The first day of the new year broke a brittle, metallic cold. My footsteps gave a hollow sound as I walked to the shed where the birdseed is kept. How long has it been since the ground has frozen solid and stayed that way throughout the day? The morning glow was just starting to gild the topmost branches of the tallest trees as the rising sun chased the waning moon from the sky. Not having stayed up until midnight to give 2001 the boot, the sparrows and juncos were already gleaning the platform feeder for the few seeds left by our nightly hoofed visitors.
Two days earlier, neighbors and friends came to our house to celebrate, not the beginning of the new year but the end of the old one. Among the twenty or so people present, a remarkable number had suffered the loss of loved ones or serious illness in their families. And, like all Americans, we had come to define past and present as either pre- or post-September 11. This was a year like no other. There is an old Icelandic New Year's Eve custom, brenna til brenna-fire to fire-where each town erects an enormous bonfire and the people symbolically burn the cares of the outgoing year. Drawing on that custom, we provided paper and pens for our guests to privately write down whatever sad or troubling events they had endured in 2001 and toss them into our fireplace. And, I must say, there was a sense of release in sending that stuff up in smoke.
Even as the months go by, we seek out comfort and peace of mind in many ways, old and new. With the familiar rituals of the holidays behind us, we are left with the dark, short days of "bleak midwinter." But wait. Is it really so bleak as all that? There is something about the quiet, dormant days and nights of deepest winter that draws one to the naked heart of nature. Life goes on, albeit more challengingly for most creatures, but it does go on. A woodpecker's call cuts like a knife through the dry, crisp air. A dozen or more small birds rustle in the brush pile. The calls of two male great horned owls and a female triangulate under the frigid full moon-and our house is in the middle of the love triangle. At least ten different tracks of creatures feathered and furred etch the overnight dusting of snow. Something very small and very dark skitters across the patio and disappears into the rock wall. And this is just the welcome abundance of life we find on our one-third acre homestead!
As that same January sun drifted toward the western horizon, my husband, our dog and I walked along the Delaware near our Titusville home. Delicate rafts of newborn ice slowly drifted downriver. Thicker ice along the shore crackled under Stubbur's massive webbed paws. Another day or two of sub-freezing temperatures and the ice would choke all but a narrow channel, squeezing the thousand or so Canada geese into their own tight raft. Overhead, a silent armada of vultures, both turkey and black, sailed toward their nightly roost on the hill. There is reassurance in the constancy of nature, its rhythms repeated year after year. We yearn to be in step with that rhythm, whether we know it or not. Perhaps this primal calling is what draws us into our conservation milieu. We each, in our own way, do what we can to ensure that the rhythm does not miss a beat, even in troubled times. While much of nature slumbers, we reflect and regroup. Spring will come as surely as life lies sleeping in the already-formed buds on the tallest trees, now clad in an umber wash by the settling orb.
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