The Advent of Winter

Again, the wilderness:

The winds finally subsided this afternoon after two days of strong southerly and then northeasterly breezes bringing the temps down and the leaves down and my mood down as the final leaves fell and I switched from flip flops to Vans to head outside. Winter is here.

Still, my spirits received a lift as the sky went blue, dark blue, almost edge-of-space blue, and the bare branches at the tops of oaks and maples reached out like tan and white boney fingers against that sky. It is stunning, and I love that the colors of autumn are followed by equally beautiful branches of early winter. There’s something about the raw barrenness of the top limbs which, to me, feels strong, confident, even when—especially when—they reach back into a strong gale of a passing storm.

I like the fallen leaves and leave them on the lawn and paths as long as possible. Partly because they sound like some Copeland measure when I walk through them and partly because the resulting mulch is really good for the ground and partly because I’m busy, but eventually I clear the lawn and the paths, as I finished doing just before the storm this week. It is always one of the ways I can tell winter has arrived: As autumn progresses from late September through October and even November, I might, sometimes, rake and clear some areas, but inevitably the gentlest of winds returns the leaves and more, and despite the multitudes on the bushes and the porch and the paths and the driveway, the tops of the trees still look like mid-July and my work feels somehow in vain. But now as November closes and the advent of December finds me pulling out sweaters and socks, the bare branches mean even after a storm like we had yesterday, the cleared areas are still clear, the driveway still visible, and we can move back to the firepit on the patio and know no bugs will bother us again for quite some time.  

Coastal Virginia has one cold-weather issue I’ve never been able to adjust to. It is wet; chilly to-the-bone wet, humid-cold wet like I’ve been doused in ice water before putting on my clothes. Forty degrees here can feel like ten in western New York where when I’m there in winter, not just as a college student forty years ago but as recently as last year, I can go outside in just a sweater and feel fine because of the dry air. The same happened when I lived in central Massachusetts. But here along the bay, when the weather calls for wind chills, we take it very seriously, because even without the wind the air can hold that frozen feeling out there like breathe, like fog, and just like that forty feels like four and it takes a while to warm up. Other than that I’m fine with winter here on the river, and I know that Steinbeck was right when he wondered what good is the warmth of summer without the cold of winter.

But the true sign the weather has changed and is not returning to any false summers or even hints of autumn is the call of geese coming up over the trees in the west, and the flock appearing a few dozen at a time out over the fields, and then more, and more, until hundreds and hundreds fill the sky so I can hear the wings pushing them along and their call can be deafening. They settle in the barren cornfield just to the east, and it is almost always right before twilight so that if I plan my walk right, I can be midway between the house and the river and watch them fill all the areas. It has an eternal quality, like rapids, or the distant sound of thunder, like some primordial ritual playing out the same as it played out for thousands of years. My turn to observe what at one time happened without voyeurs, without the stubble of plowed corn.

This is the time of year to keep the feeders filled, the baths filled until the freeze, and to sit inside and watch flocks of titmice, wrens, and cardinals find the porch rail and the backs of the wicker chairs. Some even balance on the windowpane, the outside reflected on the glass so that they might even believe they’re on some odd branch. And then one afternoon the first of what will be a half dozen or so times, a thousand—more—starlings will turn the sky black as they move in unfathomable synchronized fashion to the trees, filling them so that from below, the branches look filled with black leaves, like summer but a monochrome version of summer, and you can hear them from inside so that you have to leap up and head outside, only to disturb them and then the vibrations fill the air again as they move off for some forest upriver. It is a sight and sound to behold, to be sure.

Certainly, I miss warm weather, the early autumn walks through the paths here at Aerie, still in my flipflops, still in shorts. I miss waking up and walking right outside without a concern about what to wear. But now, on the front edge of winter, I feel more a part of something larger than the season itself; it’s as if time on this land, on this Middle Peninsula, has layered itself instead of remaining linear, and I have a sense of winters past, long ago, when this land was part of some nearby plantation, and some of my neighbors ancestors worked the nearby acres against their will, and on a still, cold night, when the geese have settled down and the branches reach out bonelike in their graveyard of oaks and beechwood, I sit still on the patio and listen closely and I wonder about the sounds of centuries past, during the winter, when some people simply could not beat back the chill, the to-the-bone cold.

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