Winter’s End
Island Voices, March 2024

Winter’s End

By Michael Shook 

“… the hounds of Spring are on Winter’s traces …” 

They are indeed, lashed to a dead run by this year’s strong El Niño weather system. Buds are plump to bursting, daffodils, hyacinth, and crocus have been out and blooming for weeks, and the scents are shifting. In the late winter breezes, one can detect the increase in rot of grasses, leaves, and other detritus left from the fall, brought to us now in new stages of decomposition by the longer days and warmer temperatures.  

Like every season – like all living things! – winter yet holds fast, yielding reluctantly as the sun exerts its will. So, it is still winter, if not for much longer, and while I am able, I relish bathing in the cool and damp of these final weeks. There is still much to observe and enjoy. Well into December, the willows somehow hung onto their fall color, a surprising and delightful splash of turmeric-yellow leaves, only yielding to the ground after Christmas. Flowering red currants did likewise (albeit in milder shades of color), but now, after such sloth, they are hurrying on, hung with red-pink blossoms, an early feast for hummingbirds.

The deciduous trees remain bare, and the sculpture that is their living scaffold continues to reveal itself as an enchantment for the attentive observer. Endless divergent patterns of branches look sharply traced as pen and ink on paper, black bones of branches creating fractals of astonishing delicacy and bold strength, the whole of it held against a soothing backdrop of pillowy, low, blue-gray sky. 

How I have enjoyed the depths of winter. Everywhere I looked, new vistas were opened to me, the result of vegetation shed from hazelnut, salmon and thimbleberry, snowberry, and more. Even the damnable Himalayan blackberry lost its leaves and lapsed dormant, at least for a while. (I think – I still hesitate to turn my back on it.)

With brush and shrub trees denuded, I could see back into thickets that held all kinds of life, hidden from me for months. There, a deer bed beneath a closed-in hazelnut bower, and there, what looked like a low tunnel through heavy brown grasses and twinberry, likely made and used by raccoons. Taller archways made by deer – tall for deer, but not tall enough for me – showed a path through close-grown stands of oso that, were I considerably younger and more spry, I could have ducked into and snaked my way along. 

The towhees, winter thrushes, and sparrows were then, and are now, tireless in their vigorous scratching, looking for grubs, bugs, and other forage – though now they spend a little more time beginning to sing. Not that the towhees ever stopped. Their melodious, soft, and charming chirring accompanies me throughout my winter garden work, a gentle reminder of my mother, passionate in her love of all things avian, and who numbered the towhee among her favorites.

The robins are nowhere near as numerous as they soon will be, but they are still abundant enough to make a racket with their alarm calls, diving at a barred owl trying to rest in one of “their” trees. Bushtits, chickadees, juncos, and the odd kinglet flit through tangled nets of dark branches, pecking here, there – swinging upside down, or skittering sideways, one stance as good as any other – always on the move, the better to evade the resident sharp-shinned hawk. 

Fog is at its best in winter, and when it arrives, the landscape somehow becomes as quiet as if snow were on the ground. Gone, the neighbor’s homes, gone, the sky and horizon, all is closed in, hushed and damp, and the gray, grounded mist of clouds enfolds me. Walk through it, reach to touch it, it only recedes, then closes behind. But yet it touches us on its own terms, leaving itself behind as droplets of dew on hat, coat, spectacles, and skin. It is there, and not there, surrounding but apart, a liquid spectral touch that is, for me, an intimate, reserved welcome. 

Winter is the time for slowing down, for looking intently (for seeing), not just or always at the larger forms of trees against horizons, or the yellow willow and red twig dogwood, but seeing down, at ferns and the mosses and lichens that cover tree trunks, stones, and pathways. The myriad kinds glow with energy, their colors intense, layered, their liveliness vibrant. On large granite rocks near the entrance to our woodland garden, the moss is rampant and wildly abundant, spreading across stone, simultaneously delicate and stout, vigorously weaving new fronds while the cool damp it thrives in still prevails. A few feet away, the moss clinging to the big-leaf maple trunks is of an entirely different kind, but no less electric in its vitality and richness of colour. 

Winter is also, appropriately, the time of death. The leaves dropped in fall, along with branches, and entire trees blown down in winter storms decay and nourish the soil for the life coming this spring – a vivid demonstration that there cannot be life without death. I often have wished for a word that somehow combined the two – lifedeath, deathlife, I don’t know – something, though, that might convey the inseparability of what is truly one great force, what IS.

Everything is continually coming into being, and even when to our mortal eyes it seems all is coming to an end as well, it is not. Round and round and round … Winter comes, does its work, then yields to spring, and is there any doubt that spring is as sweet as it is because of winter? It is precisely because of the seasons – of our lives, as well as of the calendar years – that this experience we call “life” is so precious, so profoundly and poignantly meaningful. So, I look forward to the surging tide of life that is spring, while I look back, gratefully, to all winter gave, and still gives.  

March 7, 2024

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