December finds us girding our loins against what is purported to be a winter to try the fair and the foolish. Spiggots are turned off, water barrels upended and last rites given to zone-pushing plants I had no business buying. We are told that this winter will rival the last, and I wonder how this is possible without invoking the spirit of Medieval Europe’s Little Ice Age.
By March of last year, even the hosta were begging to be brought into the garage for a break. I lost many plants to multiple late freezes, whilst forced to hear from friends in Germany of the temperate, gentle winter that necessitated scarves or gloves, but never both.
Conversely, it was a fabulous season for prime-time weather forecasters. A whole new string of expressions were added to the lexicon of the modern American meterologist. “Polar Vortex,” “Arctic Blast,” “Snowmageddon” and “Bombogenesis” were bandied about with much glee and merrymaking. In an audience consisting primarily of shivering wretches, few were amused.
This year my neighbors are sanguine, some beginning to speak of ancient winters that saw them ice-skating on the C&O canal which has never frozen in my 13 years upon this coast. As my husband and I spent much of last winter ice skating an ancient Land Cruiser on the 2-kilometer gravel lane that connects my home with some semblance of civilization, I am hopeful that such things will remain only in memory.
Until such time as the men are separated from the boys then, there is much to enjoy of what must be considered the sweetest weeks of winter. Hovering happily between Halloween and the holiday season, I am ready for something different, a bit of snow perhaps, but only within reason and only at the weekend.
For the stalwart walker there is no need to purchase materials to turn one’s house into a holiday magazine spread. Multiflora rose hips have reddened, golden bittersweet berries have burst open to reveal hearts of burnt orange, and true foragers will find hickory and black walnuts to flavor Christmas baking. When I manage to pull my scavenging eyes out of the understory, they are treated to new vistas opening up which were previously hidden by the riotous green of the growing season.
Our 40-year-old stone and stucco home is situated in a low-lying meadow surrounded by woodlands and bisected by a wide creek. Such a lovely setting makes for pastoral views, but keeps the eyes from wandering too far afield in lusty May. However, with the final undressing of the woodland and its understory, luxuries such as a winter sunset are now ours to enjoy. During the summer I often make the near vertical hike through the woods behind our house to an open field where I can enjoy the last streaks of oranges and reds in a darkening sky. Now I need only walk down to the barn and stare through the matchstick-straight trunks of tulip poplars and black birch to get my Arcadian fix. Wellies and a heavy barn coat are de rigueur — but so is a very portable glass of zinfandel.
Each morning the sun illuminates a neighboring field like a great stage, where turkey vultures congregate to dry wings wet with the night’s indignities. My guinea hens shuffle in their polka-dot dresses to join these wild and fantastical creatures in their sun-worshipping; but vultures are commonsense birds and do not suffer fools — and there is nothing more foolish than a guinea. The squawking rabble is ignominiously chased back to the barn where they must put aside all dreams of a bohemian life and endure the company of common chickens for the winter.
Who knows what the next three months will bring? Though we must sensibly prepare for winter just as generations before us; must we also chew fingernails and lose sleep? Better just to concentrate on the sweet rhythms of the present day than dance to the frantic tunes of the meterological hype-machine.
Marianne Willburn is a Master Gardener who writes from Lovettsville, Virginia. You can read more at www.smalltowngardener.com or follow The Small Town Gardener on Facebook.