after a succession of warm days. In our rain gear, armed with flashlights we set out around 11PM to look for the march of the salamanders. We walked to the nearby pond. Nothing. We walked quite aways down a nearby dirt road that has run off but is not quite a vernal pond. We shone the flashlight this way and that. Nothing. We finally headed home disappointed and dejected and my husband started towards the front door when I let out a yelp. There in the doorway was a 6 inch spotted salamander in all its glory! We never found the march of the salamanders but we were greeted by one of these fantastic amphibians right at our front door!
This story, however, does not have a happy ending. In his epilogue to the “Swampwalker’s Journal,” David Carroll explains why it took him more than 7 years to complete this book. He writes that he became involved in saving some of the wetlands in his book and says sadly nearly all of his interventions have or will become “losing battles.” He describes the plight of the wetlands, bogs and fens as a “landscape of loss.” And he scorns our human selfishness as he writes how it “reveals explicitly the extent to which we think of ourselves as owning all living things, along with the very earth, air, and water in which they live, as if we possessed some divinely mandated dominion over all creation.” He warns: “As we will learn in time none of this belongs to us.” I read these words, knowing them to be true and I think of the soon-to-be-extinct bog turtle and other creatures with the same possible fate. I think of the spotted salamander who came to our door, as did Shelley, the snapping turtle who used to return to our drive way every year to lay her eggs. I think of the spring peepers whose joyous song heralds spring next door every year, and I fear for the future of them all.