Knowing Winter


“One can follow the sun, of course,
but I have always thought that it is best
to know some winter, too,
so that the summer, when it arrives,
is the more gratefully received.”
Beatriz Williams



Much of North America lies frozen this week beneath a layer of icy whiteness.  Weather maps on TV are clothed in shades of blue, purple and white.  It is a respite from this year’s heat, perhaps, and a novelty for those who enjoy winter.

Here in Williamsburg, in coastal Virginia, we see temperatures drop below the mid-twenties only occasionally, and not every year.  But we are also in the midst of this Arctic cold snap at the moment.  There is a chance for snow tomorrow evening.



The garden, and the larger world are frozen tight and hard this week.  Those winter faring plants I potted up so carefully last month sit brittle, a bit limp and desiccated in their pots today despite the brilliant sun shining on them.  I gave each pot a bit of tap water yesterday afternoon, hoping to thaw the soil long enough for roots to draw a bit of moisture in to the thirsty plants.



We’ve wrapped our olive trees in clear plastic bags and set them in the warmest corner of our front patio, where they capture the mid-day sun.  They’ve grown too large now to bring indoors each winter.  We hope they make it through to warmer days ahead.



But there is only so much anyone can do when such bitter cold blows in to one’s neighborhood.  The lowest temperature we’ve seen here since Christmas was 12F.  It feels a bit odd to cheer on the mercury to climb through the 20s, hoping it might actually make it up to 32F before the evening chill returns.



But such is our life at the moment, and so we have decided to enjoy the novelty of it.  It is the season to trot out one’s heavy sweaters and gloves, and possibly even a jacket.  I had forgotten which drawer our gloves got put away in last spring, and needed a reminder.  A pair now live in my bag, ready to pull on whenever I step outside into this frosty world.

But clad in hat and gloves, wool and pashmina and jeans, I set off to capture photos of ice today.  My partner kept the car warm and idling while I scampered about on the banks of Mill Creek and the James River in search of ice sculptures.



The wind was almost quiet, and the sun blazing bright and glinting off the frozen marshes.  It was nearly 24F as I captured these photos today.



We were delighted to find eagles flying in lazy circles above us and large congregations of geese gathered along the roadsides.  I could hear waterfowl splashing into the creek in search of lunch as I picked my way down the frozen trail to the water’s edge.



A heron clung to a branch along the bank, watching as gulls dove into the creek and ducks cavorted along its glassy surface.



Halves of minnows, cut up by some intrepid fisher-person for bait, lay scattered about on the sandy beach.  Frozen hard, they held no appeal for the foraging birds around us.

I marvel at the sight of spray cloaked grasses and ice glazed stones.  The river and creeks here are tidal, and the rising and falling water and windblown spray make for ever-changing textures along their banks.



Sheets of ice get pushed up in the marshes on the incoming tide, and slushy brackish water takes on odd hues in the wintery light.



Our oddly frozen world dreams this week in weirdly grotesque forms.  Frozen soil pushes up in the garden, heaving fragile root balls not properly mulched and insulated against the cold.  Ice crystals sprout from stems and leaves in the first light of morning.



Only the birds appear impervious to the cold.  Small flocks of blackbirds gather on the frozen grass.  Songbirds hop about in the trees as we pass.  I wonder at the mysteries of nature which allow them to survive such frigid weather.

Whether sitting on the ground, swimming in the frozen creeks or gliding on a current of air, they appear almost comfortable.  This is a great gift they enjoy, and that we do not.



We are mostly watching through the window panes to see how the rest of this month unfolds.  Our cat spends long hours dozing, curled up in a blanket on the couch.  He shows no interest in exploration beyond his food bowl at the moment.

Surely the world will soon be slick and white if the forecast is to be believed, and our garden will slumber on under a bit more insulation as we dream of spring.

Yet, in this moment, we know winter; and see its beauties all around us.



Woodland Gnome 2018



“There is an instinctive withdrawal for the sake of preservation,
a closure that assumes the order of completion.
Winter is a season unto itself.”
Haruki Murakami



January 24 ice 065

For three days now the world has been frozen.

Rock hard ground, sheathed in ice and snow;

January 24 ice 015

The larder is locked.January 24 2014 birds 034

Any worms or insects the birds might hope to find,

Securely encased in frozen mud.

Any fallen seeds,  buried under ice.


Berries top the bird buffet;

Berries, and any human offerings

Left  behind in kindness, to sustain

The great, gathering flocksJanuary 24 2014 birds 033

In search of food.

Food to fuel survival

Until the world grows soft again,

And offers up its bounty.

January 24 ice 040

The world is frozen,

A glinting, glimmering, hard and shiny

Version of itself.

January 24 ice 046

White sunlight bouncing from ground to leaf

To icicle adorned landscape;

January 24 ice 048

Glinting in eye piercing patches of brightest light

From water and snow.

This frozen light,

Clear and hard;

Offers no warmth.

January 24 ice 019

The world is frozen, brittle, sharp and painful.

Wind sucking warmth from finger and face,

Snow numbing toes and hands.

January 24 ice 030

Icicles threatening like crystal knives,

Gathering girth as frozen night follows frigid day.

January 24 ice 008

Birds crunch frozen berries from ice glazed shrubs,

Filling their gullets with ice,

Flying to keep from freezing, staying close in

Living clouds of winged family flocks.

January 24 ice 038

Ruffling feathers against the wind,

Standing on ice, wading in briny waves.

January 24 ice 052

A small miracle, to remain warm

And alive,

In this world of ice.

January 24 ice 054

Words and Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014

What is There To Eat?

Bringing Birds To The Garden

Families Gathering

Ligustrum in the Winter Garden

Snow Washed

January 24 2014 birds 017

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