Winter’s barren landscapes chide us to give our attention to the splendor of things nearby. When the air is thick and the sky overcast, we need not travel so far to have high expectations, for in her nakedness she teaches us to be less distracted but instead to be more connected, more aware.
~Henry David Thoreau
Here in the Piedmont, we are accustomed to having our hopes for snow dashed at the last minute. Places an hour away usually get the white stuff and we get nothing, or just a couple of flakes. Last week was different. They had predicted a trace for our area, but we managed a full 2.5 inches! Not huge by any stretch, but this snow is “real snow” – dry powdery snow that you can sweep off the walkway instead of shovel. And it has been so cold (temperatures at night in the lower teens) that it is still white, a full four days after the snowfall. Unlike most of the people I know, I like cold weather. It is physically invigorating, gives more reason to chop wood for the fireplace, and, on a sunny day, brings a crispness to your surroundings that help you see and appreciate details in the landscape. I notice this about winter skies, and a winter walk in the woods is no different. Here are a few of those details from a hike in the neighborhood this week.
I am fascinated by ice. We walked down to the neighborhood pond to check for ice, following the path of an intermittent stream that runs behind our house. Close to the pond, the creek has permanent water, and we had to look closely to see these leaves were actually suspended in extremely clear ice.
Walking along the creek bank at the pond was a noisy stroll, the soil crunching with every step.
I turned to look at a duck out on the pond (which was still mostly ice-free that day) and saw my path littered with chunks of ice crystals. This distinctive columnar shape is called needle ice (also known as frost pillars or frost columns). This occurs in porous soils where the ground temperature is above freezing and the air temperature is below. Water from the soil is pulled upward by capillary action. The ice columns tend to push away the soil at the surface and can make for a very noisy walk, with each step throwing chunks of connected ice columns, some a few inches in length.
Along the back edge of the pond you walk through a grove of young American sycamores. The variety of bark textures and colors is amazing. Another advantage to the winter woods, a new appreciation for bark.
Back on our property (about a mile from the community pond), I pause to admire the unusual bark of a huge tulip poplar tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) in the front yard. This, and a couple of other smaller tulip poplars nearby, have strange bumps and twists in the bark that are particularly noticeable in the golden glow of late afternoon light in winter. I have asked several people, but no one seems to know for sure what causes this.
Of course, tracks in the snow are one of the perks of a winter walk and the property is covered with distinctive shapes and patterns of hopping songbirds, bounding squirrels, a lone coyote trail, small groups of deer, and, surprisingly, only one white-footed mouse. Maybe they are laying low in these cold temperatures. This one trail led across a path and disappeared into a tiny hole under the snow next to a tree trunk.
With sunset approaching, we decided to walk the path we have through our 14+ acres. It was so quiet in the woods with the sun glowing on the far ridge line of our property.
The far property boundary is marked by a nearby giant – a huge white oak that is the largest tree on our land. I like to think it is 250+ years old based on its huge size compared to other trees I had to cut after storm damage. One of those had 126 growth rings, and it was nowhere near the diameter of this behemoth. A huge limb broke out this winter, providing a sheltered hollow that I hope one day will be taken up by one of the resident owls. I can’t help but think that I am not the only creature in these woods fascinated by this giant.
While many of my friends look like this old tree hollow when temperatures drop, I find it exhilarating and definitely worth the chill to explore the nearby woods. I encourage you to bundle up, and do the same.