January and February 2015 Message from Dan
Dear Readers, Friends, and other Visitors:
Emily Dickinson may have said it best:
There's a certain Slant of light,
on Winter Afternoons --
That Oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes.
photo credits © Karen Simmons
On the first day of 2015, sunrise was at 7:21 a.m. MST and sunset was at 4:46 p.m. It takes a little longer for the sunrise to become visible up at Windwalker at 8,400 feet than down on the high prairie knoll where we live at around 5,200 ft.. While the Continental Divide is just a mile and half west of the Windwalker property (and the new "cabin" under construction there), high hills to the east of the cabin block the actual sunrise for a few minutes after it's illuminated all of Nebraska and Kansas and the eastern Colorado plains.
On January 31, sunrise will be at 7:09 a.m. MST and sunset at 5:18 p.m..
On February 1, the sun will rise at 7:08 a.m. and will set at 5:19 p.m.
On February 28, the sun will rise at 6:35 a.m. MST and set at 5:51 p.m.
For those who commute to work in early January, say in a group van from someplace like Loveland, CO, traveling to Denver at 6 a.m. (as my daughter Jane does), it becomes painfully obvious that although we had the Winter Solstice back on Dec. 21, the sun isn't rising earlier. That'll change as we get deeper into January, but for now the extra seconds and eventually minutes of daylight gained are coming right before sunset. Still, it's disconcerting to watch the sun still rising late and no morning sign of the days growing longer even weeks after the Winter Solstice.
I know that all of you science-oriented folks know that our Northern Hemisphere's summers and winters are not being caused by differing distances from the sun, but because the Earth is spinning like a top as it orbits that sun and -- just like a top -- it tips to one side while spinning in order to regain its balance, then pauses and tips the other way. Winter here in the Northern Hemisphere comes when the upper half of the "top" leans further and then even further from the direct angle of the sun's rays. The lean away from the sun's rays and occasional wiggle are common to all spinning tops and spinning planets. It's call precession and on Dec. 21 -- the holiest day of the year in most pagan religions -- people for tens or even hundreds of thousands of years have celebrated that day where night and darkness quit winning the struggle and our world has begun its tip back to an angle receiving full sunlight, back to the vernal equinox and straight through toward the summer solstice.
So even though it's often cold and snowy down here on the prairie knoll -- and often terribly windy and snowy up at Windwalker's 8,400 feet -- we are now, inexorably, tilting back toward summer.
Temperatures up at Windwalker on January 1, tend to range between 35-degrees as a high with 15-degrees as the average low. But averages aren't real weather, so temps at Windwalker have reached lows of -38-degrees and lower, while the maximum winter temperature up there for January has been 62-degrees. But that was a weird year.
Average Jan. 1 temps down at Prairie Knoll reach 41 degrees and a low of 18 degrees. January 31 temps down here on the prairie knoll tend to average around highs of 45 degrees and lows around 20 degrees.
February extremes on the knoll include maximum temps of 77 degrees and 63 degrees up at Windwalker. Minimum low temperatures on our prairie knoll reach -28 degrees with lows of -32 degrees recorded up at Windwalker.
Wind velocities at both sites have recorded maximums of 115 m.p.h. on the knoll and above 125 m.p.h. at Windwalker, with sudden downgusts and rare descent of the jet stream raging at much greater velocities. This past winter, while work was going on to build our "new cabin", blasts of high wind one night flattened our entrance gate, six tall posts buried five feet into the rock and soil on both sides of the gate, and our entire wooden fence near the gate. It ain't called "Windwalker" up there for nothin'.
I'm hearing cries of "This is so boring!" so I'll leave January's and February's temperatures and high winds and get on to something more interesting . . .
January is the driest month of the year in Colorado (March shows the most snow at both on the prairie knoll and Windwalker), but at altitudes, animals ranging from voles to coyotes, and foxes to bears, elk and mountain lions are making their living occasionally down here but constantly at 8,400-foot and up at Windwalker, with more of a challenge for them up there where almost no flora blooms in the winter, lying dormant beneath ever-deepening snowdrifts for seven months and more.
The world, especially the high-country part of my world , seems dark and dead in January and February, but Colorado sometimes boasts an average of 300 days of sunlight (but the truth is closer to 265 sunny days a year). Still, in the Colorado high country, no matter how early the sun seems to set at Windwalker cabin since it's on the east face of its own little mountain that shuts off the sun before 4 p.m. in December, the seeming absence of fauna of all sizes during the coldest days of winter is a false impression.
True, bears tend to hibernate in protected hollows or caves -- or in Windwalker's case, in an 1800's gold mine bored horizontally into the north-facing slope of the valley. That mine may well host a bear from time to time but I've never seen bear paw prints going in or coming out. But the black bears still roam our property and the huge chunk of National Forest on three sides of Windwalker.
I'm interested that hibernating female bears give birth to their young in late January or early February while she's still dormant. The tiny cubs can nurse through the rest of the cold spring months while mother can continue to sleep.
Take a walk on a cold January morning after snow the night before and you'll see a cornucopia of signs in the snow that tells you that you're not alone and that no matter how early you get up, you're a late sleeper. Rabbit tracks in the snow wind here and there in the open because rabbits spook easily at any strange movement or sound. Also, their meandering tracks maximize a chance for them to find small areas bare of snow and filled with good edible grass, using the same optimal strategy that a navy destroyer has when zigging and zagging to find the submarine hiding somewhere under that concealing ceiling of water.
Even a short winter walk will show you that there's a good reason for rabbits' due diligence. Often you can follow a blur of tracks showing where a small rabbit was running for its life with larger dog-like tracks -- fox, coyote, wolverine, bobcat, mountain lion or other giving chase -- showing the predator's tracks far apart as its long stride outran the rabbit. Usually there's a terminal point where clumps of rabbit hair and lots of blood indicate where the chase ended (often, but not always, showing the predator's victories.)
Sometimes there are no predator's' track at all but running rabbit or mouse tracks that end just as suddenly in tufts of hair and scarlet blood on the white snow. Owls at night and red-tailed hawks after sunrise and other airborne predators are busy all winter.
Bears may hibernate much of the winter -- although when there's a warm spell for more than a day or two, many bears wake and go in search of food to break their fast. They often break other things as well. In one of my mountain neighbor's (three miles away) case by ripping off the front door of his cabin, then ripping off a refrigerator door and helping himself. My own encounter with a bear was much less exciting than that. It was spring and I'd allowed an electrician -- who always came quickly when the power was out (because he liked fishing in my Big Pond) -- and his son to fish. I had a plywood "trash enclosure" near the back door, but would never put anything organic into it. Even bottles had to be thoroughly rinsed so that the two 35-gallon drums in there wouldn't attract bears or other fanged predators. I hadn't noticed it but my electrician friend or -- more likely -- his son had opened the hinged top of the trash-barrels enclosure and dumped some fish guts and/or bait in one of the 35-gallon drums.
I was writing late that night, as I usually did up there, and the only light on in the cabin was my desk lamp in my little office. Sometimes toward midnight I became aware of a rhythmic thumping on the west wall of the cabin.
I was sure I knew what it was. I'd been wearing long waders every day as I did battle with the beavers in the valley who were cutting down my best aspen trees and then killing scores upon scores of willows when their new ponds flooded the area. At the end of the day I hung those waders on a nail driven into the wood of the outer log wall, right next to where I hung shovels and my pull-a-beaver-dam-apart tools.
So I padded through the dark cabin and through the mud room and had just opened the back door when I realized -- since there was no moon and the stars had been occluded by clouds - that it might be smarter if I went out to take the waders off the nail with the back light on. Still holding the door open with one hand, I hit the light switch with the other hand.
There, less than seven feet from me, a bear was clawing through what I thought was an innocent, odorless mass of bottles. The bear looked about as big as a Fiat to me. The hinged top to the barrel-container had gotten in his way and I could see the splintered top lying about fifteen feet away. Then the frustrated bear hooked his claws under the 35-gallon barrel that wasn't giving him satisfaction and threw it back over his shoulder into the woods. (In the morning, I followed the trail of bottles and measured the distance he'd thrown the heavy barrel: 32 feet.)
But at that moment I just stared at the bear -- the mud room door open and obviously giving him plenty of FOOD IN HERE!! smells -- and as I started to close the door the bear stopped what he was doing and gave me a classic "Can I help you??" look. Seen through binoculars that stare would still have been unnerving. From seven feet away, it was definitely a Close Encounter of the Third Kind.
The bear must have found the dumped bait and/or fish guts -- wrapped in a newspaper, I noticed, since the bear ate the newspaper as well -- as I bolted the door shut (hah! hah! That and a papally blessed crucifix will keep bears out if they want to get in) and went to another window to watch the bear at work in the circle of light I'd left on. My strategy was simple -- if the black bear decided to come in that west door, I was going to leave by the east door. Of course that just put me out on a deck cantilevered over a 300-foot drop to the valley floor, but it was a plan.
Eventually bruin waddled away down my twin-ruts of a driveway (spitting out shreds of soggy newspaper as he went.)
Elk are big animals. Just think of a medium-sized horse with antlers. Even without the antlers they look pretty large.
Often in the winter I would go out for a short walk before making breakfast and getting to work on the writing, and there'd be an entire herd -- or, in autumn, the male and his harem, which also constitutes a small herd -- munching away on the tall-grassy hillside just a few dozen yards from the cabin-in-the-woods.
I've seen out-of-staters slam on their brakes and stop in the middle of busy highway so that everyone could admire some mangy-looking elk out in a field. But most of us who live with the Big Guys aren't overly fond of them. Elk are picturesque to the city folk, but a serious pain in the tuchus to the rest of us. First of all, since the wolves, majority of the mountain lions, and other worthy predators have disappeared, elk have multiplied all out of proportion to any aesthetic or ecological function they might serve. For the poor home owners down in the town of Estes Park to the north of Windwalker, elk are the bane of existence. If the happy home owners plant any shrubs or small trees -- kiss 'em goodbye. The elk think they're getting room service. So you fence around your trees, fence your flowers and your decorative plantings, spray a "predator smell" over your yard -- a spray guaranteed to repel elk -- and --- the elk still mob your property and eat everything green they can find. The "elk repellant" seems to be salad dressing to them.
With our mythical 300 days of sunlight, some of them warm, there are opportunities down here on the prairie knoll to get out and play golf in most winter months. (Fairways are a sad, ugly brown, but who cares?) Up at around 7,800 feet in the town of Estes Park, there's a beautiful golf course, but -- winter or summer -- there are always herds of elk between the tee and the pin. I'm not a golfer and have never played there, but they must have special rules for clean drives that bounce off elk or get stuck up an elk's wazoo.
Oh, elk have ESP. That's the only conclusion I can draw when faced with the fact that on the day hunting elk hunting season opens in the fall 92.8% of all the elk in the Windwalker part of the high country high-tail it into Estes Park's city limits or across the invisible line into Rocky Mountain National Park -- where they can't legally be hunted.
Beavers -- the only animal I hate on sight -- breed in January or February. They're warm enough in their much-worked-on mud-and-stick lodges that while hiking by on really cold days, you can see the steam-breath of their bodies rising from the heap of branches and carefully packed mud.
Coyotes breed from January to March and the young are always born in about 60 days.
There's something admirably irritating about coyotes. Most people who live near them feel this odd disconnect. The Lakota Sioux and the other tribes of Plains Indians gave Coyote a special place in their religious pantheon. To some Indians, Coyote had created the world as a sort of bad joke. In most of the oral tales passed down for so many centuries, Coyote was mostly mischievous or downright malicious. His godlike actions rarely did NOT include screwing up people and animals (including the animals back before First Man emerged from the Earth, when the animals shared a common language.)
We have coyotes both near our prairie knoll home and on the Windwalker property. Down here, word goes around amongst somewhat distant neighbors when a coyote gets run down on a nearby state road. Up at Windwalker, we recently heard the eyewitness story of a local woman out walking on a road's edge with her small dog when an entire pack of coyotes surrounded them, snarling and snapping, and eventually killing the dog and terrifying its owner.
Yet one roots for the coyote. Unlike, say, wolves, coyotes did not go quietly into that good night -- disappearing from state after state like candles winking out. Animal demographic experts tell us that there are almost certainly more coyotes in America now than there were 100 years ago. They've adapted to challenges put up by humans almost everywhere, even in suburbs and the full- urban environment.
My two most interesting encounters with coyotes include, first, a late spring evening when I was returning from a long hike down the canyon that leads from Windwalker many miles through remote National Forest country, when -- from a jeep road rising from the east side of the Big Pond -- I could see a coyote getting the ever-lovin' aspirations beat out of him by about a dozen redwing blackbirds. He was in the wetlands that fill the space from the west end of the pond to the embankment to the Peak-to-Peak Highway and the huge culvert that funnels the snow runoff, in stream form, into the ponds and joining waterways.
Coyote had either stolen eggs (or hatchlings) from one or more of the redwing blackbird's nests in the high grasses or was about to. The birds would have none of it and looked like Kamikaze attack planes as they swirled and dove, striking the hapless coyote. Coyote fur filled the air. As he turned to snap at two redwing blackbirds that had just pecked and plucked at his ears, four more tore fur out of his rump. One had to be on the birds' side in that lopsided contest.
The other close encounter I had with a coyote has to be filed in the Inexplicable category.
Earlier in another spring, with snow just beginning to melt here and there, I was headed down the drifted-over jeep trail that goes down our valley and there on a patch of dirt and gravel were tens of thousands of strands of coyote fur in the open-leg-spraddled cartoon shape of a coyote. No bones. No blood. None of the things a large carnivore usually leaves when eating something so large as a coyote -- just endless rows of fur, as if a coyote had exploded. There was one solid thing left -- a four-foot long of string of gristle that must have run along the coyote's spine. The hair there was still attached to a wee bit of hide.
But where was the rest of him? And why didn't the carnivore that took him -- presumably a mountain lion -- leave the bones and bits and pieces they usually do? I love mysteries -- especially eco-mysteries -- but I thought of this from time to time as I'd take moonlit walks down the valley at night.
The most reassuring hypothesis was that these were the remains of Wile E. Coyote and somehow the Roadrunner had made him swallow his Acme Inc. round, fuse-hissing bomb.
Thousands of geese have given up the whole tiresome migration thing and now spend the entire year at ponds and reservoirs around the prairie-knoll area north of Boulder and Denver. There's usually some open water somewhere. But Windwalker's geese do migrate to Colorado from somewhere far north and Windwalker has two pair -- one pair descended from the original pair I knew in March in the mid-90's when I first bought the place -- and the four still arrive sometime in March, when it's still cold and snowy all over Colorado. I worry about them. But the two breeding pair build their nests on one or both of the islands in the Big Pond out where the predators can't get at them. The male and female of each pair take turns sitting on their eggs in the nest and huddle through the last of the year's blizzards, heads always turned toward the wind. By early summer they're paddling around the Big Pond and showing the goslings how to find insects in the greening and gleaming high-grass wetlands at the west end.
The geese know me and don't take me as a threat -- although they'll turn their family convoy in a different direction, away from the bank I'm standing on (the gander taking the rear of the procession, keeping himself between me and his family) -- but we don't really interact. Save for early one day in the spring about three years after I'd bought the property and old cabin.
I was in the office writing (the last Hyperion novel) one March and suddenly I heard the clunk-clunk-clunk of workmen trodding all over the cabin's roof. But I'd recently re-shingled that shake-cedar roof and there were no workmen scheduled to come up to the cabin. I ran out onto the east deck and there were "my" two geese clomping back and forth right above my office. They'd never shown interest in the cabin or me before that day -- the cabin is on a shelf carved out of the hillside about 400 feet above the valley, creek, and Big Pond -- and after staring at me for a long moment, they both leaped off the roof and flew clumsily away toward the Big Pond and their island of choice.
It's always a sad day for me in summer when both family groups fly away. (At least the ducks and their ducklings stay longer into the autumn.)
I like living in an area where serious predators still prowl, and that includes predators from the air. As far as I can tell, one family of red-tail hawks has owned the valley, pond, streams, and high ridges of Windwalker for the entire 20 years I've owned my part of the place. And there are blue herons that visit regularly -- and who prefer watching everything in the valley from a long. bare bramch on a huge, half-dead ponderosa pine on a steep hillside overlooking the beaver ponds and valley. Nothing will make you believe that all birds are descended from dinosaurs faster than watching a huge blue heron laboriously take wing above you.
But the most noble of airborne predators -- the bald eagles -- are autumn-winter neighbors of ours down at the prairie knoll house. They show up in late October or early November (after traveling down from Canada or even Alaska) and they seem to regard Boulder County with its frequent snowstorms and sub-freezing temperatures as the Banana Belt.
The number of bald and golden eagles in our area jumped so steeply in the 1980's that our local ornithologists weren't able to explain it for a while. Eagles usually thrive on fish and Boulder County simply didn't come near providing the number of streams with trout and other large fish. Amateur birdwatchers solved that problem for the experts when several of them witnessed one golden eagle diving on another -- coming down like a Stuka from behind - then doing a 180-degree roll and snatching the carcass of a prairie dog out of the other eagle's talons.
The prairie dog population had exploded along the high-prairie parts of the Front Range and the number of ferruginous hawks, rough-legged hawks, ospreys, and eagles had switched their primary food supply from fish to the fat prairie dogs. In the early '90's, a Bubonic plague outbreak amongst the prairie dogs reduced their number (almost all prairie dogs carry fleas that carry the Plague), and for years the number of nesting bald and golden eagles here fell as a result.
[Note: I always smile when typing or reading "prairie dogs", since that was one of the few newly encountered species that Clark wanted to name -- rather than Meriwether Lewis, who did almost all the naming of new plants and animals encountered on their Voyage of Discovery. Clark wanted to call the little creatures "barking squirrels" and I find that much more mellifluous and appropriate than "prairie dogs". But in the end Lewis got his way, as he almost always did. The only thing that Clark got to name were a couple of Montana rivers like the Judith . . . named after teenaged girls left behind: young girls he was considering marrying when he got home.]
The prairie dog villages that Lewis and Clark saw on their way west -- in the tall grass prairie that's now extinct, a seemingly endless prairie where flowering plants (all now lost) brushed against their moccasins in their stirrups and frequently allowed another Discovery Corps member to see only the men on their horses from the waist up. As irritating as the chittering rodents can be even today, we now understand how important their place is in a healthy western eco-system as they provide ready-made homes to rattlesnakes and burrowing owls and sustenance to a wide-variety of predators -- most of them now long gone as well -- including the bald eagles and various hawks.
Some years ago the Boulder Airport -- a small paved runway and fields for gliders to land in -- had to get rid of their burgeoning prairie-dog population (the heaped up holes were a danger to the large number of gliders landing on the grass each day), and while Boulderites clamored to have the fat rodent all "humanely captured and relocated", the expense of that -- and danger to the "relocators" because of the Bubonic Plague risk -- ended up with the county quietly gassing that particular prairie-dog outpost. The now-empty holes were filled in and that would have been the end of it save for the loud mourning from the local chapter of PETA and Boulderites in general. One Saturday scores of these gentle folk showed up at the tiny airport and placed hundreds of masking-taped tongue-depressor and popsicle-stick crosses at the tumbled heaps of soil where the prairie dogs had so happily wallowed. The Sunday Boulder Camera newspaper did their lead story on this "humane response" to the dastardly gassing of our fellow creatures -- but by Sunday evening the popsickle-stick crosses were all gone as well as the prairie dogs. The gliders were flying and landing and taking up passengers every day and didn't want the grassy landing areas staked out with little wooden crosses.
One hawk and eagle haven is Rabbit Mountain a couple of miles west of our knoll.
Rabbit Mountain is an open-space hiking area -- tick-heavy in the spring and early summer -- where the raptors of the sky like to congregate. Rabbit Mountain -- really a steep-sided little mesa -- is a "walking mountain". That is, it lies across two major fault lines running north and south along the east side of the Continental Divide and over the past few eons, with no humans keeping guard against it wandering, the little "mountain" has moved about three miles eastward out of its original position amongst the other high foothills. (If you're wondering how we know that, geologists have found the "wandering" scratch marks on the kitchen linoleum tiles these early Cretaceous Dakotan formations these foothills are perched on.)
A final comment about the bald eagles, the prairie dogs, and Rabbit Mountain -- the sky-predators' preference for a high place not in the maze of high foothills to the west but out here on the high prairie knoll area, was shared by human beings in the past. On the flatter area of Rabbit Mountain, the remnants of more than 80 "tipi rings", still marked by circles of stone, show where the Arapaho camped there for a couple of centuries. Bird or man, you can see what's coming at you for 100 miles north, east, south and west while camping on Rabbit Mountain.
And at the rate that mountain's moving, it'll be rolling right over my house in another few million years.
As you would expect, January and February are not a boom time for green and growing things, although there's more lower-biota activity going on than one might think.
Winter ecologist James Halfpenny has written that some plants such as kinnikinick (which is not only a fun word to say, but a low-growing plant whose sour berries are eaten regularly by elk and black bears with constipation problems) continues photosynthesizing all winter under even the deepest coverings of snow. Not much light makes it through a deep snowcovering, but the wavelengths of light that do get through are optimal for kinnikinnick's photosynthesis.
Snow-buried sedges put out new leaves and some seeds germinate under several feet of snow.
Nor do last summer's grass and seeds go to waste. Voles, pocket gophers, pikas and yellow-bellied marmots harvest their winter-larder of grass, sedges, and wildflowers long before autumn gets too cold. Of these, the active pocket gophers are the most fun to watch. There are several hundred on the grassy hillside areas of Windwalker.
My favorite burrowers are the pika (sometimes still spelled "pica"), tiny plump rodent-looking things -- although they're really closer to a rabbit genetically than to any rodent -- who tend to live above treeline. When I've sat down on a rock to have a snack there on the tundra -- I once stepped on a ptarmigan that had turned white for winter and perfectly blended into the snow underfoot -- the pikas will scold you. Especially if you're sitting too close to their perfectly aligned rows of grass and sedge and a few alpine flowers he's lined up to dry before. Pikas are small, 4 to 6 inches long, and very light, but to survive in the hostile winter environment above 11,000 feet, they have no feet or long legs to let the cold in. Their fur even covers their tiny feet so if they have to go out during the long winter (pikas don't hibernate), the fur becomes the equivalent of mittens and heated boots for them. It's a demanding job, being a pika. Even for ones born in the late spring, they're on their own in gathering enough sedges, flowers, and harvested grasses to fill a good-sized bathtub before winter beings. They burrow under the deep alpine snow to get to their "stacks".
I've been walking with new-to-the-mountains friends in spring, not long after the deep snow has melted, and they point out what appear to be huge, long, and wildly curving gopher burrows. I suggest to the friends that they kick these heaps of dug-out dirt -- called eskers -- and see the actual burrow. They kick but the "burrows" are solid dirt. No tunnels visible, there or even deeper in the soil.
The reason, of course, for these eskers appearing is that the pocket gopher tunneled through the snow like a penitentiary escapee, moving dirt from in front of him to behind him. Thus the "tunnel" is purely below the snowline and is only the solid dirt the pocket gopher moved from point A in front of his nose to point B behind his rump.
Like squirrels, pocket gophers may have a dozen storage sites for winter provisions. A squirrel -- say a black, Batman-eared Abert's squirrel in a grove of ponderosa pines -- just goes down his tree and enters one of the tunnels he's made in his family's "squirrel kitchen" -- a heavily tunneled heap of pine needles, leaves, and compacted soil built up by the squirrels over years or generations. A pocket gopher has to tunnel through the snow for his caches (and to remember exactly where he put the neat lines and piles of dried grasses and some seeds), but we don't see his handiwork until spring or an early thaw melts the snow and leaves the Bill Murray "Caddyshack" nightmare of gopherish burrow-looking ridges in the dirt.
These thaws, which can occur any time up at Windwalker's 8,400-ft. altitude after a few warm winter days, mean confusion and concern for the pocket gophers and voles. First, their tunnels are gone with the snow, making it hard to find their caches and stashes all over again. And they're exposed while searching -- just the tempting treat for the watchful owl at night and the crazy coyote in the daytime.
According to Cherokee legend, when trees were first made -- long before the First Man -- their creator Coyote (working for the Great Spirit who had business elsewhere) told them all to stay awake and to keep watch for seven days and seven nights. The only trees able to carry out this order were the holly and laurel, the cedar and pine, and the spruce and firs; as a reward, Coyote allowed them to be forever green when other trees had to lose their leaves and look naked and exposed all winter.
Well, the shocking truth is that pines, cedars, firs, and spruce do lose their leaves (needles). But most species pull off the illusion of constant green needles because most pines and firs grow new needles (along with their centertop "candles") around June of each year, while the leaves -- needles -- don't fall off until October or November. So, like a government that seems continuous by overlapping from one administration to another, the pine and other trees seem to be equally green and needle-equipped all year long.
But, of course, it's never as simple as that. Pine trees and their ilk have evolved a whole host of evolutionary traits that keep them green and viable during even the coldest winters. (Although when it gets cold enough- - very cold -- evergreens have been known to explode as if they'd been struck by lightning.)
First among the evolutionary adaptations is the fact that evergreen sap has a very low freezing point. This allows the chlorophyll in the needles to carry on some level of photosynthesis all winter long.
Many mornings I've looked out from the old Windwalker cabin at truly heavy snowfalls and wondered why the branches of the ponderosa pines, lodgepole pines, and Douglas firs don't break from the weight. Well, sometimes they do. But then I remember that evergreen branches are extra-elastic and downward sloping. Odds are excellent that wind will blow the snow off or the Colorado sun will melt it off before any branches bite the dust. (And dust is a good word here, since the first strong wind on a blue-sky-after-heavy-snow morning is beautiful with the blown snow from all those millions of pine and fir branches creating glistening sideways-blizzards in the sunlight.)
The main killer of trees in the mountain winter is not cold, nor snow, but dessication. Things -- including people -- tend to dry out fast in the virtual desert above 8,000 feet. Pine and fir needles are streamlined with a minimum of surface area, thus helping the evergreens avoid winterkill.
The varieties of pine trees and firs that grow on the Windwalker are many.
First and most common is the ponderosa pine that thrives between 5,500 feet and 9,000 feet of altitude. The ponderosa has a thick, orangish bark which allows it survive ground fires and even full-fledged forest fires. When I was teaching sixth-graders up at eco-week (two and a half days and two nights up at an old boys' camp) I would blindfold the kids so they had to identify the type of tree by smell and touch and by counting needles and feeling where they're attached to the branch.
Abert's squirrels live in ponderosa pine forest, eat primarily ponderosa seeds from their cones, but the ponderosa pines fight back from such intrusion. The blind-folded student will feel the long needles -- two or three in clump right at the end of the ponderosa's branch. Then the kid will feel his way to the ponderosa pine's trunk and, running his or her hands over trunk, will feel the large, rough scales of bark such as only a ponderosa produces.
Then the student scratches the ponderosa bark aside (just a small bit). When the sap's moving, there arises the rich smell of butterscotch. (Some people, like my wife, insist that it's more of a chocolate or vanilla smell, but these folks are delusional. Ignore them.) That pleasant butterscotch smell is actually one of the toxins the ponderosa produces to discourage Abert's squirrels from nesting there and chewing on all the tree's cones.
Lodgepole pines are straight, thin-trunked, carry too many dead branches lower down, and are rooted very close together so that lodgepole pine forests are easy to get lost in.
Lodgepoles thrive between 7,000 to 11,000 feet -- usually in disturbed sites where sun-needing newcomers like aspen trees also take root. I admit that I don't enjoy lodgepole pine forests -- too crowded, too many sharp, dead branches in your face, making it too hard to keep walking in a straight line. Lodgepole stands don't attract that much wildlife save for porcupines and the mating of the Abert's squirrels, clusters of them scampering by you (or over you if you don't get out of their way), the small NASCAR pack of them leaving their usual ponderosa woods where they eat and live to chase the female Abert's squirrel through entire lodgepole pine forests in their spring orgy of lust, the female in the lead but as many as four or five alternate males eager for mating following in a wild, high-speed, move-it-or-lose-it nose-to-tail scramble. (Porcupines love the bark of lodgepole pines and frequently girdle it -- chew all the way around -- so the tree dies.)
From their name you can probably guess that the lodgepole pines were the ones the Plains Indians (and some Utes living in the mountains) came up to cut down and use as the ring of straight, not-too-heavy, branch-removed trees that would hold up the buffalo hides of their tipis -- their lodges -- and would frame the travois they pulled along with them as they moved from one seasonal camping site to another. If it weren't for the lodgepole pines making good travois, the older and weaker members of the tribe would have to have been left behind as the entire group moves with the seasons.
The lodgepole is one of the many "fire species" since it takes the great heat of a serious forest fire to pop open their cones and allow their seeds to flourish. This is one reason that fire-prohibited "protected" sections of National Forests and National Parks have so many sick, old trees interspersed with fallen trees.
One ecologist I knew described several thick, backwoods lodgepole pine forests he'd seen, far from any trail, where microbursts of strong winds had bobbed down into the forest, uprooting and tumbling several acres of the shallow-rooted lodgepoles. These instant deadfalls were scattered through the forest as if a true giant had walked there and left the damage of his footprints.
These weak, sick trees are largely still there due to the absence of fires to prune them and to burst open the fire-cones whose explosion of seeds spread as the fire passes allows the next generation of healthy pines to get started in the carbon-enriched soil. Any forest or prairie being protected from regular fires is out of step with a million years or more of their natural cycles of things. Thus the "controlled burns" now carried out by the Forest Service (although not always so controlled, as hundreds of nearby mountain-home residents discovered around here in recent years when they lost their homes to fire.)
The forest, oddly enough, wants to burn. For those of us who were traumatized by the forest-fire scene in Bambi, this seems counterintuitive. But it's true. Healthy prairies and healthy forests have depended for millennia upon fairly frequent fires, whether they were started by lightning or Plains Indians who burned the prairies around them on a frequent basis.
Try as I might, I can't tell the difference between Englemann spruce and blue spruce: They're both blue-tinted, look like a perfect Christmas tree" species, both spruces require a stream or pond or much continuous moisture nearby. Foresters and ecologists have told me there is a difference, but I think you have to be able to plot the gene-structure of the two spruces to find it.
With every type of healthy local plant species on the 118 acres of Windwalker, there's at least one invasive pest sickening the biota for each level of the pyramid from soil up through all-important fauna and then on to the top of every food pyramid.
My two banes have been cheat grass and Canadian thistle. (Yes, it's Canada geese but Canadian thistle.)
I've ridden with people in the late summer or early fall and listened to them ooh and ahh at the site of the beautiful yellow-flowering grass that covers medians, the grassy rise to an Interstate overpass, or huge fields on either side of the road. The only problem is -- that's not a grass and those ain't real flowers. It's really an invasive and damaging weed more like crabgrass or foxtail. The "grass" in these terms is misleading because a real grass forms live sod. Cheat grass (also called downy chess or Bromux tectorum) came down from the north not long ago -- measured by seasonal time, much less geologic time -- and took over most of the foothills and high pastures of the intermountain west.
We know the weed came from Europe because the root word (no pun intended) in the Latin name is from tectum meaning "roof". The Latin name for it means "Brome of the roofs" - meaning that cheat grass used to flourish when Europeans and Brits were living under thatched roofs giving rise to the "pretty" invasive weed. Think Shakespeare's day and earlier.
Where healthy and productive foothill grasses such as bunchgrass and wheatgrass used to flourish, the cheat grass west now flourishes everywhere in the northern intermountain west (making the soil and all the biota dependent upon the soil -- which is every plant, insect and animal, including us -- weaker and less productive (for anything except the cheat grass itself). Cheat grass, like the meanest weeds (and unlike real grasses), just dies each fall and reconstitutes itself the next spring. This is why I spent three years of my "lazy time" up at the old Windwalker cabin, i.e. when I wasn't writing fiction, out on the steep pastures west of the cabin pulling up cheat grass (which have roots systems that seem to go to the center of the earth).
Canadian thistle is a newer invader and as mean and ugly as sin. The first thing it took over at Windwalker was a beautiful valley meadow that bloomed wild Iris in the early weeks of summer. As with cheat grass (which come with hundreds of three-sided arrowhead prickly "awns" that you carry around on your jeans, socks, sneakers and skin if you don't wear high boots), Canadian thistle is too sharp for deer to eat and gives mouth ulcers to elk and cattle, so about the only biological help you can bring in for the thistle are certain goats that can eat razor blades if that's all they have.
The good news is that the state agricultural university experts told me what spray weed-specific poison I could use on the Canadian thistle that's safely away from a riparian system. The bad news is that almost all of the Canadian thistle on my little 118-acre parcel of heaven headed straight for the meandering creek beds and pondside. You can't use the poison that close to moving water.
And that means mosquito-filled evenings in the heavily wooded and willowed riparian system of the valley, in the thick, buggy air down there. Tthe cabin, 300-400 feet above the valley on its cliffside almost always has at least a mild breeze -- and usually a brisk one -- to keep flies and mosquitoes to a minimum. But in the willow and weed thickets along the valley steam, at dusk you can hear the mosquitoes arguing about draining you right there or taking you home for a family meal. Meanwhile, you're wearing thick gloves for the daggers of Canadian thistle and earning a sore back from pulling or scything their deep-rooted source.
The Douglas-fir is a tough, attractive and well-dispersed conifer and is found at various places on the 118 acres of windwalker and at even more places across the property line and into the national forest. Its habitat extends from the Front Range of the Rockies all the way to the Pacific Coast, and the coastal Douglas-firs grow to be the second tallest trees North America after the redwoods.
When teaching kids how to identify Douglas-firs, I not only show them how pine needles grow on all sides of the branch, but have them look for a Douglas-fir pine cone. It's not hard to identify them. The cone is large and tapered toward the bottom, but bracts are visible under each scale on the cone. One explains to the kids that the bracts are in the shape of little rats -- or at least the second half of a rat with two legs and a longer tail visible while the front half of the bract has burrowed under a cone scale to hid. These cones roll downhill with great alacrity, so the students have to make sure that they find the Douglas-fir cones with their little rats hiding on the tree itself as well as on the ground. Once seen, the resemblance is unforgettable. The name of the rat? Why, Douglas, of course.
I personally think of a tragedy in Hawaii almost every time I study a Douglas-fir.
David Douglas was born in Scotland on June 25, 1799. His father was a stone mason but David's interests always ran toward living, growing things. Douglas spent almost ten years studying botany at the University of Glasgow and elsewhere, occasionally studying with the famous English botanist William Jackson Hooker, who was the university's Garden Director and Professor of Botany. It was Hooker who took David Douglas on his first gathering expedition to the Highlands and who recommended the young man to the Royal Horticultural Society of London.
Douglas made three exploratory solo trips to North America, the first in 1823. Along with his botanizing in the eastern U.S., Douglas returned in 1824 to explore the Pacific Northwest. At one point in 1826, Douglas needed a better view so he climbed Mount Brown near Athabasca Pass, thus becoming -- in some ledgers-- North America's first mountain climber. Besides naming the beautiful Douglas-fir after himself, Douglas carried back to England seeds and samples of western white pine, the Sitka spruce, the ponderosa pine, Monteray pine, grand fir, noble fir, as well as the lodgepole pine and other wonders (at least to British gardeners) as the California poppy. Almost all of Douglas's 240 transplants fared very well in England and became standards of gardener design.
During the North American winter he went to the independent kingdom of Hawaii to botanize and do some more mountain climbing. He became only the second European to reach the summit of the Mauna Loa Volcano on the Big Island (Hawaii). But something happened on his way down.
The tale told to me when I was visiting the volcanoes in the shadow of Mauna Loa was that he'd hired some local villagers to carry his equipment during the long, high hike to the summit. After they'd reached the top of the volcano and Douglas had carefully drawn and labeled some of the strange plants there, the native bearers set down their loads on the way down. They'd negotiated a price, as I was told, but wanted more money. When David Douglas refused, the locals pushed him into a pit trap that a local tribe excavated to catch the wild steers and boars that wandered that high. Unfortunately for Douglas, this deep trap already had a wild bull steer in it and he gored Douglas to death. An ironic end to the life of one of the world's foremost young botanists.
While Douglas's body was first buried in an unmarked grave near Mission House in Honolulu, in 1856 a marker was erected on the outside wall of the Kawaiaha'o Church Cemetery. A few years later an actual monument was built at the site of Douglas's death by the Hilo Burns Society. It's called Ka lua kauka --'the Doctor's Pit' in Hawaiian -- and can still be seen off Mānā Road on the Big Island of Hawaii.
A small stand of Douglas-fir trees has been planted there.
If you tell the kids this true story, they don't soon forget the little rat named Douglas trying so hard to hide under a Douglas-fir's cone scales. Nor the fate of David Douglas.
My favorite conifer on the Windwalker is a mother and daughter limber pine ( Pinus flexilis, ) atop a grassy hillside that looks down on the Big Pond and the length of the valley. Blindfolded Eco-Week kids could identify a limber pine because it was the only tree whose branches you could bend almost into a knot.
Most limber pines are found higher, around treeline, which is about 11,000 feet on the eastern side of the Divide, and they usually aren't found in open areas down at a mere 8,400 feet. But this mother limber pine is tall (70 ft.) and stately with its daughter limber pine tucked almost protectively up against it. Low cacti grow between the rocks and in the thin soil of this hill, and some springtimes are celebrated by all the low, flowering cacti on a hill crowned with the two lovely limber pines.
But before we go, let me introduce you to what is not only the most amazing piece of Fauna on Windwalker property, but one of the most amazing living things in the world. It's the largest, one of the most widely dispersed around the planet, and oldest living thing we've ever encountered. While tourists ooh and ahh about a redwood or sequoia being several thousand years old, this plant -- a single example of it -- may have been growing for a million years or more.
Its scientific name is Populus tremuloides, but most of us know it as a Quaking Aspen.
Some visitors mistake Colorado's aspen forests as birch trees, but no canoe was ever built by Indians out of the brittle, easily damaged bark of an aspen tree. Lower limbs of the aspen that have been self-pruned by the tree resemble large bullet holes with black surrounding them. Most aspen bear more information than a fire hydrant does to a dog. First there are the blackened scars low down where deer have tried to rub off the itchy velvet covering their antlers. Then higher, come the scars from where hurting animals have chewed off the protective bark to get at a chemical in that bark which works like quinine. Black scars found even higher on Populus tremuloides were left there by grown bull elk trying out their antlers. Highest still are the large, permanent scars left by black bears standing on their back legs to claw their signature into the tree. I don't believe it's known whether such behavior is part of a bear's marking its territory or just a way to exercise their powerful claws. And finally, along the edges of rich, high pastures deep into the state, aspens have words carved into them by Basque sheepherders who, going back to the 1800's, spent many lonely months camping in their sheepherd wagons while the men watched over and protected the sheep from spring to mid-autumn.
Aspen trees are descended from cottonwood trees but the casual viewer sees little in common. Cottonwood trees were the only trees native to the endless high-grass prairies before Indians or white men came along, although the trees were to be found only along streams. Cottonwoods can be quite old and a giant cottonwood may have had buffalo resting its shade, then Indians camped nearby out on the plains, then still providing shade to early ranchers and farmers who settled by the trees. Many of these historical giants were cut down because the farmer (or his wife) hated all the cotton that accumulated on screen windows during the trees' mating seasons.
In the canyon one takes up to the Peak-to-Peak Highway that runs near Windwalker, a variety of trees and willows fill the soil on either side of the stream that carved the deep canyon, but the cottonwoods disappear somewhere between 6,000 and 7,000 feet. Then the aspen begin to appear.
As a rare deciduous tree at high altitudes, the aspen requires certain miracles of mutation in order to survive.
Cottonwoods and similar tough trees can't get enough sunlight to power their photosynthesis through the short, sub-alpine growing season above 7,000 feet. The aspen has small, heart-shaped and serregated leaves, but one mutation that allows them maximum access to sunlight is that the small leaves are attached to the twig from a larger branch at a severe angle rather than straight on. The slightest breeze will stir every leaf on an aspen tree, which allows leaves on lower branches to get their fair share of sunlight.
This is the simple formula that explains how aspen and other trees turn sunlight into complex carbohydrates --
|x CO2 + y H2O
The green pigment in leaves is chlorophyll, which absorbs red and blue light from sunlight. Therefore, the light the leaves reflect is diminished in red and blue and appears green. The molecules of chlorophyll are large (C55H70MgN4O6). They are not soluble in the aqueous solution that fills plant cells. Instead, they are attached to the membranes of disc-like structures, called chloroplasts, inside the cells. Chloroplasts are the site of photosynthesis, the process in which light energy is converted to chemical energy. In chloroplasts, the light absorbed by chlorophyll supplies the energy used by plants to transform carbon dioxide and water into oxygen and carbohydrates, which have a general formula of Cx(H2O)y.
One offshoot of this process is that we only see the real colors of decidous trees in the autumn when the chlorophyll ceases full-scale production and the true color re-asserts itself. The quaking heart-shaped Aspen leaves are naturally yellow or golden or even red. Colorado denizens and savvy guests from other states know that the "peak of aspen color" often lasts less than a week. It's a gift when the height of aspen color occurs on a weekend. Then there's an exodus of city dwellers on the high plains up to long, high roads such as the Peak-to-Peak Highway so families can "leaf-peep" at hundreds and hundreds of acres of the prettiest piece of flora in the state.
Deciduous trees have different factors for deciding when to shut down chlorophyll production -- length of day, temperature, amount of moisture, richness of the soil and so forth. The aspen keys primarily on temperature, so they go yellow or gold much earlier than the aspen down here at the prairie knoll altitude. A sudden drop in temperature in October and November of 1991 where a very warm autumn had a sudden freeze down to 0-degrees F literally overnight, resulted in the gold-yellow leaves never brightening. It also caused damage to aspen buds and twigs. Quite soon the dirty-dark-looking aspen leaves just fell off.
An aspen twig properly warned by the slow drops in temperature and lower amounts of sunlight, creates a thin-walled breakaway layer of cells (the abscission layer) where the twig meets the leaf. When the signal arrives to shut off leaf-photosynthesis the passage of nutrients to the rest of the tree stops -- at least on the leaf level. Aspen trees are one of the few flora on the planet whose trunks are also capable of generating a slow but steady process of photosynthesis. So all winter, while other deciduous trees a mile lower are truly shutting down for the winter, the aspen tree continues its photosynthesis via the trunks. Some of the white and black-scarred aspen actually have a green glow about them.
I find the most interesting aspect of aspen trees is that the trunk and tree and branches and leaves are not the most vital part of the living organism. Aspen roots are deep and tough -- almost impossible to kill. Aspen come into an area after a fire or bulldozer or other disturbance has removed the tall, light-stealing pine trees, and this root-creature will send up scores or hundreds of suckers that can become saplings which can become trees.
These root masses are the real "aspen". While aspen can be born sexually -- via pollen on opening seeds -- thw vast majority (if not all of them since the last Ice Age) are cloned. It's as if the incredible aspen go back to a time before sex was invented on this world.
When we see a large grove of aspen -- and aspen on the eastern, higher-moisture slopes and valleys of Colorado can grow to 100-feet or more -- we're really looking at an invisible master-plant root mass which, when conditions are right, sends its roots upward to become trees. If the trees become afflicted with heart rot -- as has my favorite aspen grove up on the ridge of our little mountain -- these trees may blacken and die. But we're seeing the deaths of clone appendages. Beneath the soil, the real aspen -- a convoluted root mass that receives constant updates on the health of the soil, the proper presence of bacteria, air temperatures, and amount of sunlight -- will bide its time until everything's optimal for a new stand of aspen to grow from the pioneer suckers.
An amusing detail ( is that these aspen root-masses are almost impossible to kill. Raging forest fires don't touch them deep down in the soil. You can't really dig up these roots since they can be the size of the giant aspen grove above and the mass has tougher bark and more mass and weight than the sum of the trees in the grove. Cut down an aspen tree for firewood (it's not a good firewood), and more suckers will rise to replace it. Scientists, in pursuit of their data, have tortured and attempted to kill the mother root mass of aspen in a variety of ways. The aspen-mass serenely shuts off the nutrient flow to and from the small, poisoned parts of the mass and keeps on keeping on. Researchers have used bulldozers to expose the aspen root mass and then "disced" that mass with huge, industrial roto-tillers, chopping it to pieces. The aspen mass survives, reconnects its separated parts, and keeps sending up aspen trees. There seem to be only two ways to kill the aspen-root biomass: 1) inject deadly potion into every root in the mass or 2)let our little esker friend the pocket gophers get at the roots. Only the pocket gopher can eat the aspen roots faster than the rootmass can grow new ones.
The "tree" part of an aspen is a target for birds and insects, which makes the cloned tree short-lived. (There are old aspen and bold aspen, but no old, bold aspen.) Birds called sapsuckers hammer the ever-lovin' aspirations out of aspen bark and set up sneaky sap-drip traps for insects. Many of those sap-captured insects are stolen by hummingbirds and other larger birds. The aspen bark opens easily to serious beaks, so woodpeckers (flickers) excavate large cavities in the aspen trunks and those cavities become homes for nuthatches, wrens, and chickadees for their mating seasons. My favorite aspen-invader is the amazingly-blue mountain bluebird.
The original aspen grove atop our tallest hill is sick and near death -- all the clones are ill at once -- but some years ago I hammered in the nail for a bluebird box and every year the bluebirds come and lay eggs in it. (Mountain bluebirds like nests in tree cavities right on the edge of any wooded area, so they can look out over the steep hillside of pasture and keep an eye on what's going on.)
The aspen tree where I put up the box almost 20 years ago is "dead"-- i.e. it no longer puts out those heart-shaped leaves , but that doesn't bother the bluebirds one bit. Meanwhile, all around and through the grove of dead or dying aspen trees, suckers are rising up to make more clone-trees.
So how can you tell if your aspen are clones or perhaps sexually seeded trees? How can you tell if your aspen grove clones are from one large rootmass or from other masses as well?
Not too difficult. Clones sprout leaves in the spring and drop those leaves in the fall on the same day, which is true of my aspen stand on the hilltop. For years I've checked each day and know that my hilltop aspen clones will bud out on or very near May 18 and will drop those leaves during the last week of September.
About 10,000 years ago the polar glaciers didn't come as far south as Colorado -- I've seen their southernmost reach while driving in South Dakota; huge rocks and multi-ton boulders, erratics the geologists call them, are just sitting in flat fields where the glacier left them.
But the Colorado Rocky Mountains produced their own glaciers then. They piled up about five miles high, scored every living thing living between the mountain ranges here, and then spilled out on the flatlands -- including my prairie knoll area, and pushed out onto the praire for almost 100 miles from the mountains before pulling back. Some years ago I met a busy botanist whose research was to find THE remaining grove of aspens that began the aspens' return to the post glacial world here.
Meanwhile, even in the summer but especially during autumn up at Windwalker, I'd open the bedroom doors to the screen at night and just listen to the rustling aspen -- which, along with palm fronds blowing together and the sound of Pacific surf at night -- is one of my three favorite sounds. Aspens while shedding their leaves (en masse from a grove of clones) put out a smell that is both intoxicating and a natural, sympton-free version of Prozac for anyone worred or tense.
There's an aspen biomass in Utah I'd like to introduce you to.
Pando (Latin for "I spread"), also known as The Trembling Giant, is a clonal colony of a single male quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) determined to be a single living organism by identical genetic markers and assumed to have one massive underground root system The clonal colony encompasses 106 acres, weighs more than 13,000,000 pounds, and has over 40,000 stems (trunks), which die individually and are replaced by new stems growing from its roots. The average age of Pando's stems is 130 years, as indicated by tree rings. The roots are at least 80,000 years old.
Some experts believe that the root masses of some cloned aspen forests may be up to one million years old.
The Night Skies
The prairie knoll has good places to do real astronomy or to just sit back and watch the stars (in the warmer seasons), but the Windwalker skies at night may be one of the best night-time skies in the country. By great good luck, the high foothills to the east of the Windwalker property block almost all of the light-scatter from the busy Front Range to the east and to the west beyond the Divide -- there are hardly any lights at all, across the state.
The Milky Way is so palpable up there that it sheds enough light to allow me to walk anywhere on the property and on into the adjoining National Forest at night without a flashlight. (Just this thing -- walking alone at night in June, with the alpenglow after the sunset -- set me up for being stalked through high grass by a large mountain lion. But that's a tale for a different time.)
In January the Great Hunter constellation is high in our winter skies with Orion around 9 p.m.. Orion includes the Great Nebula which is visible using only binoculars. Also in Orion are the bright stars Rigel and Betelgeuse. The latter reddish star -- Betelgeuse (which I learned in the German pronunciation as a kid and have trouble pronouncing it "beetle-juice" to this day) is a red giant that has a diameter of 215 million miles -- greater than the diameter of Earth's entire orbit around the sun.
Rigel is 460 light years away but glows so brightly in our winter night sky because it's 14,000 times brighter than our own little yellow, G-type sun.
The Quadrantid meteor shower peaked around January 3, but it was cloudy down at my prairie knoll home and I didn't see a thing.
In early February the bright constellation Taurus, the Bull, is almost directly overhead, the Big Dipper is hanging sideways (almost ready to spill) to the northeast of Taurus, and directly off the right shoulder of the bull are the red giant Aldebaran and the winter Pleiades, the beautiful Seven Sisters that show up in so many Plains Indians' myths and tales.
The celebration of Candlemas on Feb. 2 used to mark the halfway point between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox. Spin-offs of this celebration include Valentine's Day and Ground Hog Day.
I've always wanted a halfway decent astronomical telescope and perhaps -- just perhaps -- after we move into the Windwalker II cabin, I may actually get one.
It's our own human nature -- sharing our species' general attention-deficit-disorder -- and our habit of always looking for something moving (as a young child does) -- that makes us think that nature with all its flora and fauna is dead in the winter. This essay was just a way of saying that to find the interesting life performing its four duties -- living, finding sustenance, reproducing, and dying -- there's vital information anywhere you look through seeming darkness of winter days and winter nights. All you need to do to appreciate the burgeoning life and struggles for existence going on all around us is to learn a little bit so that you know where to look and what to look at.
The great photographer Edward Steichen had traveled the world for the better part of a century, but in his later years he started a project to photograph and film just one tree on his Connecticut property -- the Shadblow tree. He documented that tree in all seasons, in sunlight and moonlight and starlight, in shade and in shadow, in snowfall and rainfall and under clear skies. He took years to learn every aspect of that tree.
Today we know people who celebrate nature by visiting every National Park in the country in their Winnebagoes. That's one way to connect with the natural world, although one park ranger once told me that the average vehicle-visitors never wander more than a quarter of a mile from their car or RV.
Steichen knew a secret about life and trying to understand the natural things being born, eating, breeding and dying all around us. That secret is simple: Nature and its seemingly infinite number of ecological connections and interdependencies isn't more complicated than we think; it's more complicated than we can think.
But by observing a small part of it for a lengthy period of time, say 118 acres, with a somewhat educated eye, we can begin to learn small bits of that ecology which -- like broken shards of a hologram -- incorporate the entire image in its fragments.
We started with Emily Dickinson so let's give her the final word:
It sifts from Leaden Sieves —
It powders all the Wood.
It fills with Alabaster Wool
The Wrinkles of the Road —
It makes an Even Face
Of Mountain, and of Plain —
Unbroken Forehead from the East
Unto the East again —
It reaches to the Fence —
It wraps it Rail by Rail
Till it is lost in Fleeces —
It deals Celestial Vail
To Stump, and Stack — and Stem —
A Summer’s empty Room —
Acres of Joints, where Harvests were,
Recordless, but for them —
It Ruffles Wrists of Posts
As Ankles of a Queen —
Then stills its Artisans — like Ghosts —
Denying they have been —
Note: a tip of the hat for inspiration from such books as The Walk ©2007 by William deBuys; the Boulder County Nature Almanac © 1993 by Ruth Carol Cushman, Stephen R. Jones, and Jim Knopf; A Sand County Almanac: And Sketchers Here and There by Aldo Leopols ©1949 Oxford University Press; The Art of the COMMONPLACE: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry ©2002 by Wendell Berry; The Sylvan Path: A Journey Through America's Forests © 2007 by Gary Ferguson.