Friday, January 27, 2012

Searching for my invincible summer

Eurasian tree sparrow

In the depth of winter I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer. -- Albert Camus

I ran across that quote recently on someone else's blog, and it has been coming back to me in moments of stillness ever since. I think it is an absolutely beautiful idea and I wonder how many of us can truly claim to have an invincible summer in our hearts? Unfortunately in my case, all too often I feel that winter's chill and gray slowly seeps through my pores and renders me as frozen inside as Hans Christian Anderson's Snow Queen.

Earlier in the week I was talking to an old acquaintance, and stated that I was ready for winter to be over. She laughed. "We haven't even had winter yet!" I knew what she meant; our weather has been extremely mild, with only a couple of dustings of snow and temperatures often hovering in the thirties or low forties. But it's still winter. "I'm sick of walking my dogs in the dark," I clarified.

The fact that the sun sets by five thirty is only one of the signs of on-going winter. As I strolled the trails at Sugar Grove Nature Center this afternoon, I thought of many others:

Most obviously, the birds! Every nature walk is dominated by the triumvirate of winter birding: black-capped chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, and woodpeckers (downy, hairy and red-bellied). A runner up would be the tufted titmouse. Don't get me wrong; I love all those species. But they consist of about 80% of my sightings on a woodland walk between late November and early March.

Winter is red-tailed hawks and American kestrals perched at regular intervals along the country roads. It's birds in flocks instead of pairs. It's the utter absence of warblers, catbirds, phoebes, pewees, orioles, and cuckoos. On a more positive note, it means a chance to see brown creepers, pine siskins, red-breasted nuthatches, unusual owls, and other winter only species.

Winter means bird chatter instead of bird song. It's the absolute quiescence of all things green. It's landscapes that look like this:

So, there doesn't need to be a foot of snow on the ground for it to be winter. And lately I've been craving catbirds, if you know what I mean.

No catbirds, but house sparrows are never in short supply.

To top it all off, January always sucks. This one has been better than some, but I woke up this morning, with three things floating into my awareness: one, my teeth hurt from being gnashed in the night; two, I'd been dreaming about taking tests and not being prepared and it's a good ten years since my last classroom experience -- and a good twenty since I got my bachelor's -- so what is up with that?; and three, even though I'd gone on some nice nature walks just last weekend, it seemed an eternity since I'd gone birding. Why do people say that time flies? This month has lasted forever. This week alone has felt like a month.

But Fridays are my half day, which I cling to except in case of complete emergency, despite having a boomer boss who thinks it is a mark of achievement that he stays and works until ten at night, and looks askance on my Gen X attitude my personal time is priceless. Not only that, but the sun was out! All morning long, I gazed towards the windows at the sun's beneficence and counted down the minutes until my longed for nature walk at Sugar Grove.

On the way out of town, I sat idling in stop light after stop light, and just as I was reaching the town limits, guess what happened?

That's right, complete cloud cover! Terminal grayness! Is this a cruel cosmic joke, or what? How bad can my karma possibly be?

Despite this hideous change of circumstance, I kept my rendez-vous with Sugar Grove, and got up close and personal with a Eurasian tree sparrow at the feeders:

But seriously, what a dismal afternoon. My shoes squelched on the muddy trail, and everywhere my eyes looked were shades of gray.

A fallen giant:

If you look closely, you can see the line where this tree was girdled by the IDNR. Several big old trees were similarly killed this way in the Grove, and for the life of me, I can't understand why they did it.

On a happier note, one of the best sounds on Earth, water gurgling over rocks:

And a reminder that, in the midst of winter, there is always the promise of spring.

And I hope, wherever you are, you have kept a trace of invincible summer in your heart!


  1. That is such a lovely quote, and thought! I, however, have decided to embrace winter (not that Winter cares if He is embraced or not). Snow up to Fine with me! So cold my nose hairs hurt? What are a few cold nose hairs? Birds? Even the snowy owls are apparently checking out the beaches in Miami. Seriously, though, since Winter is so much with me for five months out of the year, I've decided to celebrate it, its beauty and its spareness, and to make a study of winter ecology. Now, how's that for making lemonade out of lemons, and all that? (And I'll still hide a little Summer in my heart!) Mom

    1. Winter suuucks!!! Ha ha...but seriously, winter can be very beautiful, in an austere way. There's something special to all the seasons. But for me, a very little winter goes a very long way, so I'm curious how you are finding ways to appreciate it. Besides seeing evening grosbeaks, that is! (Not that I'm jealous. No, not me.)