A Chapter of Things To See This Winter
T HE first snowstorm! I would not miss seeing the first snowstorm, not if I had to climb up to my high, tarry, smoky roof in the city and lie down on my back, as I once did, in order to shut out everything but the gray wavering flakes that came scattering from the sky. But how marvelously white and airy they looked, too, coming down over the blackened city of roofs, transfiguring it with their floating veil of purity! You must see the first snowfall, and, if you want to, jump and caper with the flakes, as I always do.
The sorrows of winter are its storms. They are its greatest glories also. One should no more miss the sight of the winter storms than he should miss the sight of the winter birds and stars, the winter suns and moons! A storm in summer is only an incident; in winter it is an event, a part of the main design. Nature gives herself over by the month to the planning and bringing off of the winter storms—vast arctic shows, the dreams of her wildest moods, the work of her mightiest minions. Do not miss the soft feathery fall that plumes the trees and that roofs the sheds with Carrara marble; the howling blizzard with its fine cutting blast that whirls into smoking crests; the ice-storm that comes as slow, soft rain to freeze as it falls, turning all the world to crystal: these are some of the miracles of winter that you must not fail to see.
You must see how close you had passed to and fro all summer to the vireo's nest, hanging from the fork on a branch of some low bush or tree, so near to the path that it almost brushed your hat. Yet you never saw it!
Go on and make a study of the empty nests; see particularly how many of them were built out along the roads or paths, as if the builders wished to be near their human neighbors—as, indeed, I believe they do. Study how the different birds build—materials, shapes, finish, supports; for winter is the better season in which to make such study, the summer being so crowded with interests of its own.
When the snow hardens, especially after a strong wind, go out to see what you can find in the wind furrows of the snow—in the holes, hollows, pockets, and in footprints in the snow. Nothing? Look again, closely—that dust—wind-sweepings—seeds!
Yes, seeds. Gather several small boxes of them and when you return home take a small magnifying glass and make them out—the sticktights, gray birches, yellow birches, pines, ragweeds, milfoil—I cannot number them! It is a lesson in the way the winds and the snows help to plant the earth. Last winter I followed for some distance the deep frozen tracks of a fox, picking out the various seeds that had drifted into every footprint, just so far apart, as if planted in the snow by some modern planting-machine. It was very interesting.
When the snow lies five or six inches deep, walk out along the fence-rows, roadsides, and old fields to see the juncos, the sparrows, and goldfinches feeding upon the seeds of the dead weeds standing stiff and brown above the snow. Does the sight mean anything to you? What does it mean?
Burns has a fine poem
in which, he
Did you ever ask yourself the question? Go forth,
then, as the dusk begins to fall one of these chill
winter days and try to see "what comes
You will come back from your watching in the dusk with the feeling that a winter night for the birds is unspeakably dreary, perilous, and chill. You will close the door on the darkness outside with a shiver as much from dread as from the cold.
you will think of the partridge beneath the snow, the crow in his swaying pine-top, the kinglet in the close-armed cedar, the wild duck riding out the storm in his freezing water-hole, and you will be glad for your four thick walls and downy blankets, and you will wonder how any creature can live through the long, long night of cold and dark and storm. But there is another view of this same picture; another picture, rather, of this same stormy, bitter night which you must not miss seeing. Go out to see how the animals sleep, what beds they have, what covers to keep off the cold: the mice in the corn-shocks; the muskrats in their thick mud homes; the red squirrels in their rocking, wind-swung beds, so soft with cedar bark and so warm that never a tooth of the cold can bite through!
This winter I have had two letters asking me how best to study the mosses and lichens, and I answered, "Begin now." Winter, when the leaves are off, the ground bare, the birds and flowers gone, and all is reduced to singleness and simplicity—winter is the time to observe the shapes, colors, varieties, and growth of the lichens. Not that every lover of nature needs to know the long Latin names (and many of these lesser plants have no other names), but that every lover of the out-of-doors should notice them—the part they play in the color of things, the place they hold in the scheme of things, their exquisite shapes and strange habits.
You should see the brook, "bordered with sparkling frost-work . . . as gay as with its fringe of summer flowers." You should examine under a microscope the wonderful crystal form of the snowflakes—each flake shaped by an infinitely accurate hand according to a pattern that seems the perfection, the very poetry, of mechanical drawing.
What a world of gray days, waste lands, bare woods, and frozen waters there is to see! And you should see them—gray and bare and waste and frozen. But what is a frozen pond for if not to be skated on? and waste white lands, but to go sleighing over? and cold gray days, but so many opportunities to stay indoors with your good books?
See the winter bleak and cheerless as at times you will, and as at times you ought; still if you will look twice, and think as you look, you will see the fishermen on the ponds catching pickerel through the ice—life swimming there under the frozen surface! You will see the bare empty woodland fresh budded to the tip of each tiny twig—life all over the trees thrust forward to catch the touch of spring! You will see the wide flinty fields thick sown with seeds—life, more life than the sun and the soil can feed, sleeping there under "the tender, sculpturesque, immaculate, warming, fertilizing snow"!