…Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
T.S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton”
The forest year has neither beginning nor end. It has, however, landmarks along its coiling journey. By December, the worms are slow in the soil. Pillbugs and woolly bears become still as the puddles freeze. Painted ladies and mourning cloak butterflies are tucked under sheaves of tree bark. At our home in the Chicago region, snow comes and goes. One weekend, we have enough to cross-country ski. By the next it has melted away. Some years, we have yet to plant the garlic.
In a warm December, a few spring wildflowers start making headway on the next year. Colonies of bullet-shaped mayapple shoots emerge from the soil, leaves folded inside like tiny hands in prayer. Spring beauties sprawl beneath the leaf litter at the base of a sugar maple tree or under a rotting log, strap-like leaves curled and vulnerable, stems fragile. Foliage of the false rue anemone looks as ready for the new year as it will in March. Do these individuals survive under the snow all winter long? Are they making a calculated move that will give them an edge in the spring rush? Or are they making a tactical error?
No matter what year, winter arrives with unexpected greens. Dark, leathery leaves of white bear sedge grow as broad as banana peels, while the narrow-leaved sedges cluster like mop heads in the forest understory and pool in shady depressions. Fronds of the spinulose wood fern recline against the oak leaves. Seductive entodon moss carpets the decomposing boles of fallen red oaks that started growing in the mid-1800s. The moss works intermittently through winter when there are few other plants to see, collaborating across the seasons with fungi and slime molds, algae and bacteria, and mice and invertebrates to digest and break apart the fallen tree. Evergreen leaves are gearing up to spend winter under the snow, ready to photosynthesize whenever the light is bright enough to fire up their chloroplasts. They are scaling back their hours to part-time.
The soil freezes and thaws repeatedly. Under the sugar maples, bundles of needle ice form at the surface of exposed soils, each an inch or so long and packed together like fists full of glass straws. Without an insulating layer of leaves, the ice heaves knots of soil into spires reminiscent of the stone formations in southern Utah’s Canyonlands. The ice melts slowly in my ungloved hand, perfectly clear near the top and middle, swimming with soil particles near the base. If the soil beneath is warm enough, the frozen clods can be brushed loose like granola off a countertop, revealing a cool, moist bed of fine crumbles and worm castings.
The year pivots on the week flanking the winter solstice. We awaken to darkness and return home in darkness. On my bike ride into work, a white-footed mouse darts across the road and disappears into a shrub. It navigates the tangle of branches, and the light I turn on it plays on its back as though the mouse were a convict scaling a prison wall. Owls call in the morning while I walk in through the woods. In the darkness, the trees are silhouetted against the cloudy sky. The sugar maples are magnificent, messy-headed beasts with trunks as wide as picture windows that heave out of the soil and head straight up for several stories before bursting into crown. Bur oak branches stretch out even under the canopy, vestiges of an ancient savanna. Oaks and beeches hang onto a good portion of their leaves. White and red oaks are everywhere, with hop hornbeam, musclewood, black cherry, and hackberry filling in where they can. I’m freed to forget, for the space of the walk, everything I need a hand lens to see.
The days hang still. There is the Christmas bird count with its coots and mallards, juncos and chickadees. The woods are filled with nuthatches, woodpeckers, golden-crowned kinglets, brown creepers, screech owls, barred owls and, down from the north, a saw-whet owl. There are always a few bluebirds. We pad around the house for the first few lengthening days of late December and January. The cardinals start to sing.
Then snow falls and blankets everything. In the midst of a snowstorm that lasts for hours, geese may be heard calling to each other from a nearby pond. As the sun goes down, the clouds shed enormous, cottony flakes. The snow goes on all night. We awaken to a clear sky, with Jupiter swinging up above Venus’s left shoulder, the moon high in the southwest, a few steps from the planets. Paper birch fruits skid across the surface of the snow. Norway spruce needles from nearby backyards pepper the drifts. If it is cold and dry enough, the wind whips the fallen snow into sharp ridges that run along the margins of fallen tree trunks, forming slot canyons that reveal duff spilling out from beneath the trunks. Snowflakes link arms, cantilevering from the tree branches. Hoar frost sprouts from the ice along the creek like moss sculpted in porcelain. Water bubbles along beneath.
Snow hides, then it records and reveals. Mammal tracks run everywhere, except during the bitterest cold. White-footed mice gallop, tails licking the surface, forepaws and hind paws paired. Their tunnels weave through the snow, leading to crystal-edged holes. A scrabbling near one end of a mouse trail captures the frustrations of a fox. Meadow voles scurry, paws alternating. But we often don’t see them. They begin their paths as tunnels between grass nests and the bases of tree trunks, but they often pop up for a quick view before they dive back down. When temperatures rise, these portals through the surface of the snowpack sweat a frosty collar, and the roofs of the tunnels become thin, translucent, graying over the darkness inside. When the roofs cave in, the tunnels are etched into the melting snow. They freeze again. Then the snow melts away and is gone altogether for a few weeks. Channels appear chewed into the grass. The snow returns.
This coming and going of snow is common throughout the winter in southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois, where I have lived almost all of my life, and it’s fundamentally different from the persistent snowpack of the north, which insulates the ground through the coldest weeks.1 During January 2019, when temperatures hit -30°F (-34°C)—so cold that a cup of boiling water, tossed in the air, would vaporize into a cloud of fog before it hit the ground—the mice and voles carried on under the snow, feeding on tubers and plant stems, girdling willows. At the bottom of the snowpack, the bottom layers sublimate away, leaving a crystalline rooftop with an air gap for the mice to occupy.2 They are out of the line of sight of hawks and coyotes, though within earshot. The unlucky mouse may meet its maker crushed in the talons of a great horned owl that plucked it from the snow. Aside from that risk, the snow is the mouse’s blanket and the earth its furnace.
I fixate on tracks. I spent a week of 2019 mistaking skunk tracks for raccoon. Downers Grove is an exceptionally skunky town, so I should know better. Part of the blame goes to my preconceived notions about when skunks ought to be out. It’s not warm enough for them, I thought. That’s the downside of experience: it insinuates itself between you and what you’re looking at. I’ll give another part of the blame to the powdery snow, which was too airy to take more than a vague impression. But a week later, just a little warmer, and the snow was excellent for tracks. Opossum prints showed the rear-paw thumb as clearly as a textbook. I could have measured the claws on the gray squirrels and the lengths of the white-footed mice paws. The “raccoon” I had been following resolved clearly to skunk, with defined claws in lieu of the asymmetrical prints of the raccoons, which themselves showed up along a ditch that day with crystal clarity.
Sharp-tipped maple seedlings and barren seed heads of wild leeks pierce the snow. Then the snow melts away, and I hardly notice them. A dusting over the top of a severed oak draws my attention to the white rot inside, throwing into relief the dark sutures between colonies of turkey-tail fungus devouring the wood. Dark, root-like networks of honey mushroom rhizomorphs become visible against the boles of fallen trees as the bark disintegrates. During the growing season, they invade roots of uninfected trees and work their way up beneath the bark, where the fungus infects the wood and causes decay. They aren’t more prevalent in the winter, but snow masks so much that I notice things I would never see without it.
Near the middle or end of February, winter starts to break. If it’s very warm, bluebirds and mourning doves and chickadees will sing their hearts out as they shuttle around the neighborhoods. Red-bellied woodpeckers bark. Male redwing blackbirds return ahead of their potential partners and showboat around the ponds and ditches, singing from the spear-tips of the previous year’s cattails and from the tops of the smaller trees. One morning a song sparrow returns: I hear it before I see it. It is a kind of springtime, but ephemeral, not the spring we planned for.
In the exceptionally warm winter of 2017, fog descended on the region one February night, and we awoke to temperatures near 50°F (10°C), a winter-resident robin singing, beating the sunrise by an hour and a half. I got to the Morton Arboretum a bit before five. Fog hissed against the high-tension lines near the gate. I parked my bike and walked in through the unevenly blackened forest. The arboretum was a pioneer in burning oak woodlands to control weeds and promote understory diversity. The natural resources crew burns every year, and that February marked the beginning of one of the best burn seasons I’ve witnessed since I started working there in 2004. Raindrops hit the charred leaves at intervals, heavy, less resonant than they would have been on freshly downed leaves. This had been a particularly thorough burn, but even so, strips and patches of unburned leaves remained, and some logs that might have burned well went untouched while others smoldered for days. Flames were still darting out from the ragged end of a log. How must it have felt to come across spontaneous fire like this in the wild when it was still easier to carry coals from place to place than to start them from scratch? Over and over, groups of people must have rediscovered this mystery and felt grateful.
Chorus frogs called from the lowlands near the interstate. I retrieved my bike, and on the ride into the herbarium, I heard the unmistakable whistling of a woodcock flying low overhead. He landed and uttered a single “peent” in the field between the planted buckeyes and the woods adjoining the lake sedge marsh. I waited a few minutes, but he had no more to say. This was early for the woodcock’s return. Its migration north is perhaps more variable than other birds’, who synchronize with the increasing day length. Songbirds moving through may live on insects that navigate the furrows in the warming tree bark. They search for groggy moths and butterflies, and berries still hanging from the trees. The woodcock, by contrast, follows the worms northward as they awake. Its prehensile bill is good for poking holes in the soil and snagging prey. Woodcocks are reputed to eat more than their weight in earthworms each day.3 The woodcock is not like the chorus frog, who can begin singing in the spring, stop when the weather gets cold, begin again, and then stop all summer long before its fall renaissance. The woodcock is different: when it returns, spring must be around the corner. The woodcock is committed to it.
We couldn’t bear incessant spring exuberance. So, we are allowed a short break. Just as the most vivid dreams come when we are falling into sleep or stretching out of it, so the attenuation of stimuli in winter heightens our awareness. We notice praying mantis egg cases that we had missed in the fall. We pass a frozen pond and think of water milfoil and coontail and bladderwort on its floor, turions twisting toward March, common duckweed suspended below the surface of the ice or frozen into it, snapping turtles drifting noiselessly beneath the surface. We think back to the toads we saw moving through in June and wonder where they have buried themselves.
The season meanders northward. One afternoon near the end of February, an enormous flock of sandhill cranes flies over. I may be inside with the dog, or in the garage with my bike flipped upside down, oiling the chain, when I hear their call from the south, like a sound that would have been familiar to the dinosaurs, though they never actually had a chance to meet. I run out to watch the cranes pass, impossibly high, sometimes concealed inside a cloud. They sound as loud as if they were in a park at the end of the block. They stream by, croaking, strings of them twisting away behind the tipmost point that glides on ahead. They catch sight of a marsh below and grow disoriented, suffer a few moments of uncertainty, continuing to drift northward like a cloud. Then they regroup, and then they are gone. Whatever I was thinking of when the cranes first started calling has mostly drained away, but not utterly, and the cranes are gone so soon that the thoughts flood back in. I wander back to what I was doing.
We are not the same people we were last December. The cycles of freezing and thawing have heaved something loose. We are ready for spring.
|Acer saccharum||Sugar maple|
|Allium tricoccum||Wild leek|
|Betula papyrifera||Paper birch|
|Carex albursina||White bear sedge|
|Carex lacustris||Lake sedge|
|Claytonia virginica||Spring beauty|
|Dryopteris carthusiana||Spinulose wood fern|
|Enemion biternatum||False rue anemone|
|Entodon seductrix||Seductive entodon moss|
|Fagus grandifolia||American beech|
|Lemna minor||Common duckweed|
|Myriophyllum sp.||Water milfoil|
|Ostrya virginiana||Hop hornbeam|
|Picea abies||Norway spruce|
|Prunus serotina||Black cherry|
|Quercus alba||White oak|
|Quercus macrocarpa||Bur oak|
|Quercus rubra||Red oak|
|Typha × glauca||Hybrid cattail|
1 Curtis, J. T. 1959. Environment. In The Vegetation of Wisconsin (pp. 25–48). Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press.
2 Peter Marchand writes eloquently about this in his fascinating 1987 book, Life in the Cold: An Introduction to Winter Ecology. Hanover and London: University Press of New England.
3 Ehrlich, P. R., Dobkin, D. S., and Wheye, D. 1988. The Birder’s Handbook: The Field Guide to the Natural History of North American Birds (p. 140). New York: Simon and Schuster/Fireside.
Andrew Hipp is the Senior Scientist in Plant Systematics and Herbarium Director at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois. He conducts research on the origins and implications of plant diversity, with a focus on oaks, sedges, phylogenetic ecology, and trait evolution. You can read about his research at https://systematics.mortonarb.org/lab and follow his natural history blog at https://botanistsfieldnotes.com.
Rachel Davis is an independent visual artist in the Chicago area. She works at the interface of natural science, abstract painting, printmaking, and textiles, integrating the formal and empirical elements of the natural world in her work. You can see more of her work at https://artbumble.com and follow her on Instagram: @art_bumble.