In the dark hours of morning, the first snow fell, unannounced and unpredicted. Barely a dusting, it whitened the ground and stuck in the crevices of tree trunks.
The first snow fell the second week in December, just passed. It would be gone before noon. But how it changed the entire landscape of our little acreage, whitening the backs of the mule and the donkey as they jostled to get their morning feed.
New snow comes when the trees are bare, the growing season over—while nature seems to take a rest. But December really marks a beginning, not an end.
Walking down our road recently, I strained to listen for sounds of the natural year beginning: the squeal of a fox, the hoot of an owl. This is the start of their year. Fox pelts are now what fur trappers call prime—at their best condition, color, and richness. Now is when they proclaim new territories and seek mates. Likewise, great horned owl pairs call to each other. In a month, they’ll be tending their eggs.
In the woods, just inches below the snow-covered leaf litter, wood frogs lie dormant, their bodies completely frozen. But amazingly, their life continues—awaiting the lengthening days to stimulate the glycogen in their blood that thaws them out in time for their March mating season in woodland pools.
Ancient Druids celebrated the winter solstice in or around December 31 as “Alban Arthuan,”or “the Light of Arthur.” This is when the sun stops its southward retreat and starts to come north again. Mistletoe was the Druidic emblem of the season—its evergreen leaves symbolizing the divinity of all living things. The Christian church transferred many symbols of Druidry to the celebration of Christmas, including the tree, the mistletoe, and the date of December 25. It remains for many of us a time of light, of feasting, and of rejoicing at the promise of new life to come.
On my recent walk, I navigated the front gate to pick up the morning paper lying in the driveway. Shaking the snow off its plastic wrap, I noticed the road was immaculate—no car had passed since the paper was delivered. A line of heart-shaped prints marked where a small deer had crossed the road, walked into the driveway and up to the gate, possibly to sniff at the evergreen wreath we hung there.
This was doubtless the fawn’s first snow. I wondered how an animal, so new to the world herself, might perceive her newly white surroundings.
As you read this, the sun is on its way north. Days are getting longer. Take a moment, go outside, and look at how fresh the world looks after new snow. Take a walk, breathe the air, and celebrate the birth of a new year.
— Doug is an artist, writer, and naturalist living near Shepherdstown. He’s also the creator of the popular “As the Crow Flies” column.