Friday, December 21, 2012

Happy Winter!

Winter Solstice... the ray of hope in our darkest days.  In science, as in life, it may be that as we stand on the precipice, looking at the beginning of months of hardship and trial, things start to get just a little bit brighter.  Winter truly is a season of scarcity and challenges for animals that don't have the human luxuries of central heating and grocery store food.  Plants still face months of dormancy before they will green with new life, so food sources are severely limited... caches painstakingly collected and stored in the fall, a few leftover seeds, bark and twigs.  The succulent newness of leafy greens is so far away it's hardly imaginable, even to me.  And this at the time when the body most needs energy to heat itself.  It would be a bleak outlook, I think, if animals had the capacity to look forward into the future.  

And yet... after months of our days growing oppressively short, they will... almost imperceptibly at first... start to lengthen.  Today is the winter solstice, when the earth's tilt causes the sun to hit (at 5:12 am local time) its southern-most angle of shine upon the earth's surface.  For the next 6 months, as we travel around the sun on our topsy-turvy cosmic journey, we northern-hemisphere-dwellers will get the sun's light more and more directly each day.    Eventually the sun's rays will shine upon us directly enough to start to warm the earth's surface.  And so the first calendar day of winter is also the day it begins to recede, to gradually lose its fight.  Our glimmer of light just as the hard times begin.

And winter this year tried to start with a show of seasonal power.  Now, I don't want to minimize the first winter storm of the year for those around the Midwest who were involved in traffic accidents or travel delays or whatever, but... for us, it was kind of a bust.  It began with rain... steady, drumming rain that kept me awake Wednesday night and into the small hours of Thursday morning, and continued to fall all day Thursday.  The world was wet and puddly and dreary and drippy... and relatively warm, hitting the mid-40s.  The forecasters' predicted snowfall decreased as the hour of temperature drop drew near... but we still didn't even hit the large 2-6 inch target that meteorologists left open for us.  Around 4 pm Thursday the rain turned to sleet and wet heavy snow, which did mess with rush hour but didn't last very long into the night.  I went to bed with my driveway's blacktop still showing and I awoke to the same sight.  

That's not to say that winter didn't dawn with a fierce bite.  Piercing winds whip across the prairies and fields.  I look out, through wildly shaking locust branches, at a wind turbine whose motion is so fast it looks like a blurry circle.  The small amount of snow that fell has frozen solid, a crunchy crust covering cars and pavement, trees and grasses.  Now that the sun has finally risen on this shortest day of the year, the frozen drops on the tree branches catch the light and sparkle.  Diamonds all over are spectacular holiday decorations.  Plus, it's cold -- in the mid 20s but those winds from the north make it feel much colder.

And this... is just the beginning!  Happy first day of winter!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

...Falling on my Head

It is snowing....
Doesn't mean any will stick, but still... Maybe we will have a winter after all!

Friday, December 14, 2012

Morning Observations

This morning dawned beautifully...

A thin layer of ice covers the lake this morning, fractal spirals and triangular crystals covering the delicate surface.  The early morning light, almost horizontal, highlights the patterns.  It casts long shadows and pale pastel reflections of the aspen trees across the flat expanse.  Upside down, blurry and elongated, it's an impressionist version of reality painted upon a canvas of ice.  The colors almost glow -- a mirror image of the salmon of the rising sun and the blue of the clear sky, the white of the tree-trunks and the beige of the prairie.

With their swimming-grounds hardened, the lake's surface is free of ducks and geese, but there are smaller birds all around.  A flock of sparrows congregate in the button bush, taking refuge among its protective net of branches and twigs.  They chatter to each other, creating an almost-constant background of warbles and cheeps as I approach.  A few chickadees fly past, and some larger passerine birds, unidentifiable in the distance, perch in the highest branches of the aspens across the water.  There is plenty of life even in the still of the season of dormancy, death and sleep.

Frost crystals color the grass and the dried prairie plants white... although half-way through December, we've yet to see any actual snow.  The early morning air is crisp in my lungs... It almost burns with cold as I inhale deeply, but already I can feel the warmth of the sun's rays on my face and the promise of another unseasonably warm day.  We've already made a snow-drought record this year... I wonder when (if?) we'll get a snowcover...