It is now a few days before the official first day of winter, which arrives on Sunday, December 21st. This day, the shortest day of the year (least hours of daylight) is known as the Winter Solstice. Soon after this day the sun will be in the sky for an increasingly longer smidgen of time each day. These smidgens do add up and it’s usually around the third week of January that I become aware, almost by surprise, of more light and a different quality to the light.
- Under a nearby rock, which is probably frozen to the ground, there may be an overwintering bald-faced hornet queen.
- Under a board or a large branch that has been on the ground for some time, there might be a small mound or two of round, white eggs. These slug eggs – yes, that’s what they are! – remind me of small stacks of cannonballs, the kind that I have seen at historical restorations.
- On the coldest days many of our common winter birds puff up their feathers for more insulation. I know it’s not an ornithological phrase, but they sure do look cute.
- Think of the lakes, ponds and puddles that are now frozen or beginning to freeze. Because of the special properties of water, ice forms from the top – the surface – downward. Just imagine the problems, especially if you were a water denizen, if a pond or lake froze from the bottom up.
- The leafless deciduous trees and shrubs now reveal their skeletons, their branches. One can find and feel wart-like bumps on the tips and along the lengths of thinner branches. These buds hold the future. Even though they may appear dead and lifeless, there is life inside each one, the leaves and/or flowers for next spring! These buds were ‘made/finished’ even before the end of last summer and are now just patiently waiting – maybe like some of us – for the spring that will follow this winter.
- Tucked into the crevasses and recesses of the bark of trees you may find what looks like a dead-looking (but very much alive) lightning bug, called a soldier beetle. These soldier beetles, so called because the red pattern on some resemble the British Redcoats, are related to the firefly family but do not produce light. They are good for our gardens because they eat aphids and other pests, and also help in pollination.
- If you are sitting in your fireside chair in the evening, around the time of the full moon, you may notice, as the fire goes out, that there is still light in the room. That’s thanks to the full moons of winter, when the moon remains in the sky for a much longer time than during other seasons. The winter full moon follows a similar path in the sky that the summer sun does. It follows a high path across the sky, stays above the horizon longer, and thus is ‘up’ for a longer time.
- You think green has gone? Not so. Now that many trees have lost their leaves the evergreens (trees and shrubs) stand out more, especially with a snowy white background. There are amazing greens on the sides of many trees – lichens, moss, algae – that can make for a riotous panoply of green!
- And somewhere out in the woodlands there are, dug into the earth, the thumbnail-sized spring peeper frogs, waiting for the right combination of day length and warmth to signal them to wake and make their way toward a vernal pond or other nearby wetland. Once there, hundreds of males let loose their mating call of ‘Pe-ep! Pe-ep!’, the primordial sound of the earth awakening to spring.
- And then, around the end of the first week of February, even from my fireside chair, I get a feeling in my body, some kind kind of unbidden knowing, that the sap is moving within the maple trees. and that sugaring time is nigh.
- And if it’s snowing outside while you’re tucked warmly inside, consider the many millions of flakes that are falling, and the belief that no two flakes are alike. As we like to say at camp, ‘Ooh, Ah, How can it be?’.
Ricky Cramshaw’s grandmother had introduced us kids to the Winter Solstice, and from then on we gathered with her on Dec 21 to burn a little dried bush along with some other things, and to thank Creator for the sun on the longest night of the year. There weren’t too many others in the village that openly celebrated this ancient holiday, but quietly, and in his own way, my dad Walt did. This usually meant a little twig fire in the backyard. My Irish Catholic mother Tessie avoided this. Clearly she disapproved.
Living on a dead end street in the last house before the Thruway, we seldom did any outdoor holiday decorations. Sometimes Walt stapled a string of tree lights around the front screen door. We did have a sickly little white pine, about six feet high, which looked like a sad little Charlie Brown Christmas tree, but it wasn’t strong enough to hold any decorations. My sister Terry planted it in our shady little dirt patch of a front yard, and for three years it inched its way upward but seldom produced a new needle. Walt tried to wrap it with Christmas tree lights but the poor little tree bent over and practically laid flat on the ground.
One December, just after Chanukah and a day before Solstice, it snowed heavy. In the morning we woke to a half foot white blanket. After breakfast Walt went out into the back yard and dug up his damp pile of kindling. Carefully he spread out the twigs in the garage to dry. Tessie was amused by this turn of events and told him the weather was against him. By late afternoon he had me sweep clear a place in the front yard, a few feet from Terry’s sad little white pine. The ground beneath the snow powder was cold and hard. Walt organized his little kindling twigs into a teepee shape on the frozen ground. He balled up a bit of newspaper, inserted it under the teepee and put a match to it. The paper burned itself out but the twigs did not light up. Not to be defeated he went to the garage and brought a handful of straw from the horse stable. Carefully he inserted the dry straw, put a match to it and we watched the straw burn up, but not the gathered kindling. He took out his pipe, lit it and sat on the step next to me. We stared at the dysfunctional Solstice fire and at the spindly excuse for a pine tree next to it. Our front yard, despite the snow, was not very seasonal.
After a bit, Walt got up and walked around back to the garage. He returned with a red can of gasoline. Standing over the kindling he poured fuel onto it. Then he poured a little more. He thought about this and then poured a little more again. I moved further away along the step. He took a small wooden match, struck it and dropped it on the drenched kindling bundle. He stepped back. The burn moved slowly across the top of the kindling, then dropped inside and then imploded and leaped up a good five feet, jumped into the white pine and torched it. The flames did not last longer than a couple of minutes, and left behind a little circle of black ash and a single burnt stick that used to by Terry’s white pine.
Walt looked at me and said with satisfaction, “Now that was a Solstice fire.”
The black pine spindle remained frozen in the front yard for the rest of the winter. Tessie called it Walt’s Pagan Stick. Terry went out and offered a Christmas prayer for its miserable lost pine soul. When the spring came we pulled it down and planted grass seed across the dirt patch, which didn’t take except for the little circle where the pine had stood. It was like a little yard for an elf, maybe a Solstice Elf.