December is upon us. What are the characteristics of December unfolding in the Adirondacks? It's a mixture of nature and man's overlay of community, survival and historical celebration.
This year, nature brought us cold, snow, sleet and warm rain, all within the first week alone. Roads have become ridiculously slippery several times already, and we know this is just the beginning. Winter drivers must develop a certain toughness and a certain savvy in order to avoid visits to their favorite automotive repair shops.
Lessons for survival
Over the years, seasoned Adirondack drivers have learned, often the hard way, to slow down when roads are slushy or slick. We've learned not to pass snowplows, not to accelerate on curves, not to get hung up on a well-plowed shoulder and never to slam on the brakes. Credible drivers have brushed the snow off their windows and mirrors, and likely have a small shovel and maybe some kitty litter in the trunk, in case they get stuck. It's a learning experience, and the price for not learning can be a trip to that auto repair shop, or maybe even the hospital! It's about survival, and it's happening now.
Nature has brought some notable guests to my bird feeders this December. A family of 11 shy mourning doves now inhabits a tree across the river. When their group courage is up, they come to the apple trees on my side of the river, waiting for enough calm to come dine on the black oil sunflower seeds I put out for them. Seen through binoculars, these seemingly nondescript birds are beautiful for their delicate and peaceful faces, and the pretty dark spots on their tan backs. They puff up like balls of feathers when it's cold. They do not like people, and I can understand that. Last night, after sundown, I looked out with the binoculars and saw them all puffy and round, huddling together for the night. I feel lucky for their company, and for the ability to appreciate their quiet beauty.
A solitary female cardinal is also coming to my feeders. She is beautiful, the orange-tinged wings bringing a new electricity to the barren apple trees. We never see cardinals here in Paul Smiths, save once every other year or so during migrations. So I was curious about this orange-beaked beauty, until the day I saw her right outside the living room window. In that window I have a scarlet, hand-blown glass male cardinal. It catches the early-evening light and apparently has captured the heart of this lonely female as well. She fluttered close to the glass bird, flew away and has returned several times to check on him. I hope she can stay safe this winter. I hope my ornament is not the reason she is still here. I will never know.
Spirit of the season
December is the time of year for musical moments as well. Here is where community overlaps with the spirit of winter. Schools offer us their Christmas pageants and productions. Children sing to us. Carolers sing to us. Music venues bring us Christmas and holiday songs, and some part of our nature is soothed by the familiarity and even the majesty of those songs. When New Year's comes, the town celebrates with First Night, a mighty gathering of music, laughter and entertainment. We smile and share rosy cheeks and start the trek toward the spring equinox then.
The solstice brings us long nights and moments huddled by the fire. Humans have prepared big meals and gathered by fires for hundreds of years at this time of year. It doesn't matter what religion you were born to or have chosen. It doesn't matter if religion is not your cup of tea. The northern hemisphere spends most of its time in the dark at the winter solstice. The harvest is over. The game has been captured. The wood has been stacked. And the people who live here take comfort in being with friends and family, gathered by a fire, or around a table, or out on a snowy trail in the woods, appreciating nature. The time of year calls for this gathering, and we find ourselves looking forward to it.
Community means people
Community in a wild country of trees, mountains and snow is what brings us together. It's what makes us smile at shops with holiday window dressings, and embrace friends we meet in line at the post office. We help those who are having a hard time, and we do it without thinking. As one friend said to me, "You would do the same for me, wouldn't you?" and the truth of it is, yes, we all reach out when someone we care about has difficulty. And there is a humbleness in both the offering and the acceptance of this kindness ... and great joy in being a part of something bigger and more beautiful than we realized. We chat with each other at the grocery store and talk about the weather, the roads or whose families are awaiting their kids or grandparents to arrive. We are the backbone of life in the Adirondacks, and we know it.
It is December again. The snows will come and come again, and we will look out at our pristine landscapes knowing we are the hardy souls who know winter up close. We are the light that comes in the dark time. And as we throw another log on the fire, brew a cup of tea and warm our toes, we hunker down for the duration. We are lucky, and December may just remind us of that.
Randy Lewis lives in Paul Smiths and is the author of "Actively Adirondack: Reflections of Mountain Life in the 21st Century," Adirondack Center for Writing's People's Choice Award for Best Book 2007.