“In the depth of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer.”– Albert Camus
It was during the last days of December that I arrived into the Finger lakes, deep Winter was giving way to the cutting bite of January tempests. The Winter Solstice, the shortest day, with consequently the longest night of the year in the Northern hemisphere had come and gone, and so was now a story from the last chapter of my life in the UK.
Since my daughter was one years old the Winter Solstice had been my families Mid Winter celebration. Hearkening back to ancient European times, before Christmas had become the favored holiday of the season for the majority the British peoples, my ancestors had celebrated this annual celestial event. The day was observed with family gatherings, good food, gifts and a warm fire, at it’s center a Yule oak log was placed and burned, to entice the Sun to return once again, and light up the land with the radiance of Spring and the warmth of Summer.
Landing in Ithaca on that cold dark December evening, made me question whether the Yule log that we had burned this past Midwinter had in fact caught the attention of the Sun at all.
In this new frigid land it did not seem to me, as if any ritual, ancient or new could elicit a response from the stars. The air was icy cold, and the water vapor pouring out of my nose billowed forth into the atmosphere like smoke, rising up from a hot furnace. I felt like a dragon stalking its prey. Within seconds of exposure to the air, the ends of my fingers had begun to sting and burn, as glacial winds infiltrated my bones. Then came the numbness, my hands tingled and felt like they were detached from my body. Quickly I folded them back into my jacket pockets and frantically pumped my knuckles back and forth trying to flood thick warm blood, back into my finger tips.
This was the first time that I had been embraced by the algidity of an Central New York Winter. My intuition told me that I should not stay exposed like this for too long, there was a faint specter of danger in the evening chill. It was however, at the same time invigorating, refreshing even, the clean air was sweet to the taste, after such a long and arduous journey.
I rapidly began to survey the picture before me, the whole landscape was wrapped in a vast white blanket of snow which momentarily confused my eyes. I waited, just for a few seconds for my vision to adjust to the dazzling light of this bright and fair new prospect. But before I had a chance to really survey my surroundings and ground myself in this new land, my ride arrived and I was whisked off to a warm, safe home, for my first night in Tompkins County.
On waking the next morning, I found myself on the outskirts of downtown Ithaca. It was then that I could see more clearly the vast, complex, snow covered landscape before me. The Ithaca vista seemed unbounded to me, and as I traveled through, and around the city. I saw large multi stored homes, constructed mainly from large numbers of carefully positioned horizontal wooden panels.
Each house was painted a uniquely different color from it’s neighbor. It certainly gave each home an uncommon flair and spoke, I believed, to each home owner’s individual sense of style and taste.
Homes in the UK had in my experience, always lacked any singular characteristics that would make them distinct from one another. British families instead cultivated picturesque and complex gardens spaces instead, as a way of individualizing their homes.
Surrounding the borders of the town, stretched out as far as my eyes could see, where agricultural fields, littered, with the broken yellow stained stalks of old corn, which were protruding out from the dense snow above them. The large plots had few if any boundaries or hedgerows. However these croplands did abut low lying hills, which sloped gently downwards to greet them. To my delight I saw that they were covered in dense mixed deciduous woodland, bare of leaves of course, at this time of year, standing dark and proud against a backdrop of alabaster snow.
Fields in the UK and Ireland were usually enclosed by old dense hedgerows, which for the sake of stock proofing were generally planted with European Hawthorn, Blackthorn, Spindle and Elder. All these trees enriched the ecosystem by creating shelter belts against eroding winds and rains and were connecting habitat for wildlife. These enclosures seemed very small to me now by my recollection, as I looked at the panorama of farmland around Ithaca. I was distracted from the whole scene however, by the constant flash and twinkling of crystal snow flakes, that caught my eye, as the sky light filtering down onto the surface of the deep frosted snow reflected onto their fractal surfaces.
There I stood looking upon a scene of beauty and I was, in that moment reminded of how the Eskimo-Aleut had hundreds of ways to describe snow. ‘Kaneq’ was the snow that blanketed the landscape before me, and ‘pirta’ was the clear clinging film of frost that sometimes lightly danced on it’s surface on this fine morning.
How complex and sublime was the vista before my eyes. Snow has an ethereal beauty, each solitaire snowflake is unique and exquisitely delicate, silently it falls to the ground. Displaying to the bright sky as it does so, for just the briefest of moments, released forever, from the comfort of the mother cloud, tumbling down on it’s way to rejoin the great frosted collective once again.
When the snow lays deep on the ground everything below is shrouded in mystery. The earth is hidden, its secrets entombed. I would come to learn over the succession of years that followed that under these Winter snowscapes lay a concealed world, for in their Winter dens and burrows, where the warm bodies of slumbering chipmunks, groundhogs, meadow jumping mice, bears and all manner of curious creatures, and I would soon encounter them one by one, as the world turned its face towards the warming sun.
In a matter of weeks I was settled into my new home. Large maple and skyline locust trees lined the roadside edge of my small garden, which was located just outside of Ithaca city, in the Eastern most part of the town. Here in these cold days I had the privilege of watching the thickly furred white tailed deer frolic in the powdered snow, their dramatic outlines starkly shaped against the pure white landscape. When the threat of some danger seen or unseen appeared they would skittishly raise their white tails behind them and hastily retreat. The only birds I glimpsed in this, the deepest part of Winter, were the occasional lone red cardinal. A flash of scarlet from his feathers, easily attracted my attention. His brilliant red coast a stark and beautiful calling card amongst the low shrubs peaking up from the ground of this Winter wonderland.
Grey and red squirrels scurried through the snow drifts on my garden floor, leaving long tiny trails in their wake, they crisscrossed each other so often, that the carpet of snow on the ground looked like a giant white patchwork quilt.
As night fell and the temperatures cascaded down to new lows, frigid air currents tousled about the land, shy and secretive foxes, skunks and ghostly looking opossums searched now looking for tiny morsels of food by scratching their way into the deep snow.
Every year from these tentative beginnings, hidden feelings would stir within me during the protracted cold months of Winter. It inspired me, urged me to look deep within myself and take the time for silent contemplation. This was the season to reflect on the year that had been and on the year that was to come.
In the old Country, Europe, my ancestors did just that during the Winter months, they could not venture out easily into the wilderness, through the deep snow and frigid temperatures, and so they took to their hearths, safe in the company of family, shared their stories and dreamed of what could be. They believed that the Winter was the natural worlds dream time, a long restful pause, a time to conserve energy, a time to seek the wisdom of our inner voices. I felt that call, resoundingly, in the depth of my first New York Winter.
Here in the Finger lakes the lessons of nature were vigorously taught. They had to be heeded carefully by all, human and non human. The consequences of venturing out too far unprepared, or ignoring the wisdom of the other animals in the landscape, would be met with harsh penalties. I realized quickly, that first Winter in the Finger lakes, that the rhythms of the cold months, though breathtakingly beautiful, were a prospect to be respected with the utmost care.
“It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold, when it is summer in the light and winter in the shade”-Charles Dickens
As the the world turns and the Winter snows began to melt, the Spring equinox, approaches here in the Finger Lakes, the day and night will soon be of equal length.
In contrast, in the British Isles by the month of March, the land will have already been awakening for some weeks past, to the music of the morning bird chorus, repleat with a stunning display of flowering trees, shrubs, grassland perennials, crocuses and Daffodils. There are very few, if any, deep snows to thaw from the Winter months, only, an occasional icy film of frost left over, from the dipping temperatures, that sometimes creep forth across the ground in the dead of night. The land never descends into the deep silence of a Central New York Winter.
Springtime, here in the finger lakes region, is a slow burning season. There is no bright sun hastily thawing the land after the long sleep. February here is most definitively still captive in the thrall of the Winter. Indeed it is often the time of year when the most severe Winter storms rage across the continent. They gather pace and energy, as warm air from the south rises up to confront cold air descending from the North, a battle between these two foes often ensures, and all those caught between the two competing fronts are thrown into the chaos of their raging winds, snow bombs and ice falls.
Slowly, creeping, as if trying to not startle the sleeping bears hidden in their crevasses and caves, the warm air of Spring delicately, begins to thaw out the deep snow drifts, flooding the parched earth with life affirming water. The waterfalls of Ithaca rage, swelled with the mighty volume of churning ice cold melt water, no longer frozen by the powerful spell of the Winter’s magic, they cascade a new, thundering, crying out with the voice of freedom, as white foaming water gallops down ravines and valleys.
New life now seems to infuse itself into every gorge and hill. It is now, that the first signs of small flower buds appear on the trees, they do not however, scream their presence in an obstreperous manner. The cruel frosts of late Spring can still creep over the lands in the early morning hours, and rip asunder any semblance of future glory, if they dare to bloom to soon.
As the sap rises in the trees of Central New York, excitement shines in the eyes of the sugar makers, they ready themselves for the tapping of the Maple trees. And sugar shacks quietly hidden in woodland glades come alive once more, with the crackle of burning logs and the scent of toffee and wood smoke. There is nothing like the taste of the Maple syrup of the Finger lakes, it is subtle, sweet and sticky, full of the aroma of the land itself.
I anticipate the arrival of this moment every year, not because I do not enjoy the silentious Winters. I have rested in them, and dreamed of what was, is and could be, I have been comforted in the bosom of natures long intermission. However with the Spring comes the call to action, to fulfill the prophesies envisaged during the time of the long silence.
The air stirs, not with the violent tempests of Winter’s trials, but gently whirling, full with the fresh promise and the perfume of tree sap, flower pollen and bruised fresh grass. A new season of growth and re birth begins again and then also comes the reemergence of all that was laying dormant. New creatures, like cicadas will emerge to orchestrate the soundtrack of the soon to follow Summer. This is when old friends and new, also emerge from the warm cocoons of their homes, and each neighborhood begins to fill with the voices of children venturing outside seeking new adventures.
On Spring mornings I will now awaken to the glorious choir of wild birds, they are not quite as harmonious to the ear as the birds in the British Isles always seemed to be, but all the same a rousing show is without fail performed daily. I wonder at the optimism in these songs. It stirs my blood and calls to order all the inhabitants of the land, for the time is now, to move at a more alacritous pace. These are the voices of the creatures who have survived the difficult challenges of the dark Winter months and they are right to now celebrate their success.
In my neighborhood, the Robins begin to show their quality, at first in low numbers, one then two, then multitudes, its like they have all at once returned from some secret Winter long house.
And now free from the constraints of climatic oppression are ready to now set off and fulfill the destiny of a new season.
Every Spring I also observe the same curious ritual amongst my fellow human neighbors, as they open their doors to greet a new day. At first they hesitate a little, briefly look up to the sky and ponder its form. At this time of year the heavens displays an eclectic array, with varying shade of blue, white or grey that dominate the dynamic scene above. The good folks in my neighborhood in their hesitation cannot conceal a little weariness and distrust of the Spring’s skies first offerings, they fear I believe, that looming on the horizon may still be a little lingering controversy in the wake of Winter’s retreat.
I watch smiling, I feel the same way, their tentative skyward glances give recognition to the fickleness of Spring’s meteorological first steps. But at the same time, are born of the hope that better days are to come. Change is riding upon the breeze, and change is the only constant any of us can truly rely on. And so as the Winter landscape falls under the spell once more, of the returning Sun’s warm embrace we count upon the Spring to bring the the promise of brighter days.
For these are now the days when a low carpet of emerald green grass, will slowly begins to triumph over the landscape once again, cautiously taking control. This is the time of year when I can finally breath out all the stains of the old and inhale in, a new rarefied air, filled with the pungent perfumes of cherry and crab apple blossoms, forsythia shrubs, and the resplendent flourish of the magnolia trees.
This is the time of year where I can once again begin to explore the waterways and channels leading into Cayuga lake, the longest and second deepest of all the Finger Lakes. Ithaca town itself, sits at its Southern most point and it is from here that I often spend an hour or two a day kayaking during the warming months of Spring.
There is nothing so liberating as the freedom of the open water, to feel like you are completely alone, despite the fact that civilization is visible all around you on the distant shore.
Somehow society it is far removed from my thoughts as I bob about on the lake surface. Water instills within me a deep sense of calm and separates my thoughts from the fast paced world of people. The houses on the shore look small and insignificant to me from this perspective, and on the water I find myself quite disconnected from human society, and more intimately connected with the natural world. The water is deep and calm, and I feel safe, perhaps it is a primordial instinct, an ancestral memory guiding me back to the comfort of the womb, or to a more simple place in time. On the lake I can become a wild thing again, free to roam, to the far horizon and if the desire takes me beyond.
The Spring here in the Finger Lakes announces to it’s inhabitants that a time of plenty has begun, a time of movement and socialization for all, human or otherwise. A time to gather up all available resources, internal and external, to put the plans laid in the quiet contemplation of the Winter months into action, before the temperatures and humidity soars and the hazy days of Summer over heat the blood and drive us all to seek the solace of the mottled shade.
“In early June the world of leaf and blade and flowers explode, and every sunset is different.” – John Steinbeck
June always approaches faster than I imagine it will, the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year, where the Sun is at its zenith. advances at a pace from the earliest fluttering of Spring. In Ithaca this branch of the year is preempted by the advance of a rolling fog of humidity and thick wall of heat. The change from the slow warming of Spring to the steamy haze of Summer is sudden and dramatic.
In my first year in Ithaca, this wall of calefaction hit the ground running in Mid April. Ithaca then likened itself to a large valley sauna, it was quite a shock to the body.
I remember stepping out of my front doorway on to my porch and being assaulted instantly, my extremities flushed full with blood, as my body desperately attempted to cool my core temperature down. And when I stepped out into the street it felt like the air had become laden with hot treacle, I learned quickly then, that a slow approach to all things was the only remedy to this new climatic reality.
In Late June the British Isles are relatively cool by comparison, and yes, the humidity can be rather high, but as the air temperature never climbs much higher than seventy degrees Fahrenheit, even on the hottest of days, the humidity never really feels like more than a gentle rolling dampness that sometimes even manages to chills the bones.
The Finger lakes Summers reigning glory does of course not begin until the climax trees of the hills and forests canopy close ranks, branch meets branch, and then in full leaf, nothing but the light dapple of sunlight reaches through to the woodland floor. The Summer copses are filled with a cacophony of sounds, katydids, grasshoppers and locusts, along with the newly arisen cicadas, all together play the melody of lazy summer night.
In the glow of the summer evening sun, I often enjoy sitting outside on my creaky back porch, just listening to the sounds of the world beyond my borders, to the harmonies of the sunny season. I wait with anticipation for that special moment when the twilight hours descend and the glimmering lights of fireflies, darting across gardens, fields and hedgerows appear. Some years there are so many that they light up whole banks of dark silhouetted trees, that then glow and flash and sparkle in their wake. They appear to be the creators of their own secret language, a special code in the darkness of their own universe. I pass many a warm summers evening like this, listening, watching and soaking in the radiance of life.
The waterfalls of Ithaca grow quieter now, there is little rain to fill their coffers, they flow with a soft calmness, they know where they are headed and are, like most of us during the Summer months in no particular hurry to reach a final destination.
As late Summer advances, now comes an explosion of color amongst the wild flowers. Those present to dazzle the eye include the Echinacea’s, Bee balms, the Clovers, Golden rod, Cornflower, Milkweed and a golden host of other native pollinators, along with the enigmatic Ghost flowers that haunt the Summer Woodland rides. The insects throng around the gardens, parks and wild places now, feasting on the new found bounty.
Beautiful ruby throated hummingbirds who arrived into the area earlier in the season from the deep South, after a perilous flight from Mexico, are frantic in their non stop pollen and insect collection. These little birds never fail to impart their shrewdness to those who observe them, they have lessons to teach on the importance of persistence, stamina and how even the littlest of us all, still have a special place and purpose in the great balance of life.
I was once told, that the native peoples of this land believe that the hummingbird is associated with endurance, wisdom and healing. As I contemplate this, I can see the truth of it, their long difficult flight is a lesson in fortitude, their wisdom can be found in their deep attunement to the seasons, which they intuitively understand and know how to follow, as the Summer season migrates under the weight of Falls persistence. And healing, they impart this gift in the flourish of their delicate beauty. They remind us of the prudence in taking the time to look about us far and wide, in exploration, in perceiving the true gifts of the natural world, that are freely given, this is paradise on Earth.
“Every leaf speaks bliss to me, fluttering from the autumn tree.” – Emily Brontë
The first hint at a change beginning, starts when I notice a leaf or two lazily begins to float down from the Maple trees in my garden. This yearly ritual of the trees is a small unobtrusive signal that a new season is once again edging into view. The air itself feels cooler, almost at the first moment I notice the leaves falling. I know that it has probably been cooling for some days or weeks before this point, but it has been so subtle that the reality of it will have escaped me until now.
I probably had not, even noticed that the hummingbirds had disappeared. They are wiser than I to the rhythms of the seasons and have no doubt by now, long departed for warmer climes. Perhaps it is just that until this point that I could deny it, I could not see the changes, for if I did I would have to acknowledge that the Summer is coming to a hasty close.
A time will soon come when we all will be called to once again breath deep, and take a last look at the countryside in color before retreating to our hearth fires. Our neighborhoods will fall silent once again, ready, for the chilly deep sleep of Winter. The Fall Equinox circles around and once again, the day and night are of equal influence. Almost in the same moment the chipmunks, Groundhogs bears, mice and a myriad of other warm blooded mammals retreat underground. Some will perhaps simply fly away as the hummingbirds do following the Falls advance.
Fall though to be honest, has truly become, my favorite season of the year since my time in Ithaca began. The Autumn air has an undefinable crispy edge to it as it permeates through the land, it adds an almost electric charge to the atmosphere. And now those large unbounded fields around the lakes will begin to overflow with a rich diversity of produce, grapes, pumpkins, corn and an array of tasty Winter vegetables. The famous regional Apple orchards begin to flush with an abundance of fruit, ready for us all to enjoy fresh off the tree, or in the delicious form of cider and hard cider.
But it is for the spectacular show of the native trees of the finger lakes that this land in Fall so special to me. The British Isles have very few trees, only six percent tree cover overall. Centuries of logging have left the land bereft of its once glorious oak high forests. New York State by comparison has over sixty percent tree cover, most of this is young regeneration, but that by no means detracts from the presentation of it’s lavish seasonal epilogue. The leaves of the Maples, American Beech, Sycamore, Ash, Elm, Oak, Balsam, popular and countless other broad leaf trees produce now, the great finally to the year.
The whole Central New York vista during the Fall months take on the spectacular hues of a mid nineteenth century painting. Orange, red, yellow, white, purple, green, all these intense colors are vibrantly illuminate against a subdued grey Autumn skyline. Van gogh himself would have been so fortunate to have painted such a scene. The whole landscape becomes a kind of experiential canvas, an artistic installation created by the natural world herself, ready to be enjoyed by all who are lucky enough to reside in the region.
As late October marches forth, the air distills into an almost chilly moist vat, that curls around me in the shortening days. Carved pumpkins appear on practically every porch and doorway, in preparation for the Celtic New year, Samhain, otherwise known as Halloween. The Celtic peoples of old believed that the veil between the lands of the living and the dead thinned at this time of year and this was then the time to honor and communicate with the ancestors.
I find hope in all that this festival brings, faith in the continuation of life beyond the realms of the physical. Joy in the foreseeable cycles of each season, which are so potently displayed here in the Finger lakes. The World turns and the landscape adapts, as do the inhabitants human and non human. We evolve and thrive, with each turn of the planetary wheel, nature emerges triumphant, with calculated design, purpose, beauty and more than a little élan vital.
I find myself fortunate to be here, in this moment experiencing all that the capricious landscape of New York offers. My long voyage across the Atlantic pond was a journey of surprising discovery and an affirmation of hope in the future.