Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Light Returning

Years ago, I was in a meeting where seasonal marketing was the topic at hand, and a woman there suggested that February marks the beginning of Spring. She was from a more southern realm, one, I imagine, where in February tulips bloom and green leaves unfurl. Here, February is that place about three months into our five – give or take – months of winter.

While spring still seems a long way off, however, there are noticeable changes afoot. To me, the most welcome of these is the gradual return of light.

The abundance of darkness is the only thing about winter I do not like. I love the snow and the glittering of frost-covered trees. I can deal with the cold, thanks to the wonders of fleece and down, central heating (in our house via old steam radiators), a small space heater under my desk, and the comforting glow of a blaze in the fireplace. But the dark can be tough – physically, emotionally, mentally.  

It’s no wonder people have long celebrated the promise of lengthening days during the darkest season of the year – centering holidays around the solstice and engineering such marvels as Stonehenge to mark the sunset of the shortest day. I dread the lingering creep of darkness each November, weeks before we arrive at the first official day of winter. The distraction of Christmas and (in our family) a month of birthdays beyond the winter holidays buoys me during the season’s protracted darkness. But come February, I’m ready for a little bit more light, maybe even a sustained hint of warmth.

Even for this winter lover, at this point, deep into the season, I begin to feel as if I’ll never quite shake the chill of winter. As if the perennials buried under layers of snow and ice in the front garden will never green up and bloom. As if my thickly-stockinged feet will never again walk – unclad – along warm sand or soft grass.

But then, somewhere about half-way through this shortest month, I notice the light returning. I can set off on a late afternoon ski through the woods now and not worry about being caught in darkness. And on school day mornings, when I rouse my daughter from sleep and raise the blinds of her east-facing window, dawn is already breaking over the mountains. Only a few weeks ago, that eastern sky was still pitch black so early in the day, and darkness fell well before supper time each evening.

Now, it is still bright at 5 o’clock and not quite so dark on the other side of the windows as we move around the kitchen preparing dinner. On ski mornings, as we head down the hill toward the mountain, the sun is higher in the sky. Some days, that sun is obscured by falling snow. And that is the joy of February – it offers the best of two worlds: returning light and, often, the best skiing of the season. 

Original content published by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul. This essay appears as Meghan's February 25, 2021 Close to Home column in the Littleton Record. 

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Winter Worth the Wait

Winter was late in coming this year. The week after Christmas (when it rained), I was still walking through the snowless woods in low boots, and we were only skiing thanks to the wonder of manmade snow. We haven’t really had a big storm yet this season, but the woods – behind our house and on the mountain – have slowly filled with snow. Many days over the past two weeks, I’ve looked up from my desk to see it snowing on the other side of the window – sometimes big, fluffy flakes swirling casually toward the ground, sometimes a fast-falling wall of white.

To someone who loves skiing, all those snowflakes are really distracting.

Skiing on weekends is a given in our house. But twice in the past week or so, I’ve loaded skis into the car on weekday afternoons and chucked the kids’ boot bags in on top of the skis. One of these outings was pre-planned and involved springing the youngest from school a little early. (I’ve called family powder days on occasion in the past, and since we live in a place where lots of people – including the principals at both schools – are skiers, I just straight up tell them we’re going skiing. Or I say we’re working on “outdoor education,” but they know what that means. And we’ve never been scolded.)

Tuesday, every time I glanced up from the keyboard, it was snowing. I had planned to just take the dog for a ski through the woods between meetings and other work tasks, but when I went out to run an errand mid-day, I brushed a couple of inches of fluff off the car, and then it snowed a good bit more. My two 8th graders were at the mountain that afternoon for ski team practice. A friend sent a photo of a glade filled with fluffy, untracked powder. My distraction level was high.

So, I did what any ski-loving girl with a little scheduling flexibility would do. I donned my ski bibs, tossed my skis and my daughter’s into the minivan, and we headed up Three Mile Hill to the Mittersill Double straight from school pickup. There was hardly anyone on the hill, and we found plenty of untracked snow, even late in the afternoon. It was a sweet hour and a half on the slopes. Just the right number of runs to adjust my attitude, the break I needed to focus back on the work left to do at home.

Winter was late in coming this year, but it was worth the wait. 

Original content published by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul. This essay appears as Meghan's February 11, 2021 Close to Home column in the Littleton Record. 

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

The Chickadees

I have always loved chickadees. In this, of course, I am hardly alone. These birds, with their endearing black caps, diminutive size, and cheery calls, appeal to many people. I love them in all seasons. But in winter, when so many of our spring and summer birds have flitted off for warmer climes, I appreciate the chickadees’ presence even more.

For as many winters as we have lived in this house, I have placed a bird feeder outside the big living room window. It’s hung from an iron shepherd’s hook post (hard for raiding red squirrels to climb) and placed roughly equidistant between two sprawling old lilac bushes, which provide ample landing spots for the chickadees.

Most of the daylight hours, a flock of these birds flits to and fro, from bush to feeder to tangled rugosa hedge and back, over and over. I’ve often watch them peck at the bark of the lilacs, or the nearby maple tree, or the mock orange against the house, where they cache seeds, saving some food for those days I am slow to refill the feeder – or, I suppose, in case there comes a time when the resident humans become an unreliable source of food.

Recently, I learned that chickadees develop additional brain cells during winter, which boost the birds’ memories, so they can recall where they’ve left those seed caches and retrieve them as needed.

The winter I became a mother, I spent countless hours in a chair by the big window, watching the chickadees as I nursed and rocked two tiny babies. I recall learning back then that (unlike winter chickadees) human mothers actually loose brain cells when they are pregnant. In those early weeks of motherhood, the size of my brain hardly seemed to matter; getting to know two new humans, keeping them safe, loving them was all I could think about anyway. Still, watching the little birds flock around the feeder was nearly meditative.

The chickadees we see out the window now are likely generations removed from the birds I watched 14 years ago. They have a hierarchy, I’ve read, although I can’t tell who’s in charge in of our little flock. When I approach to refill the stock of seeds, the birds call – to each other, I presume, but I talk back to them anyway, and stop sometimes to watch the ones perched closest to me.

In other places, I’ve fed chickadees right from my mittened hand. But the wild birds in our yard remain just wary enough to stay out of reach. Perhaps it’s because they know I also tend to a cat who is far too curious about their comings and goings.

Boots (the cat), who came to live with us just before the winter solstice, is fascinated by the birds. We don’t know where he lived before he joined our menagerie, so I don’t know if his former home had a window to look out and birds to watch. He spends hours on the windowsill, tail in some stage of movement, from slightly twitching to frustrated wagging. He meows and paws at the glass, or crouches as if ready to pounce. It all makes me think Boots will have to forever be an indoor cat – or wear a collar made of bells if he’s ever allowed outside.

Although the chickadees are the most loyal to our feeder, sometimes their flock expands to include a couple of red-breasted nuthatches, or a pair of blue jays pops in for a bite. A few weeks ago, a couple dozen Bohemian waxwings alit on the highbush cranberry on the other side of the driveway, all showy black eye streaks and bright, yellow-tipped tails. And just Monday, a small group of common redpolls scavenged the fallen seed below the feeder.

But the chickadees are the regulars, the reliable birds I know I’ll hear calling from somewhere nearby any time of year. And in a year like this one, it’s nice to know there are some things that are steadfastly similar to how they’ve always been.

Original content published by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul. This essay appears as Meghan's January 28, 2021 Close to Home column in the Littleton Record.