When your life is primarily defined by the growing season, winter can be a time of waiting. But indoors begins to feel cramped and isolating by the end of January. So I am turning a page and beginning to focus again on the outdoors. The first real month of deep winter is over, and even though we have had some exceptionally mild days, thanks no doubt to climate change, the gradual lengthening of daylight hours has not changed from one decade to the next. We are coming into a lighter season, and I am glad.
Because of a sore knee today, I could not take my usual vigorous walk on the road. Instead, I decided to slowly amble through the old pasture to the east of my house. At first it seemed drab and lifeless, the tan hummocks of dead grass and the bare tree trunks dominating the landscape. But with the slow pace, I finally began noticing things. I remember playing an environmental game, Signs of Life, with my students years ago, and this morning I was playing that game again. Although I saw no birds, insects or animals, all around me and under my feet were signs of life. First there were animal paths curving through the grass, easier to see in the winter than the summer, leading sometimes to the creek, sometimes to a hole in a fallen tree. And on these paths were piles of various scat: deer, rabbit, raccoon, and some unidentifiable scat (wildcat? beaver?). The only footprints I saw were on top of the scat, and were of raccoon and deer. There was a tuft of absolutely white fur lying on the dark earth, and nearby were the feathered remains of a bird who made someone's lunch.
As I walked through the valley beside the stream (Wapsinonoc Creek), I was surrounded by nature run wild, old fallen trees covering the ground in some places while strong giant oaks ruled the near-sky. I found that someone long ago had protected several trees by a squared off wooden fence, and these trees are thriving now, having survived the pasture years when grazing cows might have damaged their bark and branches. There is a stand of sumac at the far corner of the pasture, the dark seedheads from last fall still clinging to the branches. And several rows of hardwoods planted ten years ago are thriving, hundreds of young trees forming a riparian zone to protect the creek from run-off farming chemicals.
At the far edge of the old pasture, I turned and walked to the top of the hill, going back toward the house along the perimeter of the cornfield. Obviously the deer and raccoon like this route as well, and our tracks made a real thoroughfare across the land. On my right were big trees, low-growing brush, and nature taking its own course; on my left a harvested field with cornstalks mixed into the black earth. I had a rush of gratitude that this old pasture land has been allowed to remain as it is, unplowed, ungrazed, having a life of its own with little intrusion. These animal paths have not felt human footsteps for months. But now that I have taken inventory on this first day of February, I intend to walk there often and watch the changes manifesting as the light grows and as the end of winter finally ushers in warmer winds.