Tuesday, February 1, 2011

In Praise of Winter

Winter is often when we have very mixed emotions about the weather.  It can be gray and bleak, bitter cold and damp, and even a bit treacherous on occasion.  But, I still say that living in a region that still has four seasons is a treat.  I want to share an essay written by Paul Schiff, retired wildlife educator, that was in our Wild Ohio Magazine over 18 years ago.  I think his sentiment still rings true today.  Enjoy!

In Praise of Winter
by Paul Schiff

Winter. Cold, wet, snowy winter.  Bleak, gray, barren, lifeless, depressing winter.  Poetry and song dismiss winter in favor of themes like the good ol' summertime and autumn leaves. It's difficult to find praise of winter, other than when it's referenced as a foreteller of spring.  And yet...

There are bright sunny days after a new snow, rosy cheeked children with sleds, snowmen, rabbit tracks to follow and winter birds at the feeder; winter has its moments.

For those of us who spend most of our leisure waking moments in the out-of-doors, winter becomes a challenge.  With the challenge met and feet snug in warm comfortable boots, winter is perhaps nature's most revealing time of year.

You can see things in winter that are hidden in other times.  Hidden by leaves and the dominance of green and growing things.

Last January I saw a red fox sunning itself on a hay bale left in the field.  If the fox hadn't raised its head I might not have noticed. There was a new snow and the red of the fox in the spotlight of winter sun peeking through the clouds was remarkable.  You won't see that in June.

I'd walked the day for the fun of seeing tracks and other winter marvels in the new snow.  I followed a pheasant trail until the bright colored bird flushed with a loud cackle from a bittersweet tangle in an old fencerow.  I automatically raised an imaginary shotgun and said "Bang" as my line of sight swung in front of the bird.  Pheasant season was out.  The old boy was safe.

A few berries that hung yet on the bittersweet looked like Christmas tree ornaments.  Juncos and song sparrows played hopscotch down the fencerow in front of me as I stopped for a closer look.

Fencerows are neat.  They provide food and travel lanes for wildlife of all kinds, especially in the winter.  But they are a landscape feature that is quickly disappearing in favor of larger and larger fields for monocultures of corn and beans.

You can walk the riparian corridor of a small stream more easily in winter.  You can see where a mink explored a root tangle and where other animals have visited any unfrozen trickle for a drink.  You can see squirrel leaf nests high among the branches of streamside cottonwoods and sycamores, and where deer have nipped buds and left their hoof prints in the mud or snow.

There is of course the occasional deep snow or severe blow--the winter of "76 or the 1950 snow (I don't remember this one, but I've been told it was a doozy).  These memories and the potential of extremes make winter weather watching exciting.  The first thing I do when the weather is at its foulest, is to find some excuses to venture out.  We should all experience this and imagine what it might have been like before the time of flip the switch for creature comfort; and what it's like for wildlife.

Wildlife can have a tough time in winter.  When deep snow or freezing rain cover available food survival is a struggle.  Of course wildlife survival is a struggle all year long.  That's part of the plan.  And in truth, wildlife has survived Midwest winters for centuries before people were around to worry about it.  The axe and plow doom more wildlife than the most severe winter. 

So dress right, eat your oatmeal.  Just like wildlife, our choices are to adapt or migrate.  If we choose to adapt and explore winter for all it's worth, we should find plenty to like.  And as long as the present rotation of seasons includes just one winter, I wouldn't trade it for any other season.