Monday, December 23, 2013

Scenes of Christmas Love

Each year at this time, I set up a little shrine to dear Santa and gather around him all the woodland creatures who live in the North Woods -- or at least as many creatures as I can find models of.  Of course, many of these creatures would be hibernating at Christmas time or would surely be prey for the predators among them, but we trust that Santa's love for them has cast its spell of warmth and peaceableness over them, so all would be safe and well. Since I last posted this scene on my blog two years ago, he's acquired a few new friends: otter, skunk, beaver, snowshoe hare, cottontail rabbit, bobcat, snowy owl, bald eagle, and (highly improbably!) one tiny little penguin, who must have hitched a ride on Santa's sleigh as it passed over the South Pole.   The penguin and the rabbit and the Mallard hen were all gifts this year from our friend Jennifer, who also gave me the canoe-toting Santa many years ago, when she lived next door to us and saw me toting my canoe to the river almost daily.  So this is a shrine to friendship, as well as to Santa-the-spirit-of-giving and also to all the woodland creatures who represent the amazing diversity of life on our fragile planet.

Of course, because it is Christmas, I also have another shrine set up to honor the birth of the Child whose entry into human existence has transformed human history.  I would guess you don't have to believe in Jesus' divinity to acknowledge he had such an impact.  Or to marvel at the stories that tell of his birth.  I composed the following meditation on these stories a few years ago, and I share it again this year.

Yes, Virginia, There Really WAS a Baby Jesus

Christmas Eve. The time has arrived to deck the halls and light the lights and arrange the creche sets in their places of honor. What a beautiful story they tell, even to those who cannot believe that Jesus was divine, or even to those Christians (like me) who turn to these infancy narratives more for their symbolic truth than for any historical fact.

Here's a tale about how God comes to us wherever we are and in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. Whether Mary actually gave birth in a stable or not, it doesn't matter. We who have endured the duress of childbirth can imagine how terribly stressful that would have been. My creche sets show Mary all clean and combed, with her flowing robes pristine. How was she able to take a bath in that barn? Our hearts go out to her -- and to all who suffer, frightened and filthy and far from home. And what does the image of baby Jesus, lying there where the animals feed, tell us about where God can be found? Right there (right here!) among the earthiest of all God's creatures, in whatever kind of shelter we can find.

Religion and its accretions have prettied up this narrative so, that I think we forget what low-lifes most shepherds were at the time when Jesus was born. Pretty much the dregs of society, no doubt, and they probably smelled bad, too. (Like the homeless guys who hang out in the library, getting warm.) The notion that God would send angels to them, that they would be the first to know about such a miraculous thing -- it's just too unlikely, isn't it, to be believed!? Unless God was trying to tell us something about the least of our brethren.
And what about those Three Kings? Can you imagine how surprised they must have been, to find not a prince in a palace but a little babe in a humble home? They came all that way for this? And what use could the infant Jesus have possibly had for gold, frankincense, and myrrh? Could it be they were symbols of the wealth and power and pomp that the grown-up Jesus had no use for, either?

As I said before, it's a wonderful story -- even better, I think, than the one about Santa Claus, the Santa that one little girl named Virginia was once reassured was real. Well, I love the story about Santa, too. So I have a little shrine set up for him as well -- albeit with a few accretions that reflect my own heart's desires: note his lightweight canoe and abundant woodland friends.
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May the peace and love that we celebrate in these Christmas stories be with you and yours not only at Christmas, but all through the year.

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Light Shines in the Darkness

As Solstice arrives tomorrow, the light will start to return to us in these northern climes.  But today I am grieving a light that will not return to me ever again, the light that my dear Uncle John brought into my life from the day I was born.  He died today, so far from me that I could not bring any comfort to him in his last days.  I think it is that that I grieve today, more than his passing, for he had been ill for many months and I am comforted that his dying was neither painful nor prolonged.  But I think of all the comfort and joy he brought to me all my days, and I am sad that I could not have been with  him as he died.

My Uncle John was just 12 years old when I was born, and he lived just up the hill with my Grandma and Grandpa.  So he was more like a wonderful older brother to me than an uncle.  He taught me to swim and to paddle when I was just a little girl, he taught me the names of the plants and the trees and the animals, and he was always kind and patient with me and fun to be with.  We lived on a lake, with surrounding meadows and woods, an incredible playground for a girl and her big-brother uncle to frolic in.  On Christmas mornings, I looked forward more to his arriving than I did to all the presents under the tree.  Imagine that!

I loved his children, and then later, he loved mine, showering them with enthusiastic appreciation for all that they were and teaching them some of the very things he had taught me as a child:  love of nature, love of music, and how to be loving and kind.  He was a fine musician, and boy, could he tell a good story! 

We hadn't spent Christmas morning together since I was still in high school, way back in the 1950s.  But that sense of joy and excitement that's still attached to how I feel about Christmas morning has much to do with how much I loved my uncle and rejoiced in his company.   Now and for all the rest of my days I rejoice in that memory.

Sunday, December 15, 2013


 Ohboy ohboy ohboy ohboy!  SNOW!  And LOTS of it!  More than we've had in one snowfall in years!  And it was perfect snow, soft and light and airy, the kind you can walk right through without snowshoes, even if it comes almost up to your knees.

As soon as I got my car dug out, I drove out to the south edge of town to the Saratoga Spa State Park.  That's where I took the rest of these photos.

There were lots of folks enjoying the park today, including these young women who'd come whizzing down the hill on skis.   Megan (the one on the ground) had made it all the way down before taking a tumble, to the amusement of her friends Braiden (lending Megan a hand) and Molly.  All three are relatively new residents of Saratoga Springs, in the process of discovering many of the delights their new hometown has to offer.  Especially when it snows!

Monday, December 9, 2013

Where's OUR Snow?

Aw geez!  States far to the south of us get over a FOOT of snow, and what do we get? Oh, maybe an inch!  I'd be out of luck if I needed to photograph a snowy landscape for a Christmas card, but we do have a few pretty scenes around here that look a little bit wintery.  I went over to the Hudson today and was struck by how absolutely beautiful the river appeared, with snow-dusted forested banks rising steeply above the dark still water, misty clouds resting on the very tops of the mountains.

This emerald-green Wood Fern looked very Christmassy,  resting its fir-tree-shaped fronds on the bright-white surface of the snow.

Hobblebush buds -- both flowers and leaves -- are all snug in the furry coats that will keep them safe through the sub-zero months of winter.

What could look more holiday-festive than a marsh-full of brilliant-red Winterberry shrubs?

Some of the berries even wore a tiny cap of snow.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

A Winter-weeds Walk at Bog Meadow

I keep hearing reports of terrible weather all over the country, but here in Saratoga County, all remains temperate and calm.  We had a little snow last night, but by noon not a trace was left, with temperatures well above freezing.  A nice deep snowfall sure would add some interest to a woodswalk about now,  relieving the monotony of the dull browns and grays that color the forests and swamps.  I almost have to push myself out the door these days, since there's little out there that is calling to me.  I always find many rewards, however, as I did on a walk at Bog Meadow Nature Trail today.

 I hadn't walked here in quite some time, even though this wetland trail lies only a couple of miles east of my home in Saratoga Springs.  The last time I stopped by, the trail was underwater, due to beavers clogging the culverts that channel the water under the trail.   But thanks to the diligent efforts of trail steward Geoff Bourneman and other volunteers from Saratoga PLAN (the land-conservation group that supervises the maintenance of this trail), the clogs have been cleared and impediments put in place to discourage further beaver interference.  For the time being, anyway.  We all know how resourceful those beavers can be!

This trail is only about two miles long, but it's home to many marvelous native plants that thrive in just such a wetlands environment.  I set myself a little exercise today, trying to name some of these plants in their winter disguises. 

One of the most abundant inhabitants here is the Flat-top Aster (Doellingeria umbellata), and its fluffy seed-heads could be easily seen all over the marsh.

I love how the pods of Wild Bean (Apios americana) twist in a spiral, revealing the reddish bean-like seeds within.  Another name for this climbing vine is Groundnut, referring to the edible tubers that form among the roots.

Virgin's Bower (Clematis virginiana) has some of the most beautiful seed-pods of all, great fluffy clusters of swirling silvery threads that suggest this native vine's alternate name of Old Man's Beard.

The tall skinny stalks of Thimbleweed (Anemone virginiana) are topped by thimble-shaped seedpods that have now split open to offer their fluffy seeds to the wind.

Northern Willow Herb (Epilobium ciliatum ssp. glandulosum)  has tiny pink flowers that turn into long skinny seed pods that split open and then turn all twisty-curly, reminding me of the touseled locks of a towhead.

I just could not get all the seedpods of this carousel of Canada Lilies (Lilium canadense) included in one well-focused photo.  There's yet a sixth pod soaring above these five.  All were soaring well above my head on a tall thin stalk.  When these flowers bloom, they dangle down like bells, but eventually the brilliant flowers of red or yellow or orange turn upward as they go to seed.

Here's a closer look at the Canada Lily's seedpod, revealing the delicate stitchery that holds the three parts of the pod (now empty of seeds) together.

 I have no idea what plant produced these paired white bracts dangling from stems that were crowded on the same hummock as these slender green leaves growing out of the frozen water.  The fact that they're dangling on stalks rules out most other marsh plants I could think of, like Skullcaps or Bellflowers.  Guess I'll send this photo to some plant experts I know, but I sure would welcome any guesses in the meantime.

Update:  In his comment to this post, Andrew Gibson weighs in for Mad-dog Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora), which was my first guess, as well.  But I was put off by the length of the pedicels, since when blooming, the flowers appear to be stalkless.

I had no trouble at all recognizing the bright red fruits of Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) leaning over the frozen water of the open marsh.

Rivaling that Winterberry for redness were the ripe hips of a wild rose.   I'm guessing that this is Swamp Rose (Rosa palustris), since I remember that fragrant species blooming at or near this very site during the summer.  Another clue is the lack of thorns on most of its twigs.

While pushing my way through a streamside thicket, I was glad that this Poison Sumac (Toxicodendron vernix) advertised its species by its dangling clusters of white berries, so that I could avoid grabbing its branches when I broke through the frozen mud.  Even though I seem to have outgrown my sensitivity to the toxins of Poison Ivy, Oak, and Sumac,  there's no sense pushing my luck about it.  Happily, birds are immune to the toxins and will devour the fruits before spring.

Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) already has a jump on spring by sending up spathes even before winter arrives.

It's not hard to recognize Red Osier Dogwood (Cornus sericea), with branches that live up to its name in every season of the year.  Some other dogwoods may also have reddish branches, but none as richly ruby red as these.

Here's another plant, a liverwort called Frullania,  that looks about the same, no matter what season of the year.  At least, its leaves do, those dark-brown spidery branches that spread across the bark of trees.  But those reddish bumps could be fruiting bodies, and I don't recall ever seeing them before. Nor am I certain they ARE fruiting bodies.

  I confess that my knowledge of liverworts is very scant.  I certainly couldn't tell you the species name of this Frullania, of which there are several hundred, I've been told.   I do know that these dark, almost black liverworts grow abundantly in almost every woods I walk in, but until my friend Evelyn Greene pointed them out to me a couple of years ago, I never noticed them.  And now I see them everywhere.  In every season of the year.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

As Winter Nears

There's ice on Mud Pond now, from shore to shore.  And although flocks of geese still fly in to float on what's left of open water on Moreau Lake, the back bay and shallow coves of the lake are solidly frozen.   Or were, the last time I looked, a couple of days ago.  Today was rather balmy, as December days go, with temperatures up in the 40s all day.  It was quiet, too.  No wind.  Nice day for a walk along the river, which is where I went, to my favorite place where the Hudson runs back behind an island and into sheltered coves.  The coves were covered with ice, but I could see open water out on the river's main channel.

I love it back here in these quiet coves, especially one bouldered, pine-needle-carpeted island where the rocks are cushioned with moss and the banks are spread with the evergreen leaves of Wintergreen and Trailing Arbutus.  When I come into this peaceful grove, I feel I have entered a holy sanctuary.

The shards of multi-layered ice next to the shore reveal how the river rises and falls with dam operations, breaking the grip of the ice where the water meets the banks.

Although we've had several hard freezes,  the leaves of Pale Corydalis looked as fresh and green as ever.

I even found one fading flower still dangling from the leaves.

This little island is forested with many small trees, including a number of Highbush Blueberry shrubs.  There were several new shoots on one blueberry shrub, the bright green of the twigs providing a beautiful foil for the bright red buds.

This time of year, I cherish whatever color I find in the woods, including the vivid stripes of this Turkeytail Fungus.

Oh, but the days are growing so short!  It was only mid-afternoon, and already the sun was sinking behind Three Pine Island, laying a golden path across the frozen surface of the bay.