One of my prime hobbies is discerning signs of the coming season before its actual arrival. However, where winter is concerned, in 2015, I have never been more challenged.
It’s a December afternoon. Windows are open in every room. I have put the ceiling fans on to bring in the bright air as I finish wrapping Christmas presents.
This morning, two men were actually strolling in shorts (Thoreau would say “sauntering”) — one near Trader Joe’s and one near Barnes & Noble. It is December 5.
Yesterday, two men were in intense yet leisured discussion at Nassau Street Seafood outdoor cafe table — yes, on Nassau Street, before 10 a.m., on December 4.
A friend joined me in birding at “the Brig” — Edwin B. Forsythe Refuge near Smithville on Thanksgiving Day. We were out of the car, over and over, setting up and using the scope without haste, in shirt sleeves, that entire sunny afternoon.
This morning, on Fackler Road, between Princeton Pike and 206, I drove past an entire garden of day lily leaves, all up about four inches, and freshly green. There I also passed just-mown grass, wheel paths still deeply impressed, grasses green, of course, in December’s first week.
A friend writes, with “puzzlement,” of his son’s having picked a collection of dandelions last weekend at Hopewell’s St. Michael’s Farm Preserve.
What’s on time can be found in the bird kingdom: tundra swans by the hundreds and snow geese by the thousands at the Brig on our Thanksgiving journey.
Far more amazingly, we discovered “exceedingly rare” trumpeter swans, on a lake alongside Route 563 below Chatsworth. Three matures and a chinchilla-grey immature swam in unhurried elegance against the far shore. Other collections of trumpeters awaited us at Brigantine Wildlife Refuge, mostly swimming. At the “Experimental Pool,” at day’s end, two lofted over our heads in that languid majesty that sets trumpeters apart from all other birds. It’s frozen wherever they spent summer and autumn. There is an abundance of open water in the Pine Barrens. So these rarities have arrived and seem to be settling in determinedly for, yes, winter.
One fully natural sign, of a blossom we are supposed to see right now. Right on schedule is the witch hazel. Frail, spiky, a faded-forsythia yellow, it was at peak among otherwise barren shrubs along Fleecydale Road, near Pennsylvania’s remarkable Carversville Inn, last Sunday.
Signs of winter do include the changing of deer pelts to the ruddy cold-weather hue. I’m noticing how the tones of persistent beech and oak leaves (which do not usually fall until April) match the deer.
I missed my favorite proof of winter’s nearing, during a Hallowe’en trip to Cape Cod. I came home to tree trunks transformed from brown to the intense tones of wet obsidian. This alteration sets off the hues of remnant leaves, as Tiffany uses velvet for diamonds.
It may be apparent that I am one of that small tribe who cherish winter. Especially in Trenton’s Abbott Marshlands, winter becomes my favorite season. At dusk or dawn, near those towering untidy lodges, you can see the beavers’ breath. When you hike there after new snow, you can tell whether night’s foxes had been in a hurry, strolling, exploring, or crouched in the hunt. You can read feather signatures from wings on fallen logs. These experiences are like reading a newspaper — which as the daughter, granddaughter, and niece of journalists, is a deep and essential pleasure.
Was it winter that brought Jeanette Hooban and me the long leisurely stroking pod of minke whales at Island Beach’s fisherman’s beach, a week ago? The array of powerful sea creatures really knew where they were going. There was no evidence of feeding, just that arrow-straight, ceaseless coursing toward the south.
One of the strangest signs of this recalcitrant winter is that many yellow trees retain their leaves. Never in my life have I seen entire trees rotund and butter-golden in December, as they are this year.
It’ll be winter when I first wear boots. But I might do it prematurely because I need this season to arrive!
Nature’s winter signature may turn out to be when last colored leaves (excepting, of course, beeches’ and oaks’), drop to the forest floor.
Naturalist friends explain, “When we hear the love songs of the great horned owl, it will be winter.