Rain on Snow, Snow on Rain, Icing in Between

January 9, 2019

It’s unsettling having a patch of tumultuous winter weather such as we have been experiencing for the past two days, with temperatures vacillating between freezing and thaw, and precipitation switching wildly between periods of rain, snow and freezing rain.  It is an uncomfortable reminder that we are living in the Anthropocene.  The winters have gotten warmer, with more thaw…and so more ice.

The current patch of weather is also simply difficult for us humans and many of our fellow living beings to be out in.

There were no fresh deer, fox, raccoon, or coyote tracks this morning.  The usually unseen subnivean tunnel work of the meadow voles had been exposed by the melting effect of the rain on the thin layer of snow cover.  Not surprisingly, there were no actual voles to be seen.  Exposure of their trails clearly represents a challenge for these voracious, year-round plant foragers.


vole trails

Not only the voles, even the trees seemed hard-pressed by the conditions.

Patient balsam boughs—
Learning water’s weight from drenched
lattices of snow.

balsams in wet snow


Brilliant New Year’s Day

January 1, 2019

Snow fell on New Year’s Eve night, followed by a round of what is cheerfully termed wintry mix.  We woke on the First to find all the trees, the pines and balsams especially, perilously burdened with heavy loads of snow and ice, and had to spend some time clearing a few downed branches from the drive.

But the air was warming quickly.  Within an hour the sun came out, the thermometer hit 40 degrees, and what can only be described as pure-white slush started to rain down from the trees.  The bracing smell of wet evergreens was everywhere.  In a Maine sort of way, it was a bright, clean start to the new year.

Droplets of snow melt—
Ten thousand times ten thousand
pure new worlds of light

Calm at Ko-tsugomori, the Second-to-Last Day

December 31, 2018

As the year draws to its close, Maine has been graced by a short spell of calm, sunny weather.  This means particularly peaceful winter sunsets.  This evening some clouds moved in before sundown and that shifted the mood a bit, but yesterday’s end on the second-to-last day of the year* was just about perfect.

Level rays of sun
burn the air above the pines—
below that, pure dusk.

*The second-to-last day is ko-tsugomori (or ko-misoka) in Japanese.  Its literal meaning is the second-to-last day in any lunar month (a time when the moon is hidden), but the word is most commonly used to indicate the second-to-last day in the old lunar calendar year.  In haikai tradition, ko-tsugomori marked the end of winter and the coming of spring, and–like ô-tsugomori—the final day —was considered a suitable topic for haiku.

Studying Solstice Light

December 20, 2018

We have been in the dip of the winter solstice for a while now.  This is the time in the cycle when the short days stop growing noticeably shorter, holding steady here in central Maine at a little under nine hours from sunrise to sunset.  It is the time when the sun rises each morning from its “solstice seat,” as far south on the horizon as it will go.  The winter solstice is experienced as a string of days rather than a particular moment on December 21.

Needless to say, at the season of the winter solstice, light—essential as it is to the existence of all living things—seems especially precious…beautiful and fleeting.

Even at twelve noon
shadows stretch across the snow–
Dark will fall by four.

          Blue scent of balsams.

Knowing the Happiness of Ducks in the Season of First Ice

December 8, 2018

In the Daoist classic text, Zhuangzi (aka Chuang Tzu), there is a wonderful story called “The Happiness of Fish.” In this anecdote the sage Zhuangzi is walking by the Hao River with his companion and rival Huizi, when he sees some minnows darting in the shallows and exclaims over how happy they are. Huizi challenges his ability to know this, saying “You’re not a fish, so how do you know what a fish enjoys?” After a complex exchange, Zhuangzi ends up defending his claim by saying he knows how the fish are feeling by standing beside the Hao River.

I expect that most of us have had the experience of feeling as Zhuangzi feels in this story, that, different as we are from animals, there are times when we are pretty sure we know what they are feeling.

This morning dawned calm and cold with the sun rising into a cloudless sky. Calm and cold are good conditions for ice formation and sure enough new ice, still so thin it undulated with the rippling of the water had formed overnight in the lake coves. Into this tranquil morning flew a pair of migrating ducks—Goldeneye again. Watching them from the lake shore as they foraged, diving in turns or together, I was pretty sure I was observing the “Happiness of Ducks.”

Dazzle of new ice–
Through smooth water blazed with light,
dark bodies dive, content.

Migrating Goldeneye Ducks

November 25, 2018

Our weather for Thanksgiving felt more like early January than late November, with snow on the ground and daytime temperatures well below freezing.  I certainly wasn’t ready for this rapid plunge into winter and some of the animals and birds seemed taken unawares as well.

The temperatures have eased a bit since then.  Today started with a freezing rain, then switched to a cold rain with the air temperature a bit above freezing.  In the afternoon a large flock–it looks like a couple of hundred–migrating Goldeneye ducks swooped in for a landing on the lake.  We had not seen them in numbers like that in previous years.  It was a beautiful but uncommon sight in an uncommon fall.

As the cold rain lifts,
Goldeneyes land, squabble, wait
for the coming dark.

Buffleheads in Late Fall

October 21, 2018

Yesterday and the day before were remarkably balmy with generous amounts of sun.  But last night the wind ticked around to the north and today we woke to a blanket of low, gray clouds covering the sky and steady cold gusts making the branches rustle and the leaves fly.  It now looks and feels like late fall.  I put on my parka, hat and gloves before heading down to the lake to see what changes were taking place there.

At first glance, I mistook a pair of diving ducks for loons still not departed from their summer breeding grounds, but it did not take long to realize that these ducks were much smaller than loons—two buffleheads on their migratory journey from the taiga of central Canada probably to some ice-free spots with good foraging prospects on the coast.  I was glad to have them with us but knew they could not stay long.

Blood red in the oaks—
beneath cold skies two buffleheads
dive and dive and dive.