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Speaking of Nature

Speaking of Nature: Give thanks

On Sunday, I woke up to discover that winter had finally arrived. The world was rather familiar looking when the sun went down on Saturday, but by the time the sun returned, there had been a change. Snow was on the ground and though it wasn’t more than just an inch or two, it was certainly more than just a dusting. The ground was not a uniform color, but there was enough white to make you notice.

But what really caught my attention was the temperature. I check the thermometer every morning and write down the highs and lows in my nature journal. Sunday’s low temp was 11 degrees and by the time I was up and moving around at 7:30, it was only up to 15 degrees. We’d had some cold mornings up until that point, but 11 degrees was a new low for the season by leaps and bounds.

I suppose the reason I was surprised is because I didn’t feel particularly cold. Susan and I had enjoyed a fire the night before and when I got up that morning, the iron of the wood stove was still pleasantly warm to the touch. It wasn’t warm enough to be radiating much heat, but it was comforting to stand next to the stove in my bare feet and feel the residual heat coming up from the tiles.

I put on some coffee and then decided to see if I could coax the fire back to life. All I had to do was open the door on the side of the stove and stir the ashes with the fire poker to find a few coals still glowing with a comforting orange light. I arranged them into a pile and placed two new logs on either side of them. Then I closed the door and went to feed the birds.

I glanced out the window on the porch to see if I could spot any pigeons in the area. I noticed four sitting on my neighbor’s roof, but they were standing in such a way that I couldn’t see if any of them were banded. Judging from their wing feathers, however, I felt that none of them were birds that I had captured.

I grabbed a large container of sunflower seeds for the tube feeder and a small container of mixed seed for the railings. It was still relatively early but I could already see that the juncos and goldfinches were trying to figure out why their food wasn’t already out for them. “Sorry guys,” I said. It was the weekend and I had slept in.

When I opened the door, I really got a feeling for how cold it was. That sting to the eyes when they are suddenly exposed to cold temperatures. That slight tightening of the airway when cold air is sucked in through an open mouth. It was a familiar, but not necessarily happy feeling for someone who grew up spending time outside in the winter.

The chickadees seemed to materialize out of nowhere when I stepped onto the porch. Even as I filled the tube feeder and began distributing the mixed seed in different piles for the various different birds that had lined up for breakfast, the chickadees seemed to take the time to gently scold me for my tardiness. Later in the winter, when things have settled into a regular pattern, I’ll be able to get the chickadees to take seeds from my hands. Their boldness and impatience makes them absolutely adorable.

By the time I went back inside, the coffee was almost done and the fire in the stove had sprung back to life. All it had needed was its own breakfast of wood and I could hear it happily consuming its fuel. The iron of the stove hadn’t really had time to change in temperature, but it was just a matter of time. The house was quiet enough so that I would be able to hear the metal creaking as it warmed up; a comforting sound on a cold morning.

I fixed myself a cup of coffee and read the morning paper in a patch of sun on a sofa by the window. I was about 12 feet from the stove and I could not feel its heat. I was about 93 million miles from the sun and I could not ignore its heat. With no interference from any clouds in the sky, the sunlight beat down on me, first comfortably warm and then too warm.

I decided to get up and grab something for breakfast. Then I decided to sit by a different window that didn’t have so much sunlight pouring through it. I took up a position at the small writing desk where I keep my cameras and journals and between sips of coffee and bites of food, I began making my notes for the morning: 16 degrees and sunny with a noticeable breeze at 8:15 a.m.

I began listing the birds that were on the porch when I was suddenly amazed by the unexpected appearance of a grackle on the porch railing. When the bird landed, it was initially covered with the dazzling rainbow of iridescence that grackles are so famous for, but then it turned its body and the colors disappeared. This was a grackle that was almost jet-black, as if the cold had somehow extinguished the flame of color that had just been there a second ago.

The grackle lingered long enough for me to take a few quick photos, but not long enough to turn its body so I could see those dazzling colors again. I put down the camera, made a few notes and then drifted off to other things during the morning. I had an exam to write, I had some dishes to clean up from the night before and I had some work to do in my office.

I also had to come up with an idea for this week’s column. It hadn’t escaped me that this column would be published on Thanksgiving, so I spent an uncomfortable amount of time coming up with one idea after another only to discard each and every one. I even enlisted Susan’s help at one point, but despite her great ideas, none of them seemed to resonate with me. Then the ideas sort of dried up and I began to experience that panicked feeling of a writer in the throes of a full on block. What was I going to write about?

I didn’t know. So I procrastinated. I fixed dinner that night not knowing what to write about. I said good night to Susan not knowing what to write about. I watched the first half of a very depressing Patriot’s game not knowing what to write about. The weather seemed to be giving the Patriots’ ball carriers all sorts of trouble and it was 24-0 when I finally gave up watching.

I opened up the stove and tossed in a final log before heading to bed. The chill I felt at the thought of going to bed without an idea was momentarily trumped by the sudden blast of head on my face as I opened the stove door. And that’s when it hit me ... literally. I was warm!

It seems like such a simple thing in our country, but most of us can count on being warm in the winter. It can be 11 degrees outside with a stiff wind and snow swirling in the air, but we can be comfortably warm inside. Sometimes we actually have the luxury of being too warm. And even more miraculous than that was the warmth I felt when I discovered that the Patriots somehow managed to win their game.

So, this Thanksgiving, I am thankful to be happy and healthy. I’m thankful that I’m not a grackle stuck outside in the cold. I’m thankful that Benjamin Franklin figured out how to make better wood stoves. But most of all, I’m simply thankful to be warm.

Bill Danielson has worked as a naturalist for 16 years. In that time, he has been a national park ranger, a wildlife biologist and a field researcher. He currently works as a high school chemistry and biology teacher. To contact Bill, or to learn more about his writing, visit www.speakingofnature.com

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