Winter Gifts

Blue Jays, Cardinals, and Juncos are my constant January companions, but Blue Jays bullies are no match for the little Downy Woodpecker female who dominates the suet cake. She doesn’t take shit from anyone. I hear her mutter, “Don’t you dare touch my suet feeder.” The Chickadees, my faithful friends, grab sunflower seed from a different feeder and bang them into a tree branch to win their prize.

I help the birds survive. They pay me with winter beauty and signs of life.

After a recent foot of snow, I ask myself why I live in the country on this wild and beautiful land. I complain to my son about how cold it is when the wind blows and how crazy I am to live here. This is the entrance moment for his lines:

“You say that every winter, Mom.”

He’s right. I do.

“And in a few months you’ll tell me how you love the first yellow Trout Lilies in the forest.”

He’s right. I will.

I find beauty in winter most days. Besides birds, the quiet frozen world suits my damaged hearing. I know the best paths to avoid the brutal wind that comes from living high on a hill with spectacular views. If I keep moving and endure the west wind a few minutes more, I stand in a grove of thick trunked oaks. The tall beauties soften the fierceness of the wind, or maybe they just keep me company.

My dogs wear fleece vests—orange for black Disco and red for brown Willow. This zero degree morning, they run around the field, do their business (that’s what my grandma called it), and rush inside, shaking the cold off their feet. After breakfast, they huddle near the woodstove, snoring quietly, not worried about being productive or writing something worth sharing or doing the taxes. They have the wisdom to rest.

We walk later when it warms to 8 degrees. I turn right off the main trail and follow the path along the edge of the forest.

Although he died almost 13 years ago, I think of Vic, because I miss him most in the dead of winter. He loved the challenge of cold and a big snow storm. He loved going first on snowshoes to carve a trail for me. Sometimes he made a thermos of hot chocolate to share with our sons in the forest. The three of them loved a snowball fight.

On winter walks with the dogs, I climb the hill to Vic’s cairn where we buried his ashes. I lean toward the top stone and gently kiss the cold, wishing it were warm. I thank him for all he gave and tell him I’m all right because it’s true. There are Monarch Butterflies in my future and endless memories of love. I have birds and dogs, friends and sons, and a pile of dry firewood on the front porch.


Trout Lily

How do you handle the isolation of life with covid restrictions? Do you live in a place with a fierce winter or blistering hot summer? Have you had to deal with fires and drought? Do friends or animal companions help you through these challenging times?

For other posts about finding comfort in winter, see Staying Close to Hestia’s Hearth. You might also enjoy Black Dog Winter: A Gift of Synchronicity.

  1. As always, a beautiful post Elaine! Thank you for sharing your homestead, forest and beloved companions with us. I always love reading your nature stories and seeing photos of the world you’re surrounded by, up there on your hill with far-reaching views. The birds here in the UK are singing loudly now each morning just before dawn, especially the blackbirds and the robin and I think I heard the first wren joining in too this morning’s song. And so this year’s dawn chorus has begun here in the dead of winter.

    Oh, how you will ever be able to leave your beautiful homestead! I hope it’s not for many years so that you can spend more summer’s mothering your Monarchs. On that note, I hope your book is continuing with its own metamorphosis. Luckily, there’s seldom much fierceness to contend with the weather for us who live in the south of England. And although we live on the doorstep of a nature reserve and ancient woodlands we’re surrounded by houses and neighbours in all directions so never feel alone.

    • Thank you, Deborah. Like most everyone, I feel stuck in yet another Covid winter, so my antidote is to look for beauty everywhere. I’ve stayed home so much the last few winters, so need to find beauty and inner peace right here or not far from here. We have another deep freeze coming on Friday (-5 to -10 F) and I’ll struggle to get outside for more than a few minutes that day. The weather is fierce this year, but I always say that. This morning, I went out for a few hours for groceries and to get routine bloodwork ordered by my doctor. Even though they stayed in the car, he dogs were happy to take a ride somewhere–anywhere. On the way home, I stopped to look at frozen waterfalls and the intensely blue Seneca Lake, but now the sun disappeared behind clouds. The world feels like a dream with everyone behind masks combined with my odd hearing, and I’m becoming a true hermit in a way I didn’t think was possible. It has a Fellini movie feeling, but I hope it also brings some spiritual benefit 😉

  2. Dear Elaine,
    I thought you might enjoy this poem, a snapshot from a very different kind of winter storm, here in the desert, a desert that you and Vic loved . . .

    The storm brought warm
    perfumed air up from Mexico,
    wept rivers, inches, wash runs
    across the desert flat spaces,
    enough water to pool

    off the dirt road at the downslope
    toward the driveway, where
    it ate down to the rocks,
    breaking through tire ruts
    from last week’s FedEx truck.

    I spend a few minutes dance-tamping
    the river-bottom road mud
    where the water flow
    had run to the foot of the driveway,
    before mounting the berm,

    where I stand now regarding
    Catalina’s snow fields gleaming
    so so white against the blue;
    and the house below quiet-sitting in the bosque,
    and wonder, has everything already happened?

    A dropped mesquite branch sits
    under its slumbering tree-mother,
    something for the kindling pile.
    I feel her seeking midwinter waterflow
    underground, and she carries me in,

    so there’s no surprise at the light,
    as the Friend beams in from a point
    in space in full vibrant color,
    substantial as this dry branch
    I break to pieces on my knee.

    • Thank you, dear Fred. I’ve been thinking of you in your desert winter landscape. I hope the earlier rain brings glorious spring flowers. Thank you for sharing your poem which brings me there to your place in Cascabel. Yes, Vic and I loved spending a week in the AZ desert in March each year. I see your driveway and the rugged rocks and imagine you standing on the berm with sandy mud on your boots. Your question “has everything already happened?” brought a deep spontaneous sigh. And the future firewood to build a fire and best of all, a visit from the light and the Friend. Enjoy your days of flowers and warmth–and I’ll keep remembering desert adventures with you and Dotty. What a gift it is to have a lifelong human friendship.

  3. I love you Elaine. Beautiful piece. It makes me like winter more. I do like the quiet it offers!!

    • Thank you, Lori. You know my land and hearing well, so embracing the quiet here is my only choice. It’s also a deep comfort–and off I go to throw another log on the fire.

  4. In the blistering cold, you find blessings. I especially latched on to the line: “I help the birds survive. They pay me with winter beauty and signs of life.”

    It’s good to have a sounding board, like your son, a sort of echo chamber to help ground you. I love how you clothe your dogs and feed the birds, a Mother to Nature indeed.

    Another prompt from your dogs urged me to stop trying to be productive every single day. Winter is for rest. Even the sun’s chariot appears later and retires earlier in these bleak January days.

    Stay warm. Be well. Let the land continue to nurture your soul. And thank you for this lovely reflection Elaine.

    • That’s just what the birds do, Marian. A male Downy Woodpecker (smallest woodpecker in NY State) came to the suet feeder out my office window this morning. He’s black and white like the female but has a distinctive cardinal red cap. Willow wears a winter jacket because she’s old and a little arthritic in the cold even though she has a naturally heavy coat. Willow was an SPCA pup from Florida and has a short thin natural coat so it’s cold for her here. She likes wearing her fleece vest inside and outside, night and day. And both dogs are excellent at sleeping and staying warm when it’s cold. I could learn a thing or two from them. If the weather forecast for -9 F comes true tomorrow, I’ll have to find ways to entertain Disco inside so she won’t drive Willow crazy. I stay warm and don’t go out much, especially not in groups of people, so that keeps me well. The Monarchs are thriving in Mexico which is good news for them and me and, eventually, spring will return to the north country. Enjoy Florida warmth.

      • I just returned from reading your comment on my blog this week. It’s good to commiserate. Many thanks!

        And I love how you take care of that thin-skinned pup from Florida with a warm fleece vest. Keep the home fires burning. Those Monarchs will head north before you know it.

        • Commiseration helps everything. It will be -10 F tonight, so it’s hard to imagine Monarchs, but they will come. The dogs were happy to be outside in their fleece vests, but not for long.

  5. I’m a few days late Elaine in commenting – I saw this lovely post of yours on my phone the other day, but post eye op (cataracts) I found commenting a bit tricky. So, it’s lovely to have a re-read of it, and now I’m on my lap top.

    It’s ‘funny’ how we say ‘it never rained so much before’, or it was never so hot/cold before and we’re reminded that we said that the year before … this time round, I have to say never have I seen so much rain. We drove from Plettenberg Bay (overnighted in the Karoo) to Johannesburg, arriving Sunday. Well, the rain was something else – the Karoo was transformed to a glowing green and lakes of water all around. I’ve never seen anything like it! Mother Nature never fails to amaze. It’s supposed to be summer here in South Africa but it’s taking a long time in coming ..

    It’s always comforting to be among the familiar as you are in spite of extreme weather and make connections with Vic’s cairn and the tall trees with your dogs and birds as companions. Thanks Elaine for this post 🙂

    • You’re never late, Susan. I imagine you have other exciting things on your mind as well as travel. A new baby and new vision! I hope your eyes are healing and vision is clearing. I haven’t needed cataract surgery, but it works wonders when needed.

      It sounds like you’re experiencing unusual weather in the Karoo. I hope this is good for the animals and plants of the region and not too much. I just read that the Karoo is semi-arid without much rainfall–but apparently not this year. We don’t know what to expect with changing erratic climate. Eventually I’ll have to leave this land (and also my body), but until then it’s wonderful to feel deeply rooted here for as long as I can stay. Sending love and good health to you and your family.

  6. Thank you for this beautiful post, Elaine. It makes me long for our NC cabin. It had over a foot of snow a couple of days ago and friends are sending me pictures. The first thing we do when we get there, summer or winter, is fill the bird feeders. When we were there the week between Christmas the Christmas and New Year’s holiday this year, the birds were quick to find them. Most of them politely waited their turns in the nearby branches of one of our few remaining and semi-healthy hemlocks. Watching them feed brings so much comfort. So does having Izzy snoozing contentedly nearby. What would we do without our beloved animals and beautiful trees?

    I’m reading Migration: The Novel by Charlotte McConaghy at the moment and it deals with the extinction of most species of birds in a not-too-far distant future because of human greed. Her writing is exquisitely beautiful but deeply disturbing. I highly recommend it. Ditto her book, Once There Were Wolves! Both are extraordinary works of art.

    Sending love and warm wishes for your writing,


    • I imagine the cold of the Carolina mountains is only slightly less intense than here. It will be -10 here tonight. My house is warm, but I have to get set up so the birds who depend on the feeders are OK. My front porch is stacked high with firewood thanks to the reliable man who helps me with the land (mowing trails, plowing snow, and firewood plus all the little things that come up I can’t do or fix myself). You and I are mutually grieving for the hemlocks since the grove in a ravine about 1/4 mile from my land is also infested with a deadly insect. The forest service is trying to save the trees, but it’s not looking good. Thanks for recommending the books by Charlotte McConaghy. They sound like something I want to read, although I wonder how much sadness I can absorb about the earth, the extinction of so many living beings, the extinction of more friends and teachers. And still the Earth is beautiful and I pray there will be a way to save what we love. Writing is a slow process and I’ve had to start from the beginning a few times, but I hope I’m finally on the right track. Be well and stay safe.

  7. Oh, my dear friend. How brave that is to show such love of the winter and find such gifts. Honestly, I love summer, though I would accept winter to miss the summer! However, I might mention before; you’re living in a perfect environment, in which the seasons are so complete in their conditions. Here I miss the seasons. Unfortunately, we have a mix of everything all the time. Take care and blessing.

    • I don’t feel brave, Aladin. This is the price for living where I live in the time of Covid and it’s also the price for staying strong myself and calming my young dog with exercise. I knew what I was taking on when I adopted her since I’ve had dogs all my life. Still, it’s easier to snowshoe with my son leading the way–less physical work, but also having his company. That can’t happen often since he has to work and he’d also rather ski. We have seasons! Last summer was hot and wet. This winter was mild until January and then the cold blasts came. Inside my house, I’m cozy warm, but it’s time to take that puppy Disco out for a walk so she doesn’t pull my old dog’s ears. Enjoy your grandchildren–and then rest.

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