December 27, 2014

Tempering December's Expectations

Today, began with a perfect December sunrise, full of winter clarity and color.  All year, I look forward to the quiet insulation of snowfalls, the crystalline transformation of the land and waterways, the freezing over of wetlands that invites deeper exploration of their secrets. But as the holiday whirlwind subsides, I am startled by the strength of my own longing for a wintery December walk and how that brings disappointment in the unusually warm weather we're having.

I head out to Great Meadows and join a swarm of holiday visitors along the Dike Trail, who are basking in the warmth of the mid-day sun.  Inside, I'm grumbling about the absence of ice and snow, the chatter, the flatness of the light on the monochromatic landscape.  Then I catch my thoughts.  When I lead each monthly walk here, I ask all participants to set aside their expectations and preoccupations in order to fully receive what this special place has to offer in the moments that we pass through it.  And so, I do now, and the day becomes a revelation.

First, I pass through small clouds of Chironomids (non-biting gnats) pulsing up and down over the expected encounter during ice-out on warming spring days, but not in December.  I notice the joy on passing faces, in appreciation for this unexpected, post-holiday warmth, and turn to see shimmering ribbons of light in the marsh with a muskrat lodge hovering above the twinkles like a mirage.

Once at the river, remnants of pumpkins float by and their orange brilliance stands out against the drab shorelines.  Unusually high water this month, swept them from the lower fields at Hutchins' Farm across the way.  While chuckling at the pumpkins, a rooster's midday crowing catches my ear, followed by another, and then another (in baritone voice) from neighboring farms.

Where I stand, the river's rise has nearly reached the trail's edge, filling the floodplain forest with a rare winter inundation.  Minding my expectations, I'm still hoping that this high water will freeze solid in the coming months to form a "dance floor" through the forest filled with flash frozen treasures and ice skirts around the trees as waters recede.

Moving more deeply into communion with the light, temperature, and gentle breeze of the day, I realize that this a more perfect day for baby spiders to hatch and balloon than we had in all of November.  Sure enough there are shimmering gossamer strands trailing out from the cattail heads and tiny spiders crawling about on their tips.


Crackling sounds from deep within the tangles of cattail stalks along the trail, catch the attention of some visitors passing by.  I point out chickadees who are diligently shredding these dried reeds looking for insect larvae.  In November, they spent more time up in the seed heads, gleening out tiny black seeds while helping to loosen the tension-packed bundles. 

At the far eastern turn in the dike trail, there was a surprising and baffling scene...a beaver-cut branch dangling from a leaning silver maple tree.  Imagine the beaver who climbed this tree, likely at night, to nibble and cut this woody stub five feet above the water's surface!

In my final stretch along the dike trail and through the woods, I enjoy the company of an adult bald eagle.  Bald eagles have been visiting the refuge almost daily this winter, drawn by the presence of many coots who have chosen to stick around this winter.  This hunter made a few circles over the eastern end of the lower impoundment.  Then while I and a visiting couple are walking along the edge trail, the eagle comes in for several close passes over them and then me.  It appears that it is curious about our movements in the woods, and perhaps the bright red coat that the other young woman is wearing.

With my expectations tempered by today's welcome surprises, I return home for the afternoon.  At dusk, while returning some borrowed tables and chairs up the road, I stop by Thoreau's birthplace to enjoy the sight of the waxing moon and wisps of pink clouds hanging over it and to catch the somewhat uncertain call of a white-throated sparrow.

Following the color home, I watch the daylight fade in clarity and color as it began.

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