Now in the coldest month of the year, nature provides signs telling us that spring is next.
Already, as of Friday, we have gained 15 minutes of daylight since the solstice Dec. 21. The gain will be 59 minutes by the end of the month. The fact that daylight is increasing is a comfort.
Already many of us have heard black-capped chickadees singing “fee-bee” and downy woodpeckers drumming. Both are considered early spring signs. If you are able, embrace this month of frozen elegance and go outside where you can hear the crunch of snow, gaze at the tree silhouettes, and listen to quiet sounds.
The frozen land contributes ice and snow art. The sunlight on a morning after a snowfall covers and smooths out the blemishes of our city and country landscapes, giving us that unused look.
Fresh snow is a blank page on which animals write their winter stories. Even in urban areas, the footprints of rabbits and squirrels, house sparrows and dark-eyed juncos, plus other wild animals, are numerous. It’s amazing the stories you can read once you begin reading tracks in the snow.
If your winter walks take you near a lake, you may hear cracking, groaning and booming sounds. Once ice forms, it expands when warmed and contracts when cooled. The loud, long sounds do not necessarily mean that the ice is unsafe for fishing or skating. Still, the rumbling and rolls are eerie.
Look for evergreens in your neighborhood. The native Minnesota white pine and balsam fir, and other evergreens, play a major role in the ecology of our northern forests, and to a much lesser extent to the forest areas in the south. However, all across the state, evergreens of many species and cultivars make our cities and individual yards more livable in the winter by protecting us from cold winds, providing privacy, and helping us feel sheltered as they add their shades of green to the white or brown winter scene.
Here’s hoping it won’t be cloudy tonight so we can enjoy the full moon. If you have the opportunity, take a walk in the woods, or in a park, or even around a city block under the light of the moon when it is full, or nearly so. Once you get outside, your eyes adjust to the moonlit landscape quickly and you notice the sparkling light on the snow and those dark tree shadows. Probably no other celestial object is held in greater affection than the moon, unless it’s our closest star, the sun.
The distance to the moon is about 239,000 miles and the reflected sunlight it emits takes only about 1.3 seconds to reach us. When the moon is full, its light is nearly bright enough to read by. Despite its brilliance, moon shines with less than 1/400,000 the light of the sun.
Jim Gilbert’s observations have been part of the Minnesota Weatherguide Environment Calendars since 1977, and he is the author of five books on nature in Minnesota. He taught and worked as a naturalist for 50 years.