In November, as autumn slides into oblivion, I become really impatient for winter. It’s as though Thoreau himself were at my side, insisting that I chronicle signs of the season about to take the stage.
My most inescapable proof of autumn’s end is this week’s reaping of the corn. Most silver-gilt expanses of rustling leaves have vanished, leaving orderly and luminous stubble. One stalk-swathe remains on Cold Soil Road near Terhune’s. I make detours to experience it, especially as dawn light suffuses last cornstalks. Yes, I will miss these bright sentinels. But I am, at the same time, delighted. Their vanishing grants permission for winter.
My other irrevocable sign is the final gilding of Norway maples. Everywhere I drive, these imposing trees flaunt golden raiment. They remind me of grand dames descending the grand staircase of the S.S. France. Those women processed imperiously, in a rustle of silks and gems. The Norways are more subtle — giving voice to crispness. This weekend, these majestic trees will give it all up in impatient flurry, dropping all garments at once, the bright fabric still a-ruffle at their roots.
Gingko trees fling blinding coins to all points of the compass, — Midas in a tizzy. Other leaves whisk from brown to down. Yes, I shall miss the fauve palette of recent weeks. But I’ve been avid for winter since scarlet first seeped into the woodbine vines. When vines turn roseate, it’s because their fruit is ripe to feed migrating birds. Those hues announce the season when forests return to sculptural splendor, when their trunks turn the hue of black patent shoes.
A crimson Japanese maple flames at the corner of Route 206 and Cold Soil Road. The intensity stops me in my turning. But what I’m waiting for is the revelation of twined limbs, black as jet bead necklaces in the Roaring 20s. Pure Balanchine, Martha Graham — balletic energy concealed ever since spring. Let the dance begin.
One doesn’t fall lightly in love with winter. A great disruption can be required. Such as my move to see the seasons round in Provence — October into August — in the late 1980s. The south of France doesn’t have winter. Stiff cacti, noisy palm trees, the January eruption of impossible Marguerites (white daisies), forced me to see that I require winter.
Irresistible scents suffuse Provence in all seasons. When mistral (wild winds hurtling from the Alps all down the Rhone) whirls across the garrigues (rough open fields of wild herbs), the air was pungent with thyme and sage and lavender. Yes, in the time of the grape harvest, the air smelled like wine. But I needed cinnamon and nutmeg and ginger. I yearned for whiffs of a baked potato freshly opened on a nippy night; the fruited allure of bayberry candles.
But it’s New Jersey, November, 2014. What I need is our winter ducks: Where will I find first vivid mergansers; come upon moss green, Princeton-orange and (yes, snow) white shovelers, the subtlety of gadwalls? I need those Picasso-esque wood ducks that zing through the Abbott Marshlands. Warren Liebensperger, one of two men I term “godfathers of the Marsh,” came into D&R Greenway with a list of winter ducks he had seen that very morning, complete with numbers. Like Thoreau, Warren is eagerly chronicling the new season.
For those who protest that winter is lifeless, go where the life is. Tread the broad, enticing Pole Farm trails in Lawrenceville. Hike St. Michaels Farm Preserve in Hopewell. On the former, elegant harriers have already returned, coursing low over reaped fields. Soon short-eared owls will emerge from its wintry woods, not waiting ‘til dark. From the far observatory platform, a nightly procession will surround the viewer, a constellation of soundlessness.
St. Michaels also lures birds with carefully orchestrated grasses. Kestrels have been a highlight this year, as though tiny stained glass windows had taken wing. Their bluebird boxes worked well in spring — some of this welcome species may well stay the winter.
Hobler Park at Blawenburg is also rich in kestrels and bluebirds, and I have enjoyed the harrying of harriers there in previous winters. The Abbott Marshlands are ever full of wonders — their eagles will be courting soon. The Marsh hides nests of horned owls, whose calls will ring like carols on the frosty nights. The Marsh’s red foxes leave very straight lines of rose-shaped prints as they hunt in new-fallen snow. Birds leave wing signatures on fresh flakes of downed logs.
Our winter is the stripped-down, challenging season. It’s up to us to create warmths far different from those that poured around and puzzled me in Provence.
In our winter, be on the lookout for wild creatures large and small, all of whom know perfectly well how to thrive. I met a friend in the Montgomery Shopping Center this morning. To my shock, in the parking lot, a tardy great blue heron coasted majestically over our heads. As I type in my Lawrenceville apartment this afternoon, a horned stag prances with a unicorn’s dignity past my windows.
Photographer Ray Yeager came into the Greenway yesterday with stunning pictures of the first snowy owl, out on Jersey Shore sands. We don’t usually experience snowy irruptions two years in a row. But Ray had spent seven awed hours in her presence. Choosing to be in our state in the cold time, snowies thrive — half sleeping by day, very successfully hunting by night. If we didn’t have winter, we wouldn’t have snowy owls.
Earth needs winter. It’s rest-time for trees, healing time for fox dens. Below-freezing temperatures end the rule of microbes that otherwise bring disease to our ruddy brethren.
This winter, ignore the myth of lifelessness. Get out and meet Nature; see what she’s up to. Be outdoors more now, alert to this new season’s wild and subtle gifts.