I write this on the shortest day, the longest night. In a year that seems to have primarily contained darker days, there are still slivers of brightness. If you pay attention to the news and numbers, I imagine the darkness seems consuming, though you may see a ray of hope in the form of a vaccine. Others may disagree with you, the vaccine, and even the numbers. This has been a year of years, one with no precedent, and one for which we were not prepared.

And yet…

…the snow falls and absorbs the sound, as it always does. It seems to also absorb some of the chaos, confusion, and concern, at least for a while. I’ve gotten used to being able to feel my heart rate multiple times on a daily basis, but I notice that it fades back into silence when I step under the trees, their bare branches reaching and waiting, with promise and patience.

…the winter animals forage, as they always have. Two opossums have been visiting my compost pile, one large and one small by the size of their tracks. I haven’t seen them, just their signs. Their little, star-shaped footprints never fail to make me smile, and I am glad that my food waste is their chosen buffet. The garden won’t miss that little bit.

…the hawk still hunts, as it always does. While usually I consider a hawk a pest because it eats my chickens, this year, it is hunting rats. It perches in the locust tree, waiting to swiftly drop onto a rat running from the brush pile to the wood pile to the birdfeeders.

…the geese still gather, as they always do. On open water, flocks of waterfowl congregate, setting up a cacophony that only they can interpret. Sometimes just Canada Geese, other times with Tundra Swans, mergansers, mallards, and other winter visitors. They splash, and frolic, and fly, and argue, and it is easy to believe while watching them that all is right with the world.

…the rodents still burrow, as they always will. The quarter- to half-dollar-sized holes are more visible in the snow than in the lawn. As the ground warms, the entrances become muddy. They like it under the bird feeder the best, but also emerge by the brush pile under the maple, and in the goldenrod by the garden. I’m sure they are eating my carrots, these voles, moles, shrews, and mice. But then again, I knew they would.

…the creek still babbles, it always does. The water got really low this summer, and I actually couldn’t hear it until I stood on the bank. Now it is again constantly chattering and murmuring, caressing the chubs and singing lullabies to the trout. It widens and narrows as the ice and snow grip and release, the constant dance of winter.

A River Otter does what it always does in the snow, plays! Photo by Jeff Tome.

All of it reminds me that perhaps we were prepared for this, in a way. The human connection to the natural world is instinctive and strong. If we each allow ourselves the time to listen, the world talks to us in a language that we already understand. Hardship has also been a part of human lives since the beginning, and will continue to be so.

While the solstice has passed by the time you read this, many humans celebrate another turning point in the year. As the days start to get longer, and the planets align to form a beacon of hope in the sky, the darkness will recede. Just as the natural world continues on, so shall we. I hope that as we welcome the light back, we try to do it all better. Prepare better, yes. But also live better, love better, teach, try, rejoice, reflect, and support better.

Use the new year, whenever it begins for you, to try and understand better. I’m pretty sure that the rodents and hawk would disagree on a great number of things if they could converse, but they occupy the same habitat and have achieved a balance out of necessity. The snow and the creek don’t resent one another, they just give and take throughout the year, the season, each getting their turn to speak their voice. As we move into longer days, what if we all listened better — to the snow, the creek, the wind, the animals, the plants, each other? What if we heard everything that was being said, not just the words? What if we understood that by listening, we are better prepared for everything?

As the snow falls or melts, as the wind howls or whispers, as the wings of the geese whistle over your head and their honk-hink calls vibrate your heart, listen. Go outside. Get in touch with that from which you came. We may all understand everything a little bit better.

Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are still open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is partially open, including restrooms, the Blue Heron Gift Shop, and some exhibits. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345. 

Sarah Hatfield is Education Coordinator at ACNC.