Dawn on a bitter cold morning in January. Looking out the back window, the only sign of life I see is a band of birds mobbing the feeders. The pasture lies in frozen stillness, a stark image of vacancy and desolation accented by dead grass and bare trees.
Much has been written about the beauty and wonder of nature and its capacity to nourish and sustain us, and less about its blemishes and its ability to do us harm. I’ve been guilty of that myself, but I am well aware of nature’s dark side. And that dark side is never more apparent to me than in winter.
Tennyson described nature as being “red in tooth and claw,” and indeed there is a lot of blood lost in the battle for survival. But in winter, nature’s tooth is more white than red, the bloodless struggle ending in a slow and quiet death, on a snow-covered field in the dark of night.
Animals seek their own particular kind of prey, but cold weather preys on everything. Winter is a universal and indiscriminate killer. You get the feeling that if winter were to last long enough, nothing would survive.
The sheer loss of life is staggering. Virtually all the living insects are killed by cold weather, leaving egg, larva and cocoon to propagate the species. This strategy of sacrificing the individual to save the species also occurs in plants.
Creatures that are not killed outright either escape the winter or live with it. Birds are master escapists, having an ability to migrate thousands of miles to a warmer climate. Most cold-blooded organisms escape by hibernation. Frogs borough into the mud, while worms and snakes go underground.
Animals that stay put and live with the cold do so by means of special adaptations. Warm-blooded animals are better equipped to endure the cold weather. In addition, mammals have a thick insulating fur and birds are fixed with a warm coat of feathers.
But that’s not enough to ensure survival. Every year millions of over-wintering birds perish because snow and ice storms seal off their food supply. Unable to find sufficient fuel to stoke the fire of metabolism, they grow weak and gradually succumb to the cold.
Winter is hard on us humans too. In some people, the lack of sunlight in winter causes depression, a condition known as Seasonal Affective Disorder. Some infectious diseases such as influenza also peak in the winter. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, winter cold kills twice as many people as does summer heat.
Considering all this, you’d think that nature is out to get us. But nature has no such intention. The thoughts, feelings and motives we project into the world around us are solely our own. Nature is not immoral, conniving, vindictive or cruel. It simply is.
Knowing that nature does not act with evil intent helps me to focus on the beauty and wonder of the world, and it prevents me from getting too upset with circumstances that neither of us can control. After all, one can’t blame the winter for being cold.
Nature is a complex web of mystery and beauty, of trial and error, of success and failure, of growth and decay, of life and death. The whole blooming reality of it is more fascinating than any fiction. One of the challenges through these long days of winter is to keep the wonder alive.
And we can do that, as Mary Wordsworth says, by giving winter all the glory we can. You can see some of that glory in diamond dust drifting out of a clear blue sky; in moonlight shimmering on a frost-covered lawn; in a firmament spangled with bright shining stars; in wind sculpting graceful curves in the snow.
My spirits are lifted by scenes like that. That and the birds. Especially the birds. For we share something not found in frost crystals and starlight: the amazing fact that we are alive. And like all living things, we are driven by an irrepressible urge to push on and endure, even in the most difficult and oppressive circumstances.
It is good to know we are in this together, the birds and I, sharing the same space and facing the same challenge. We are both here living with winter, not fleeing from it, and doing our best to outface the universe.
I don’t know what the birds know about spring, I only know they keep coming back to the feeders every day, and they keep doing what they must to survive. In the dead of winter, I’m not sure what I know about spring myself. I too just keep on day after day doing what I must to survive. And that includes keeping the feeders stocked.
Those birds are no small part of the glory of winter.
Richard Weber is a nature enthusiast living in Ellis County.