December brought us cold and snow, followed by a New Years thaw.  Now the surrounding landscape is snow-free but bare and frozen.   We have returned to the scenery of late autumn – but those prior expectations of holiday delights are now past, and the check is on the table waiting to be paid.  

The countryside is barren visually, but inviting enough for a walk.  The ground is clear and rock hard.   There are few leaves left on trees other than oaks.  In the cold air only scattered small knots of birds are on the wing.  The snow that was so attractive on Christmas has melted, revealing all the hidden grasses and forbs in their assorted flat beiges and muted yellows.

Ice takes on charisma, and is the new palette of wonder.  Wander out on the frozen reedy edges of ponds and look into the crystal, the clouds.  Bubbles and leaves frozen in shallow depths., black water underneath.  Cracks and seams wander across the sheen.  Along  the edges fat frozen ripples betray uncertain boundaries of daylight thaw and evening freeze. 

Earlier this week we spotted a wooly caterpillar – black and tan – wandering across our path – alive!   I cannot recall ever seeing an insect (or larvae) out for a January stroll in these parts, on a subfreezing morning no less. But I know these creatures persist – even if they’re in a state of torpor.   The woodpeckers, nuthatches, creepers and chickadees have been hunting and gathering, working the tree limbs,  probing the crevices in the bark exploiting their obscure bounty.      

For nearly two weeks now the sun sets slightly later each afternoon.  Last night the sky showed orange and blue and dramatic.   I scanned for owls and winter birds overhead, but was visited only by a herd of six or seven deer.  Spooked, their whitetails bobbing and hopping away and away, zigzagging into the dusk.   

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Dave Coulter

I have been a horticulturist for thirty years working in the Chicago area and beyond. I have lived in Oak Park for over thirteen years. My writing has recently appeared in the journal Ecological Restoration...