Ed’s Corner

It’s another gray morning as I look out my kitchen window today. Gray skies and even mostly gray bark on the trees as I gaze over the woodland behind my house. What, you say, is wrong with me? Don’t I know that tree bark is brown? Remember how the brown crayons in school were brought out to color the bark of trees we had drawn? It’s taken for granted that all tree bark is brown. Just ask anyone and they’ll tell you its so, but If you go right up to a tree, the bark appears gray, or some shade of gray, not usually brown.

This is the time of year when sunrises and sunsets can be most beautiful. There are no leaves to get in the way of the view. Very recently, I was in Helen Hayes Hospital in Haverstraw. It sits on top of a big hill, and views of the the Hudson River and nearby mountains were grand. I woke up just as the sun was rising and the sunrise over the Hudson was just spectacular, in a quiet way. I wanted to run around to every patient, nurse and doctor and tell them to look out a window.

That probably was the best medicine of the day.


Can you spy the creature who’s ability to camouflage relies on the grayness of a winter day?



Raven Brings Light

by Chuck Stead

Raven Brings Light to the Cramshaws

Solstice we celebrated usually between Chanukah and Christmas. The holiday of Chanukah moved around on the calendar but mostly arrived before Solstice, Christmas always came four days after Solstice. All we knew about Chanukah in our family was that it lasted eight days, which could mean a gift a day, and there was no tree involved (although there were some sort of magical candles, too). Christmas of course had the tree and wreath and the lights, and the day was a reminder of the birth of Jesus. But we also learned that the tree and wreath and even the lights were actually a part of Solstice long before Christmas and Chanukah. After keeping Solstice with Grandma Cramshaw for a few years in a row there came the particular Solstice night when she told us what she believed was the origin of celebrating the longest night with the promise that light would come again.

“In the before time there was darkness and cold everywhere. Sun had been captured by Old Man and he kept Sun locked in a box. From time to time Old Man took Sun out and warmed the place where he stayed but he would not share Sun with anyone else. No one could get Sun away from Old Man…”

Dougy asked, “But did they try?”

“Yes” Grandma said, “Eagle who flies like thunder wind, Bear, the strongest of them all, and even Weasel, so fast and small, they all tried but Old Man was a powerful shaman and no one could steal back Sun.”

“No one?” Ricky asked, his voice peaked with curiosity.

“Well” the old lady told us, “No one except Raven.”

“Raven!” Dougy squealed.


“You know Raven” she told us, “Crow’s big cousin. He and Crow are tricksters, they can shape-shift. So Raven shaped-shifted into a little seed and floated down the river. And Old Man’s beautiful daughter drank from the river and swallowed the seed and became pregnant…”

Ricky said, “And then what happened?”

“Oh she gave birth to a beautiful baby boy, who was really Raven in disguise. Old Man loved this little boy and spoiled him rotten. One day Old Man even let the boy play with Sun. Then Raven turned back into himself and flew off with Sun, fast away before Old Man could catch him. But he flew so fast that he dropped Sun into the sky and that is how we came out of darkness.”

Dougy said, “I like trickster Raven!”

Ricky said, “You are trickster Raven.”

With that Dougy jumped up and ran through Grandma’s kitchen, snatched up her Everyready Flashlight and charged out into the night shouting, “Caw Caw Caw!” The pig monster dogs jumped out of a group nap and immediately snapped and fought with each other in response to Dougy’s Raven. We stood at the back window and watched him swinging the flashlight around furiously until it slipped out of his hand, bounced away across the frozen earth and died out. Dougy ran to it, picked it up, shook it violently but it did not light up, and looked back at us where we stood watching him from the window.

The old woman said, “That boy don’t need no flashlight to bring light into the world.”

Ed’s Corner

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.

These weeks preceding the Solstice can be dark, gray, and can offer up, even now as I write this, cold rainy windswept days. Br-r-r. Thoughts of sitting by the fireside, sipping hot chocolate, even a nap, dance through my head. And as I sit next to the fireplace, warmed once again by the sun’s energy, some of which is now being released by way of the burning wood, I begin to think of all the amazing things that are part of the natural world, at this very moment, not very far from where I am or you are:
Slug eggs

Slug eggs

Slug eggs from a distance

Slug eggs from a distance

  • 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!
A very green rock wall next to the fairy stream

A very green rock wall next to the fairy stream

  • 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?’.
And all of this and more is ‘happening’  as you’re sitting in that comfy chair by the fire. You can just think about these wonders of nature or even go outdoors and check them out.
Under the snow
         the blossoms are
         Dreaming their
dreams of sunshine and June.
                                                  -Harriet Prescot Spofford


By Chuck Stead

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.