Since Christmas, the landscape has been white and the air bitter cold. I worry about the feral cats nearby and put out shelters for them though they pay no mind. They do come by to eat on the front and back porches. I know only by the footprints in snow. They live their lives on the edges of civilization. One doe shows up at my bird feeder nightly. Sometimes she stares in the living room window at us, her eyes huge and brown. I toss out apple and carrot slices for her, and I wonder how she ended up alone on these bitter nights. Maybe friends wait for her elsewhere hidden in the dark arms of pines.
Most of all during the past weeks I’ve worried about the wild birds making it through the cold. Yesterday, several tiny birds perched oddly motionless on the feeder edge a long while, longer than normal. A small hawk darted down and circled. He was hungry too and looking for a meal. The little birds sat still as death until all danger was past.
Despite it all the crows soar high above the blank-armed trees in this winter landscape. They are black shadows against pale sky. I hear them cawing as they fly. They are bold against darkness. Somehow they make it through the cold. Even the little birds do too, some of them.
Imprisoned by the wind and snow, I study the birds: chickadees remain though only a sturdy few. They sing a cheery song despite the weather and come to the feeder when the other birds have left. A cardinal pair shows up daily. They like the black seed and peanut butter treat. A sole blue jay, raucous and cocky, stakes claim on top of the feeder. When he’s there, the small birds scatter or swoop to the ground. He’s king of this territory, that’s for sure. One red bellied woodpecker with his flagrant convict feathers topped by an orange cap and a bit of red on his belly hangs upside down on the suet feeder. Sometimes he enjoys my home-made peanut butter suet too.
One flock of sparrows nestles in my neighbor’s shrubs. They used to winter within the evergreen arms of my rhododendron, but last year I trimmed it back, and that seems to have ruined their shelter, to my chagrin. Now they find refuge next door and swoop in as a group to the feeder. They are raucous and cheery. They eat everything — cheerios, bread crumbs, leftover scraps as well as seed. I’m impressed by their social nature, how they stay together for warmth and company. Though they all look brown on first look, they’re actually quite beautiful and unique. I’ve learned from my Facebook friend, gifted musician and photographer Karen Gentilman Clopp, how to distinguish a fox sparrow from a tree sparrow, for instance. A fox sparrow is distinct, says Karen. “You will notice them by their size … they are large … and they are always kicking and scratching up a storm in search of food. They are also unmistakable because of their splotches which are so numerous that my camera struggles to focus … plus they are a gorgeous Burnt Sienna in color … a deep reddish brown … they possess so much red hue that when they fly, you could mistake them for a cardinal.”
On one or two days during the recent freeze, the ground beneath the feeder was covered in round charcoal gray birds with white bellies. They are dark-eyed juncos, quiet and elusive. They must find sanctuary elsewhere in the deep woods and stop by human places only when desperate. When they do, they scruff and scrounge the snow below the feeder for dropped seed. Karen says they are called snowbirds.
As I drive down Jones and Gifford Avenue and peer at the black and icy Chadakoin River or stop by the now frozen lake, I wonder where do the ducks go in winter? Do they find refuge in the woods? Are they nearby hiding in shrub? We who live here have seen flocks of seagulls at the WalMart and Wegmans parking lots in winter. I suppose they do whatever necessary to survive. That’s how they winter through.
And isn’t that the point? We do what is necessary to survive in these frigid times. We try to stay warm. We take shelter. We find comfort in friends and simple pleasures — a cup of hot chocolate, a hearty hot meal, good books, our favorite television shows, music that transports us far beyond this landscape. We make homemade soup. We trace our footprints and those of wild creatures in the shining snow. The snow and cold entrap us. At the same time, such winter requires the best in us, doesn’t it? It requires mettle. It requires we search ourselves for our deepest truths and strengths.
I’ve lost friends this year to illness, and the world is colder without them. I have friends who now face health challenges greater than it seems a person can bear. Yet bear it they do in these extreme winters, when it seems the cold is relentless and the snow obliterates the world beyond our near view.
The great painter Andrew Wyeth, who lived much of his life in coastal Maine, said he liked winter best “when you feel the bone structure of the landscape — the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show.” What waits beneath is our resolve. What waits beneath is who and what we are, deep down. Winter pulls out the best in us. Like the blue jay, in his astonishing azure coat, we put on our best colors against the chill.
We feed the birds to help them survive. It’s a melancholy time, this white world, this frozen expanse. The poet Rilke says, “For among these winters there is one so endlessly winter that only by wintering through it will your heart survive.” And so we do; we winter through.