The Winter Solstice has been and gone. Christmas is past, but before the insanely wet, windy, and warm weather turned the Currier and Ives landscape from delicious white to somber brown, my son Noah and I strapped on our cross-country skis and journeyed into the snowy heart of one of my favorite natural areas: the Avalonia Land Conservancy’s Preston Nature Preserve in southeastern Connecticut. From early in May when the first wildflowers start to bloom in the preserve’s meadows until the last of the goldenrods give up the ghost in November, I spend a lot of time roaming the trails of what we’ve dubbed PNP. As often as possible in what now seems like the distant past, I had a coterie of followers, since the refuge is an ideal place to introduce visitors to the delights of the natural world.

PNP is managed for milkweeds, and by mid-June, these plants are in full bloom and doing the welcome work of attracting Monarch butterflies newly arrived from their remarkable 3,000-mile flight from winter headquarters in the highlands of Central Mexico. (As is noted in this Journal and that of every other northern naturalist documenting the ebb and flow of natural events, the journey is quite complicated, with the so-called Methuselah generation that came of age here in late summer heading southwest in September and October, wintering over in Mexico, and then, when they feel the first stirrings of spring, pointing their internal compasses north and east. Those elder states-folks, however, will only make it part-way “home” before passing the torch to the next generation, who will continue the trek, but also not complete it before they too die in favor of yet another generation of Monarch fliers. If they don’t reach the “promised land,” their kids will, we hope, and if all goes as planned, that’s the group endowed with the sense and ability to head back to Mexico and eventually attempt to repeat the miraculous process.)

So, with Monarchs and milkweed plants, along with a number of stunning lepidopterans such as various swallowtails, fritillaries, Baltimores, and, my personal favorite, the hummingbird moths that work the bee balm, Joe Pye Weed, and goldenrods in good time, PNP is a mecca for observant meanderers.

Of course, as winter settles in, the insects, to say nothing of most of the birds and the resident mammals, are no longer putting on a show. And with Not-Quite-Winter Storm Gail’s thick blanket of snow covering the ground, the grasses, and the flowers, there’s really not much life on display.

But there’s plenty to see, and as Noah and I broke a trail through the untouched white—in deference to the not-exactly-heart-healed Geezer, my son did most of the trail blazing—we discovered that the lack of non-stop growing season distractions actually heightened our awareness of the subtleties we might have otherwise missed.

Particularly that voice.

“You hear that?” I asked my son, who gave me the quizzical look of youngsters eyeing their semi-sane elders.

Noah shook his head gently in the negative direction and, I suspected, was adding “have dad’s hearing checked ASAP” to his mental task list. But there was definitely a voice on the gentle wind, and as my son skied on, I heard it again, an all-too-familiar “Scrooooooge...”

No, wait—that was a different movie.

This voice, low and drawn out, intoned, Naturalist... hey, Naturalist...

It sounded familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it, so I kept the calling to myself—Noah was clearly on a different wavelength—and followed the sound to its source: a lanky, masked, and resplendently bearded gentleman wearing a parka marked Weather Channel and exuding the essence of meteorological wisdom. For a moment, I thought I might be looking at the unexpected specter of WC storm chaser Jim Cantore, but on closer inspection I realized that I’d been visited by that Sage of Sage, Seer of Seers, Prognosticator of Prognosticators, the veritable Punxsutawney Phil... oh, no, wait again, the groundhog’s not due until early February, so this Auger Extraordinaire could only be one person: the Weather Oracle.

Every year around solstice time, the WO pays me a visit to provide his annual Winter Forecast based on all the natural signs, from the relative widths of brown and black bands on Woolly Bear caterpillars to the shapes you find inside the seeds of local persimmons. (According to the Farmer’s Almanac, a fork shape indicates a mild winter, a spoon predicts heavy snows, and a knife suggests extreme cold. Alas, on the ridge, the drought and the opossums left us with no persimmons, the interpretation of which is not in the Signs and Signals guidebook.) Ordinarily, we’d give each other the hug of long-lost friends, but this year, we maintained an appropriate anti-social and pro-sane pandemic distance. “Mask up,” the Oracle suggested through his own face covering. “I can’t hold back time for much longer.”

Noah, I quickly realized, had stopped moving and was vanishing into a soft mist that, when I first noticed it, seemed to be a manifestation of my increasingly compromised left eye that will soon require cataract and glaucoma surgery, rather than the WO’s magic.

“I didn’t bring my trove of natural data to interpret,” I apologized.

“No matter,” he said. “The WO knows all and can see inside that desk drawer bearing onion skins, shriveled caterpillars, and all your notes on the timing of monarch migration, honeybees heading into their hives... or not... and the height of hornet nests... And, since we don’t have a lot of time, I’ll just cut to the chase and tell you what I think is likely, which is this: enjoy the snow. It won’t be around for much longer, and it won’t often be back. This is going to be another non-winter, and for you, Naturalist, and that skimpy woodpile you’ve amassed, that’s really good news. But don’t fret too much, ’cuz the incoming Biden administration might just reverse the climate change trend and help lead the rest of the world into something approaching sanity. In the meanwhile, keep the home fires burning, get through cardiac rehab so you can begin to use your chainsaw again, and enjoy the Fox sparrows that decided it wasn’t going to be necessary to migrate this year. Oh, yes—for God’s sake, keep wearing that mask, even after you get vaccinated as soon as is allowable. You’ve done well keeping COVID-19 at bay up to now; don’t blow it. We can’t yet know if the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel is the result of medical salvation... or the headlamp of an oncoming train. Be careful—and Happy 2021!”

With that, the Oracle dissolved into the mists that also dissipated from the rest of the PNP landscape, revealing a white-blanketed collection of fields and forests... and a pair of cross-country skiers savoring the increasingly rare opportunity to travel over the snow via ancient, muscle-powered means. As I tried to catch up to my son—good luck with that, Naturalist—I hoped that the Oracle was mistaken this year. I truly hoped that the return to brown leaves and unblanketed soil was a temporary aberration. 

If only environmental sanity could bring us back to what used to be normal.

If only.

In the meantime, from all of us on the ridge, the best of New Year’s. Stay safe and well! The Winter Solstice has been and gone. Christmas is past, but before the insanely wet, windy, and warm weather turned the Currier and Ives landscape from delicious white to somber brown, my son Noah and I strapped on our cross-country skis and journeyed into the snowy heart of one of my favorite natural areas: the Avalonia Land Conservancy’s Preston Nature Preserve in southeastern Connecticut. From early in May when the first wildflowers start to bloom in the preserve’s meadows until the last of the goldenrods give up the ghost in November, I spend a lot of time roaming the trails of what we’ve dubbed PNP. As often as possible in what now seems like the distant past, I had a coterie of followers, since the refuge is an ideal place to introduce visitors to the delights of the natural world.

PNP is managed for milkweeds, and by mid-June, these plants are in full bloom and doing the welcome work of attracting Monarch butterflies newly arrived from their remarkable 3,000-mile flight from winter headquarters in the highlands of Central Mexico. (As is noted in this Journal and that of every other northern naturalist documenting the ebb and flow of natural events, the journey is quite complicated, with the so-called Methuselah generation that came of age here in late summer heading southwest in September and October, wintering over in Mexico, and then, when they feel the first stirrings of spring, pointing their internal compasses north and east. Those elder states-folks, however, will only make it part-way “home” before passing the torch to the next generation, who will continue the trek, but also not complete it before they too die in favor of yet another generation of Monarch fliers. If they don’t reach the “promised land,” their kids will, we hope, and if all goes as planned, that’s the group endowed with the sense and ability to head back to Mexico and eventually attempt to repeat the miraculous process.)

So, with Monarchs and milkweed plants, along with a number of stunning lepidopterans such as various swallowtails, fritillaries, Baltimores, and, my personal favorite, the hummingbird moths that work the bee balm, Joe Pye Weed, and goldenrods in good time, PNP is a mecca for observant meanderers.

Of course, as winter settles in, the insects, to say nothing of most of the birds and the resident mammals, are no longer putting on a show. And with Not-Quite-Winter Storm Gail’s thick blanket of snow covering the ground, the grasses, and the flowers, there’s really not much life on display.

But there’s plenty to see, and as Noah and I broke a trail through the untouched white—in deference to the not-exactly-heart-healed Geezer, my son did most of the trail blazing—we discovered that the lack of non-stop growing season distractions actually heightened our awareness of the subtleties we might have otherwise missed.

Particularly that voice.

“You hear that?” I asked my son, who gave me the quizzical look of youngsters eyeing their semi-sane elders.

Noah shook his head gently in the negative direction and, I suspected, was adding “have dad’s hearing checked ASAP” to his mental task list. But there was definitely a voice on the gentle wind, and as my son skied on, I heard it again, an all-too-familiar “Scrooooooge...”

No, wait—that was a different movie.

This voice, low and drawn out, intoned, Naturalist... hey, Naturalist...

It sounded familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it, so I kept the calling to myself—Noah was clearly on a different wavelength—and followed the sound to its source: a lanky, masked, and resplendently bearded gentleman wearing a parka marked Weather Channel and exuding the essence of meteorological wisdom. For a moment, I thought I might be looking at the unexpected specter of WC storm chaser Jim Cantore, but on closer inspection I realized that I’d been visited by that Sage of Sage, Seer of Seers, Prognosticator of Prognosticators, the veritable Punxsutawney Phil... oh, no, wait again, the groundhog’s not due until early February, so this Auger Extraordinaire could only be one person: the Weather Oracle.

Every year around solstice time, the WO pays me a visit to provide his annual Winter Forecast based on all the natural signs, from the relative widths of brown and black bands on Woolly Bear caterpillars to the shapes you find inside the seeds of local persimmons. (According to the Farmer’s Almanac, a fork shape indicates a mild winter, a spoon predicts heavy snows, and a knife suggests extreme cold. Alas, on the ridge, the drought and the opossums left us with no persimmons, the interpretation of which is not in the Signs and Signals guidebook.) Ordinarily, we’d give each other the hug of long-lost friends, but this year, we maintained an appropriate anti-social and pro-sane pandemic distance. “Mask up,” the Oracle suggested through his own face covering. “I can’t hold back time for much longer.”

Noah, I quickly realized, had stopped moving and was vanishing into a soft mist that, when I first noticed it, seemed to be a manifestation of my increasingly compromised left eye that will soon require cataract and glaucoma surgery, rather than the WO’s magic.

“I didn’t bring my trove of natural data to interpret,” I apologized.

“No matter,” he said. “The WO knows all and can see inside that desk drawer bearing onion skins, shriveled caterpillars, and all your notes on the timing of monarch migration, honeybees heading into their hives... or not... and the height of hornet nests... And, since we don’t have a lot of time, I’ll just cut to the chase and tell you what I think is likely, which is this: enjoy the snow. It won’t be around for much longer, and it won’t often be back. This is going to be another non-winter, and for you, Naturalist, and that skimpy woodpile you’ve amassed, that’s really good news. But don’t fret too much, ’cuz the incoming Biden administration might just reverse the climate change trend and help lead the rest of the world into something approaching sanity. In the meanwhile, keep the home fires burning, get through cardiac rehab so you can begin to use your chainsaw again, and enjoy the Fox sparrows that decided it wasn’t going to be necessary to migrate this year. Oh, yes—for God’s sake, keep wearing that mask, even after you get vaccinated as soon as is allowable. You’ve done well keeping COVID-19 at bay up to now; don’t blow it. We can’t yet know if the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel is the result of medical salvation... or the headlamp of an oncoming train. Be careful—and Happy 2021!”

With that, the Oracle dissolved into the mists that also dissipated from the rest of the PNP landscape, revealing a white-blanketed collection of fields and forests... and a pair of cross-country skiers savoring the increasingly rare opportunity to travel over the snow via ancient, muscle-powered means. As I tried to catch up to my son—good luck with that, Naturalist—I hoped that the Oracle was mistaken this year. I truly hoped that the return to brown leaves and unblanketed soil was a temporary aberration. 

If only environmental sanity could bring us back to what used to be normal.

If only.

In the meantime, from all of us on the ridge, the best of New Year’s. Stay safe and well!

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