Go to the winter woods: listen there, look, watch, and ‘the dead months’ will give you a subtler secret than any you have yet found in the forest.
~ William Sharp (writing as Fiona Macleod), Where the Forest Murmurs
The freezing temperature takes my breath away as I step outside for a winter walk up into our pine woods. The crunch of my boots in the snow is so loud I’m unaware, at first, of any other sound, but as I stop and lean against the rough bark of a Loblolly Pine, I hear much more.
The soughing wind has a voice all its own. Anyone who has grown up near pine trees remembers this sound with keen longing. It’s sometimes a soft murmuring, but it can become wild and menacing in high winds.
Though its needles are exquisitely adapted for most winter weather, I see scars on my tree where ice-laden branches have broken off in the past. High above, a squirrel scolds from a nest built in the crotch between two branches.
I notice some fur stuck to a broken piece of bark where a white-tailed deer has used the tree as a hide-scratcher. And yes, there’s a narrow deer trail leading off into the underbrush. On a nearby trunk, I see another raw place where a buck has rubbed its antlers, trying to scrape off the fuzzy coating. I wonder where the deer go when it’s dark and cold?
As I stay still, I notice the canopy is not quiet at all, but abuzz with bird flutter and chatter. I catch glimpses of a cardinal’s flashy crimson and the cerulean spark of a Blue Jay. The Downy and Red-bellied woodpeckers are good at camouflage, but their distinctive drumming gives them away. The tiny Black-Capped Chickadee chitters its alarm call.
The fresh snow is tailor-made for the winter sleuth. Scratches, markings, and footprints are all evidence of winter activity. There’s the distinctive print of a rabbit’s feet. I can see where the neighbor’s dog came through looking for something to chase. Unidentified tracks lead to little holes burrowed into my brush pile, the perfect hiding place for tiny, scurrying creatures. I wouldn’t dare poke my hand in any of them.
The cold has seeped through my boots, so I mosey inside for some hot chocolate. But now, when I look out the kitchen window towards the pine woods, I no longer see just trees bending in the wind. It’s a beautiful ecosystem filled with nature’s secrets, waiting to be discovered by those hearty enough to venture outside in the winter.
Don’t let the cold keep you from enjoying your connection with nature. Bundle up and get outside. What can you see that’s unique to winter where you live?
Photo credits: Pine cone: Galina Barskaya. Other photos: John A. Cottrell, Jr., M.D.
This article was published in the “Slice of Life” column of Elan Magazine on January 8, 2019.