Once again, we stand at the winter solstice, one of my favorite times of the year. Thanks to living on a tilted planet orbiting a warm sun, the amount of light and heat we receive varies throughout the year, and at this point in the annual trip we get the short end of the stick. The fact that we measure the length of time in that cycle and that it repeats over and over, perhaps first gave us a sense of the flowing nature of time. It seems like common sense, but physicists debate whether time exists at all, or whether it’s change that is in fact real, and time is something we’ve made up to mark that change. Rather than cause headaches among those reading this, I’ll give up on that topic right now. The solstice is still one of my favorite times of the year.
A walk on Cattail Trail is always refreshing in winter, and once again this year there have been many pleasant days on which to do so. Starting near the observation tower, we notice the pond is iced over rather thinly. The stalks of wild rice are still erect above the ice, but this year’s seeds lie on the bottom of the pond, experiencing the necessary cold, wet winter, allowing them to germinate in spring. They know not to germinate now, even though the weather is spring-like. With more cold coming, which would be fatal to premature germinators, they wait several months until it’s really spring and continue their life cycle. Rather than fight the cold as we do, they take a break, and conserve their resources. So do the ground squirrels and woodchucks which burrow around the pond. And much of the other vegetation of the surrounding wetlands.
Unlike summer, when the world around the trail is overwhelmingly green, now the world around the trail appears to be a pallete of red stems of the dogwood (red willow to natives), gray of the leafless alders, various browns and tans of sedges and grasses, green pines and spruces, and if one is lucky blue sky- the landscape is actually more diverse in color than in summer. We’ve had many mild days this winter so far, affording the opportunity to enjoy the visual treats of the wetlands in comfort. When the wind is down, one is aware of many birds sneaking about the dry stalks- goldfinches flying over uttering their 3 fold chips, chickadees inspecting every stem for a morsel, geese honking in the distance at some spot of open water, pairs of crows heading to some apparent rendezvous to the west, and a few American tree sparrows out in the alder thicket, visiting for the winter. Alders grow in the high Arctic where these birds spend their summers, along with shrubby willows similar to our sandbar variety, so although the little birds have migrated thousands of miles to reach us for winter, they must feel that they are in familiar surroundings. They flit among the shrubs and cattails which stick up like fuzzy corn-dogs of the marsh.
The eagles seen here a couple of days ago are elsewhere today. At the end of the trail, the water level is now very low- a couple of feet lower than earlier in the year. Perhaps its just been such a dry year- the level of the river and adjacent Lake Michigan seem hard to predict. Their variation causes change in the composition and growth of plants along the shores, benefitting different plants each year. This change promotes overall stability in nature because it causes greater diversity in the plants that grow in the wetland. More diverse ecosystems, with more species tend to function better than those which are less diverse, something we see over and over in nature. I wonder if that applies to people as well.
Back at the observation tower, the familiar yard birds are about- house sparrows, blue jays, nuthatches, cardinals, and more chickadees greet me as I leave the trail. At least that’s the way I think of it- I doubt that they care if I am outside at all, other than curiosity. If I were filling the bird feeders, then I would be relevant to their world. But I’ve been the one who has benefitted. Time in the wetland has left me more relaxed, focused, and thoughtful, and I feel a better person for it. I hope to put the feeling to good use the rest of the day.
photo- Cattail Trail from the viewing tower at Woodland Dunes by Nancy Nabak