Winter Moves In

By now, the sky is dark at five ‘o’ clock, and a week of rain and wind stripped the last of the leaves from their trees. The world outside the window is looking an awful lot like winter. The ground is not yet frozen, and a few hardy plants hang on. Birdsong still rings through the air on a sunny morning or a stormy afternoon. But anybody could tell you that winter is moving in.

There’s an irresistible temptation to head inside as winter approaches, and it’s best resisted by abandoning efforts to dress nicely and donning your biggest coat, no matter how ugly. But sometimes there is beauty in being driven indoors as well. In this frigid season, we don’t linger outside. We scurry from building to building. We clutch close our coats and our casserole dishes. We gather to feast, to laugh, and to be with family and friends. The Christmas lights go up to cut into the darkness of early nights, and we bring a little taste of nature into our home when we put up the Christmas tree. So even as the sunny days are disappearing, we fend off the shock of this first cold of winter with our own kind of warmth.

A Season of Bronze

Record low temperatures and two whipping windy snowfalls brought autumn’s flaming colors down to the ground. Last week saw the peak of color in St. Louis. Then, on Monday, white snow came down to mingle with the falling leaves, and the flakes took the reds and the oranges down with them.

Even within autumn itself, there are four seasons. First comes the season of dusty green, September’s hint that summer has come to a close. Next comes the season of yellow, with the locust trees and the sycamores. Then come the oranges and reds of maples, ashes, and oaks. Last of all is the season of bronze.

It’s this last season that we are in right now. Only the deepest reds, the darkest yellows, and the rustiest browns hold onto their branches. Already, many look outside their windows and declare that fall is over and the color has passed.

But really, it’s just a different kind of color. Subtler, softer. Less loud. Earthy browns against a pale blue sky. Autumn is exhaling. It’s during this quiet time that winter will sneak in right under our noses. But anyone who would say that the fall color has gone for good need only look to see the copper-orange needles of a bald cypress backlit and flaming in the soft light of an early-setting sun.

Autumn Wind

It’s late October, and the leaves are finally changing with the weather. Brilliant collages of yellows, browns, and reds begin to mask the dull pavement as the wind blows them off of their branches.

These and the other ashes of autumn blow on the perpetual wind.  This is ankle-twisting season: a time of year to find yourself looking up at the color of the leaves while your feet narrowly miss rolling over the trees’ debris. Broken twigs, nuts, and the dust of crumbling leaves skip down the street like a rock across a river. Branches and beds of pine needles collect on the shoulder of the road. Acorns tumble down from high branches and hit the ground with a pop.

These are the blustery days of autumn. The wind won’t be stopped now. It’s begun its mission: to usher out fall and invite winter to stay. It’s slow work, but it works every year; in time, the autumn wind will blast the trees bare and carry the cold in with it.

The Tune Changes

The heat pushes on for now, but the autumn equinox has just passed, and the public is indignant about the summer hanging on. Boots and sweaters creep out of closets as people choose to sweat rather than miss the chance to whip out their fall wardrobe. The orange-filled Oreos are on the shelves, the mums are being planted, and the harvest festivals will go on.

Right now, the signs of summer and fall are neck and neck. But soon the scales will tip. The cicadas, whose whine was so deafening a month ago, have quieted down to nearly nothing, and though the still-green trees and the hot days would seem to say that fall is still far off, there is evidence of autumn’s arrival in the changing songs.

The sound of crows cawing is a familiar sound on a misty fall morning. But the crows have been here all year long; they don’t migrate as regularly as other birds. Their cawing comes from a change in behavior: during the summer, crows keep to themselves, spending the night in their own territories. In autumn, they gather together in large groups, flapping, bouncing, and socializing. Although crows make a number of different sounds, they stick to their distinctive caw at this time of year. All these noisy parties make them suddenly conspicuous. The rise of their morning racket reminds you that Halloween is on the way.

The crickets, too, have risen in their chorus, and their peaceful noise brings a calmness to the morning, evening, and night. Their chirps slow and quicken as the temperature changes, so listen for their speed to relax as autumn rolls in. For them, it is mating season, so their songs will ring out from now until the first hard frost. Until then, their peaceful song fills the air as the sun starts setting sooner and the world begins to slow down.

Time to Rest

With Thanksgiving weekend behind us, a sense of pause falls over the city. While you sat on the couch recovering from your feast, you might have looked out the window and noticed the browns, blues, and deep golds that have finally spread across the landscape. It doesn’t feel quite like winter yet. The cold, windy nights still give way to the warmth of the sun most afternoons. But the colors tell us it’s time to get ready for the cold to come.

It’s during these last days of November that mammals seek winter shelters. In Missouri, we’ve got a handful hibernators: bats, groundhogs, chipmunks, and certain kinds of mice and squirrels are falling fast asleep and won’t wake up ’til springtime. During this strange coma, their heart rate will drop, their body temperature will dwindle, and their metabolism will slow. They can nod off all through the winter without waking up to eat. Skunks turn in for the season too, but instead of full-on hibernation, they fall into a lighter sleep called torpor. Skunks cuddle close in their dens with a handful of their kin, but unlike animals in full hibernation, a skunk is liable to get a move on every now and then to scrounge up a snack. Bears are in torpor mode, too. They wake up easily so that they can nurse and protect their cubs, which are born in their mothers’ dens during wintertime. They won’t go looking for food, though—they live off of their body fat all winter long.

For the plants, too, it is finally time to be still. Leafless grey trees and stiff yellow shrubs have us feeling gloomy, gazing out the window like we’re looking at a bleak display of decay. We think of death when really we should be admiring a landscape at peace in its maturity. The plants have spread their seed and taken in all the nutrients they need to pull through the winter. They’ve dropped their leaves to create a new wealth of fertility in the soil at their roots. Next spring they’ll have to start all over again. But for now, the frenzy of growth is over. Naked and relieved of the burden of leaves, it is time for the trees to rest.

And we will join the winter rest soon. A trip to the grocery store will hint to you that the city folk are nearly ready to settle in to their dens, too. The old ladies at the checkout send long lines of canned soup parading down the belt to the cashier. The young couples with drafty apartments are buying those window-sealing shrink film kits. A mother pretends not to see the reindeer cookies her daughter snuck into the grocery cart. On Sunday, an old man with his arms crossed stared for a long time at the greenery for sale outside Schnucks. After serious consideration, he slowly put a wreath in his cart, apparently deciding it was no longer too early to buy a Christmas decoration. The time to find warmth and rest has arrived.

Work for Wintertime

It finally feels it was long ago that the pools closed with the fading of the cicadas. The outdoor concerts and late-summer barbecues are over. The time to visit the apple orchards has now passed, and the pumpkin patches are picked over and empty. Even the backyard gardens have already been prepared for winter. As the days grow steadily colder, it isn’t as common to find yourself so effortlessly outside.

The greenery disappears and the campsites close, but the natural world remains just as ready to welcome visitors. And while it’s far too cold to spread a blanket and lounge in the sun for a leisurely picnic, it’s a great time of year to take on a task that gets your blood pumping.

In October and November, conservation organizations throughout Missouri put on “Honeysuckle Sweep Weeks,” where workers and volunteers remove and destroy the honeysuckle that chokes out other plants in our conservation areas, parks, and even roadways.  Even though it’s well-known as an invasive plant, it can be hard to see honeysuckle as the transgressor it is. Its sweet smell in summertime, simple green leaves, and plump red berries make it seem innocent and pleasant to us.

The truth is that honeysuckle is a tremendous problem that started with the uninformed use of it in urban landscaping, which led quickly to the rampant spread of this unrelenting plant to just about every surrounding natural area. Its leaves are its secret to success. They sprout much earlier and die much later than the leaves of plants native to Missouri. Those early leaves steal the sun away from the forest floor, casting a shade over native seedlings before the ever have a chance to see sunlight. That’s how honeysuckle’s tyrannical rule stifles new generations of native trees and shrubs. Even worse, those bright red berries are eaten by birds, squirrels, and other critters who spread the out-of-control plant far and wide.

Out at Shaw Nature Reserve, honeysuckle removal days continue through the winter, where the work will have you happy that you found your way outside. On a crisp morning, you’ll join other volunteers in helping to remove the invasive species from our forests. There’s plenty of ground to cover, so you’ll likely find yourself alone with your thoughts and your breath-mist in the air around you. The cold is quickly driven away by the working of your body and the fires burning nearby—the honeysuckle is burned once it’s cut. Soon cold air and the smell of wood-smoke fills your lungs, and your ears smile at the sound of those pretty red berries snap-and-popping in the flames. When the chopping is done for the day, you’ll cross your arms and nod your head in satisfaction when you see the cleaner landscape and realize that this is the way it is meant to be. The difference is dramatic.

If you want to volunteer at Shaw Nature Reserve, you can sign up for an SNR ecological restoration workday on the Missouri Botanical Gardens website. But even if you can’t make the drive, bundle up and check your own backyard. Late fall and early winter is a great time to look for honeysuckle—it sticks out like a sore thumb because it’s just about the only green thing left. You can also identify it by those red berries and by the odd interior of its sticks and stems, which have a small hollow hole at their center. Make sure to dab the ends of the cut stems with some kind of herbicide, or it’ll just come back stronger than ever. Put your gloves on, chop it down, and invite your friends over to burn it in a berry-crackling fire. There is still work to be done this winter.

Autumn Snow

November thirteenth in St. Louis and already it’s snowed twice and is predicted to snow again later this week. The Farmers’ Almanac says it’s gonna be a “teeth-chattering-cold” winter chock-full of snow, and seeing as the first snowfall in St. Louis doesn’t happen ’til mid-December during average winters, we are well on our way to prove the Almanac right.

The cold came early this year and came blowing in fierce. Just a week ago, the leaves were teetering over the peak of their fall colors. A few trees were still as green as they were in September. Then came the first snowflakes of the season on Thursday. But instead of waking up to a white winter wonderland, we awoke the next morning to a thick layer of leaves. Yellows, reds, and browns covered the ground with the same bulkiness of a blanket of snow, an absolute slathering. Many of the green leaves fell with them. The cold took them all at once. The leaf-drop was so sudden and so thorough that it seemed supernatural, and on Friday two girls walking home from Rosati-Kain looked up at the branches and spoke of a huge, lumbering creature in the trees cracking open a piñata.

The result of this mass falling is an unfamiliar musk hanging around the trees. We’re used to the crisp, bright, earthy smell that comes from crunchy, colored leaves. But walk through any tree-crowded area this week and you’ll notice a sort of damp sweetness kicking up, something like freshly mowed grass. That’s the smell of the leaves that were still green, dying now on the sidewalks instead of on their branches. That funk in the air and snow on the grass and legions of leaves on the ground, now graying-greens mixed with bright yellow, tells anyone who still dared to doubt otherwise that we’ve got an early winter on our hands.