By the time these words appear in the paper, our recent bitter spell will have passed. Folks who have lived here a long time blink, put one of their extra layers aside, and move on. We've seen cold snaps before; we've endured weeks at a time when temperatures do not rise above zero. Friends have said, "This is more like the winters we used to have!" and I agree.
Right now it's 10 below, and the morning sun is just striking the treetops on the esker behind the house. Chickadees are making their chickadee songs as they gather for breakfast at the bird feeders. Some of the seeds are buried on the railing under an inch of new powder, and the redpolls come in large numbers to find their little black parcels of food under the snow. Gray squirrels brush off the snow to find seeds, then make their way to the peanut feeder where their favorite take-out food waits for them. Blue jays arrive. They follow the squirrels who are burying their peanuts in the snow. When the squirrels leave, the blue jays dig up the peanuts, and fly away with their booty. This is an ordinary sub-zero morning on Keese Mills Road.
A deer feeds on sunflower seeds by the river’s edge.
(Photo — Randy Lewis)
Where we are
I live at the confluence of three gifts of moving water. Two streams of the St. Regis River reunite in my backyard, along with an additional stream which empties in the same spot. All year long these geographical features invite wildlife to my picture window, where I have my chair turned toward the window instead of toward the kitchen where the humans are.
My daily observations provide a continuum of learning. My eyes register new activity, unusual guests, and the environment's response to weather. It's been cold for so long that two of the three streams out back have frozen over, a rare occurrence. Ice caps cover the rocks in the moving water, making the river look busy, determined and serious.
Deer are here
The sun has risen enough so the apple trees are now basking in sparkles. The local deer herd has arrived. Generally we see deer up close late in the season. Skinny and hungry, they browse for sunflower seeds under my bird feeders. This year they have moved in. There are four right on the river bank as I write, heads in the snow, seeking tiny black seeds. Yesterday there were 10 deer here. That's a lot of wildlife.
I usually go out to ask them to leave. Of course I feel sorry for them. It's cold out there. They are mammals with huge dark eyes and gentle faces. Over the years I've watched the fawns grow to become the large beasts that come here now. They all know where I live.
Since last winter was so mild, we didn't lose as many deer as we do in traditional winters. So those additional deer bred and now we have even more to wander the road looking for food under a few feet of snow. They are thin. I can see under all that fur that the ribs are showing on some of the smaller deer. This will not be a kind winter for them. It's tough on me, as well, watching them be so hungry, and not being able or willing to help.
It is illegal to feed deer in the Adirondacks. Over the years we've seen well-intentioned folks who disobeyed the law and created small deer feeding stations. In every case, the task was expensive and dangerous, and not good for the deer at all. Large numbers of deer came to these stations, and several deer-automobile collisions were nasty reminders of how oblivious deer are to anything in the way of helping them not starve. What folks feed the deer is not what their guts can digest, so although they eat, they do not get nourishment from the fodder.
I discourage the deer as much as I can. I run out and bang pans to startle them. For the first few efforts, it works. After a while they merely look up at me, then continue to nose around for tiny seeds. I've tried squirting water at them with a squirt gun. That worked for a day or two, but now does not. They come so close to my house, my window, I feel they are my familiars. But they are not. They are wild and hungry and part of my living diorama.
Why don't I just let them be? First, because deer can carry ticks, and ticks can cause bites which carry Lyme disease. No reason to invite these ticks to my environment. Secondly, because deer eat everything I plant. I've spent years replanting small bushes, flowers, and bulbs, and unless I've taken steps to protect this flora, the deer feast on my attempts. One year my spring side yard was full of daffodils and tulips one day, and completely bare the next. So no, I do not welcome these wild creatures at all.
I also have a flock of ducks in the backyard waters, a couple of wild turkeys, a few kingfishers, and the occasional bald eagle. I saw a mink this week on my deck. I've heard the coyotes on the other side of the river. I have a single female cardinal I wait for at dusk every day. I am truly blessed.
The lessons I learn from watching Adirondack life out my window are many. First, I know how lucky I am. I give thanks for my view of the natural world every day. I see animals who do not see me, so I'm privileged to see them behave unselfconsciously. I can watch them interact with one another, and with the seeds and nuts I am so eager to share with them. I see behaviors that educate me about natural behaviors, in part, helping me understand human behaviors around me. And I see what survival truly means. When people say they "survived the holidays" or "survived that meeting" or "survived that slip on the ice," I know a bigger meaning is out there, at 20below, with fur and feathers and community keeping the animals alive to see another winter day in these northern mountains we all call home.
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.