Jim McGuire: Winter’s promise

By Jim McGuire

Contributing Columnist

December wanes, its time fast drawing to a close.

As the year trickles out, many reach for a familiar marker such as a calendar or daily planner, to check off these last few days on their final boxes or pages. New calendars and planners await—ready to take their place on desktops, kitchen walls and workshop doors.

Tools to help us track another year along the circular journey. But habit can be a misleading process. By simply doing something long enough, we often get to believing the act actually matters.

Yet colorful calendars, expensive watches and clocks, and our diligent checking and tallying, have no influence whatsoever on time or season.

Time is an unfathomable continuum—an endless overlapping cycle without beginning or end. Manmade divisions are merely attempts to corral and contain, schedule and summarize.

What folly! What presumption! We might as well seek to control the north wind or direct that force which stirs winter’s owls to mutter amongst themselves amid the frigid platinum light of late-December’s fading moon.

The river, gurgling beneath icy shelves as it pours over polished riffle stones, pays no attention whatsoever to our feeble shenanigans as makes its perpetual journey seaward.

Today is the singular relevant meeting point between yesterday and tomorrow—the one fleeting bridge between past and future. Life only happens here! We can count and learn from the days behind, but they can’t be changed. Plans for the days ahead can certainly be made—though as the last 20 or so months have repeatedly revealed, plans are based on hopes and assumptions and are always inherently tentative.

The measure of a year lies not in some arbitrary division. Rather, it forms from the unique shape of an individual season and its distinctive relationship to those unfurling seasons from whence it sprang. It will eventually meld into our lives and memories—its meaning and worth only measured when seen through the lens of friends and family, service and deed, belief and action.

Life and season overlap, intermixing. Like the wind, they flow one across the other—sculpting, caressing, persistently changing. Yet they achieve their individuality amid the greater context of an unbounded cycle of light and dark, moon and sun, winter, spring, summer, fall—a looping span where wildflowers bloom, grass grows lush, and autumn’s gaudy leaves give way again and again and again to winter snows.

The only time that matters is the here and now—today; yesterday and tomorrow are as ephemeral as smoke on the wind—mere memories and dreams. The great wheel spins eternally, round and round and round.

December’s final days are brief. Nine hours and a few extra minutes are all the daylight we receive; the nearly 15 hours remaining are ruled by twilight and darkness.

Yet, even during these final foreshortened days, as we wait for another year to begin, the good news is that we’ve already begun that long, cold, slow climb towards spring.

That fact alone ought to be sufficient to see us through winter. Surviving winter is easier with a measure of faith and hope.

But I also need tangible bolstering.

If my years have taught me anything, they’ve revealed the undeniable necessity to regularly experience the outdoors in my life. I need a steady dose of elemental truth—a daily intimacy of wind and sky and earth.

When I’m outside, I feel better; when I’m enclosed, I begin to wither.

It’s just that simple.

I know this absolutely. And even if I wanted to, I couldn’t change this basic fact of my makeup. I suspect it’s probably deeply rooted somewhere in the tangled strands of my DNA.

Too, the wilder the outside experience, the better. An overgrown path is always better than a manicured park walkway; a game trail is better still.

Best of all are those passages I forge through trackless, untrammeled woods, along the edge of soggy bogs, across a prairie or even a fallow field which hasn’t felt a plow’s sharp blade in a hundred years.

I examine the now dormant buds on maples, dogwoods, willows and dozens of other trees and shrubs. In two or three months they’ll sense the earth’s turning, stir, and commence to swell.

In meadows I scrutinize the rounded galls on brown and brittle goldenrod stems. Each contains a single tephritid fly larva specific only to the various species of goldenrod. Now resting in diapause phase, come early spring, the small larvae will pupate inside the gall, and the adult goldenrod stem-gall flies will soon subsequently emerge.

Both buds and larvae tell me spring is already in the works.

Along my winter walks, each step is a small adventure—and along the way I find innumerable signs which dispel all doubts. Nature’s subtle-but-sure signs encourage, regenerating and reinforcing my faith and hope that light follows darkness, warmth follows cold, and spring follows winter.

The solstice has passed, and shadows from the winter’s pale sunlight as it streams through Ohio’s skeletal woodlots, points unerringly towards the vernal equinox. Spring’s sweet certainty!

“Be patient,” my mother used to say. “Most good things take time.”

Happy New Year!