Winter in All Its Glorious Forms

I have not written in December because I’ve been outside in the woods, through temperatures high and low, winds calm and raucous, days shortening and, just recently, beginning again to grow. That intoxicating slant of winter light drags me outside before I’ve even finished my first cup of tea and again in the afternoon when I should be staying glued to my screen for another hour. Recently, there was a cold spell. A period of below freezing temperatures for several days in a row, unlike we’d experienced for many years, it seems. I did my best to thaw the birdbaths a couple times a day to save the birds from having to fly to the creek to drink (knowing they had to conserve energy), and I put birdseed out in more places and types of feeders than ever before. And, of course, the goats had to be fed twice daily instead of once, have warm water added to their plug-in buckets (which keep water just above freezing, but not warm enough to entice them to avoid dehydration), as they munched through the hay in their net and racks at three times the usual rate. The extra outdoor work was worth it, though, for the chance to see ice art at the creeks! No way can I stay inside long enough to do any decent writing, so I’ve posted these photos (I’m too entranced by the woods, though, to even photograph anything properly..); and I’ll insert a poem from a few years back, though it requires a windy day and large white pines to picture it, something I don’t have in my photo gallery, sadly. So just imagine. Wind and the White Pine Tree It’s just another one of those days, another one of those windy days like so many others you’ve stood through. And so you just trust to your internal structure, to the joinings with neighbors below and above ground, and ride out the whims of the wind. Perhaps all will calm and you’ll still be standing, mostly whole and able to grow on. It’s in your DNA: this knowing what to do, what you can do, and when to do nothing. But there’s more to it than that. What I see is your motion inside the wind: your branches dance, along with the other trees’ branches powered by invisible air, and grace comes from how you bend to… Continue reading

In Praise of February

It’s about to start again—spring, I mean, in all its frantic frenzy. The birds have begun singing courting songs in the mornings despite the birdbath water being solid frozen. Daffodil buds may be shut tight, but their stems grew two inches earlier this week, when we had one of those weirdly warm nights in the midst of what has been a graciously, seasonally cold six weeks.  Before spring springs, I want to honor winter, praise the quiet glory of the winter woods, a time of shapely silhouettes, of shiny, silent stillness. What inspired me to write was the walk Scott and I took a week ago to the skunk cabbage realm, guessing that there might be blooms. They grow in an out-of-the-way bit of bottomland spreading out from a small stream that runs through a forest on a neighbor’s land. All the way there, the forest floor was a smooth orange-brown mottled mat of frozen leaves. It was unusually pressed down and uniform because of the extended snow cover in January, which had melted and refrozen several times before disappearing altogether a few days ago. It was a look we remembered from another decade, a more wintery look than we’ve witnessed in years. On our skunk cabbage walk, we enjoyed a beautifully open, mostly frozen February forest. Being a creature that listens to day length more than temperature, the cabbage plants had already pushed up their hooded-alien-head blooms in the thawed places of the bog. It was exciting to try and guess at where the ground was frozen enough to hold us as we wandered into the muck where the cabbage lives. We folded ourselves close to the ground to take photos (which, though we take them almost every year, are never nearly as interesting as the real thing). We headed home a different way and happened into a new patch of woods, for us. This is saying something, since we’ve been wandering these forested hills for thirty years. We knew the fields below and the ridge running parallel, but we’d never walked through those actual acres. The size and height of the trees enthralled us, and we noticed a broad diversity as we moved among them up and down the folded hills. There was a secret feeling to the place, no visible evidence of human disturbance. No mounds or trench scars from skidders, no stumps from previous logging. The… Continue reading

The Tiniest of Trees

The moon arcs lower in the sky, and soon the sharp-lined, bare tree shadows will blur as buds take shape then burst into spring’s tiny versions of this year‘s leaves. When the sun rises, a brilliant blue sky spreads widely behind a forest canopy of dark lace branches, and the forest floor lights up in places where it won’t in another month or so. Spring is on the move through wet winter ground, the water table high and seeping out in unusual places. Sap rises, invisible and unstoppable, inside all those quiet trunks. Meanwhile, I’ve been grieving the pending loss of a thousand acres of 100-year-old trees in scattered parcels, all part of a logging project that will take away a century old biotic community, fifty acres at a time, in dozens of different places inside my home watershed. I’ll step away from that to join the green pom pom celebration:  tiny white pines stretching to their two or three inch height all over the drab brown, still-wintery ground of my backyard woods. I admire these little green beings, standing sturdy on lean stems, needled heads photosynthesizing furiously, unhindered by fear of the future. Starting as seeds released by a long-ago pine cone and now standing my finger’s height at two or three years old, they have planted themselves here, with a bit of help from the wind, water, and gravity. Take that little one I’ve photographed, its elderly relative a blurry trunk in the background. Look how she reaches up and out, all needles toward the light, regardless of the consequences. Maybe a poorly placed human foot will smite her unwittingly in her infancy. Maybe her top will snap in a windstorm when she’s only twenty or so, barely a toddler by human standards. Or maybe she’ll weather it all for more than two hundred years, stand a hundred feet tall, her diameter measured in feet instead of inches, making her own song of the wind. Maybe one day her blurry trunk will be surrounded by hundreds of tiny green pom poms. Thank you, tiny tree, for reminding me of possibilities. Continue reading

A Long, Long Fall

“What color would you say they are?” my husband asked yesterday as we were sitting at the small table in our living room, eating lunch by the window. He was writing in the journal we keep about what’s happening outside. It was December 10th, and bright red, orange, and burgundy leaves from the Bradford Pear tree were scattered all over the yard, shining out against the muted browns of our other yard trees’ leaves, most of which were raked away two weeks ago. He was asking about the leaves still on the tree, though. The last to let go of her green, the pear tree shifts colors as she fades, her leaves taking on just about every autumn hue before her leaves finally drop and eventually fade. Her twigs only began to let go about ten days ago. At the moment when Scott asked that question, the sunlight backlit the smattering of leaves still left on her branches and made them glow. I told him neon-peach. The pear is my autumn clock. Winter is officially here when she’s finally bare. Or at least that’s how it has been since I first met her in 1992. This decorative pear was planted in the front yard by my husband‘s ex father-in-law a few years before this place became my home. The type is non-native and generally considered invasive. From where I stand in the yard today, I see the pear tree’s sapling children in several places, all still holding some peachy leaves. They look like harmless shrubs, but I know better. I won’t let them reach flowering age. Today is cloudy, so I’m chastising myself for not coming out yesterday in the sunshine to take photographs. As I move around taking photos with my phone, I hear the train–another sign I associate with winter coming. When the train crosses the James River, the water and cliffs south of the river make the sound echo so it sounds close once the leaves have dropped in the forests between here and there. This year, the time of colorful, falling leaves came late and lingered long, longer than I can remember for more than a decade. But memory is a tricky thing. What I do know, though, is that the white snow drop flowers bloomed in November, and they are still blooming. These early spring bulbs should bloom on the other side of Winter Solstice…. Continue reading

I Love Winter Trees

Snow is so rare here in recent years that when it does happen, I drop everything to witness water’s winter performance art, the way the trees participate in the spectacle. Lacy lines and curves, intense dark-to-light contrast, the even whiter clouds, and behind everything that luxurious blue. It is worth neck craning and getting a little dizzy to look up for minutes at a time, spin around slowly in place, as if inside a kaleidoscope of beauty. As I sit here more than a week after that snow, outside ice is falling so lightly I can’t see it in the air but instead notice the gradual coating that’s happening: whitening along the top of the pole gate, for instance, and evergreen leaves on the pyracantha bush going grey as if painted in glass. After the one-inch storm that brought me out to take the picture above, we had a real snow event–six inches! Piled high and delicate along every tree branch, the woods were filled with snow art from ground to sky. I couldn’t remember ever seeing that kind of balancing act. But no photo I took looked anything like what I saw, standing as I was on the forest floor, surrounded by trees. So I put the phone in my pocket. Then, gratefully, I let my range of vision widen to its natural animal breadth. Continue reading


Winter days when the temperatures stays below 32 degrees have become exceedingly rare in my Virginia home, so when I wake up and see frost sparkling outside of my bedroom’s ground-level window, I make haste to get outside. Frozen only until the rising sun lifts the temperature, frost is fleeting; made of crystal structures so small it’s hard to see them without a magnifier, its beauty is intricate, delicate. What I like most is how it transforms the familiar forms of moss, dead leaves, twigs ends and fence wire into a particular kind of beauty, the kind of art only frozen water has the power to create. No matter how often I witness it transform my world, frost always strikes me as an original and unrepeatable event. Continue reading

Why Feed the Birds?

I’ve found a new reason to feed the birds this year: it makes me look up at the sky. Twice a day I’m reminded of a bigger, brighter world during this time when my eyes and mind so often sink under the ugliness of human society in this time of pandemic panic and what seems like the death of decency and democracy. Because I feed the birds, twice a day I let my whole self really look up. The wire that stretches across the west side of our yard is well above my head when it has no weight on it, so I have to reach my arms up to my full height and sometimes jump up a bit to hook on the first few of the six feeders. That’s when I see the morning sun slide in and shine across the naked branches of persimmon, tulip poplar and oak trees reaching across the air above me. Sometimes I’m stunned into a stand-still state of surprise, my head tipped back, unhung feeder in my hand, the process interrupted completely for a minute. I’ve been hanging feeders for years in this place, so why is it that only this year I’m being struck by the sight of illuminated twig patterns against a brilliant blue sky? At night, I wait until just after dark to bring the feeders in, after the birds have had their fill and disappeared to mysterious roosting spots. I have to look up to grab each feeder and lift it off its hook, and that’s when I see through the patterns of black leafless trees into a spectacular starry sky. I’ve been hanging feeders for years in this place, so why is it only this year that the stars are numerous enough to take my breath away, filling more of the sky than I’ve ever seen in my decades living here? Maybe it’s just that we’ve had a stretch of seasonable cold, dipping into the twenties at night like old fashioned winter weather here. Through a mosaic of black bare-tree lace I see a thousand points of light shining from endless space, as I unhook one feeder then the next from the long wire. More than once I’ve stopped mid process–a few feeders still hanging and swinging because I let go of the wire so abruptly, let go so I could just stand and wonder at the drastic… Continue reading