“It’s often necessary in life to do nothing, but so few people do it nicely.” – From City of Bells by Elizabeth Goudge
The barrenness of winter has always held a certain appeal for me. Perhaps that’s why, as a northerner, I have little desire to flee to a warmer climate as so many of my peers do at this time of year.
Why that is, I’m not certain, but it may have something to do with relishing the opportunity to do nothing for a season. Not literally doing nothing, of course, but I do love that sense of repose that comes each January after the Christmas rush when we settle in for a long winter of reading, evenings by the fire, and a break from the frenzied activity that foists itself upon us with the onset of milder weather.
These days, as I look out on the stark, gray landscape, I can smile at the cheery messages I receive from friends and family waxing on about the sunny, warm weather and what they are doing in Florida or other snowbird destinations. Deep within, I take a kind of secret delight in being able to stay put and enter into the fallowness of this season and its hidden gifts.
A northern winter forces us into a kind of nothingness that can be maddening. But if we are willing to endure long enough to pass through its portal, we can encounter a place of stillness where we know that under or just ahead of the seeming nothingness lies something precious.
I saw that clearly on a recent weekend when I made my way to Magee Marsh, where I go to watch warblers and other migratory birds each spring. I expected nothing in the way of bird sightings, but merely wanted to walk and experience the landscape in its unadorned winter raiment.
Even so, I was happily surprised by the presence of two Northern Saw-whet Owls that other birders had spied in a stand of pine trees at the marsh’s bird center. Farther in, I was treated to splendid views of a Bald Eagle perched near its nest.
But what has stayed with me most prominently since that day was the incredibly austere setting of the birders’ boardwalk, bereft of any sign of life. As I walked by the places where I have seen Prothonotary Warblers, Baltimore Orioles, Gray Catbirds, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Northern Parulas, and Red-eyed Vireos, I was mostly struck by the utter nothingness of my surroundings. Aside from two birders I encountered on the way out, I saw no one and nothing but barren and felled trees. The contrast to what I see in the spring was almost breathtaking. In May, I am elbow-to-elbow with birders and nature photographers walking under leafy branches and straining to see Wilson’s or Orange-crowned warblers. There is a hum of excitement and activity as birders from around the world converge in groups to train their binoculars, scopes, or cameras on a particularly sought-after bird or share the news of a good sighting “at the loop” or “by the east entrance.” Could this be the same place? Indeed, it was.
That day, I loved the marsh and the boardwalk for their essence, revealed by the absence of foliage, people, and birds. There seemed to be nothing, but there was something. It was much as I had come to love the frail frame of my aging mother before she died because it reflected the graceful serenity that remained as she was taken down to her bare branches.
By detaching from my desire for and memories of spring and facing the nothingness of the landscape, I received something new, as we do in the spiritual life when we abstain or fast from our pleasures so as to hear and see more deeply things eternal.
In the spring, I will love the marsh even more for having seen it in its barren state. But for now, I will treasure the memory of its frame, consoled by its beauty and anticipating the joy of seeing it transformed from its state of seeming nothingness into one teeming with life.
This is such a rich, deeply meaningful post, Judy. God minsters to us in each of the seasons and times of life He created. We just need to be attentive and watchful. Beautiful photos too!
Thank you for such lovely words and thoughts! I agree that each season has its gifts and that we only need to be watchful to see and receive them.
Peaceful. Another enjoyable post, Judy.
I only discovered the joys of winter nature walks in the past few years, and am so glad I did. When the landscape is simplified, as it is in winter, I can focus on details that I would probably not notice otherwise. And I always feel a deeper connection to a place after I’ve experienced it in various seasons.
I’m heading out to one of my favorite barren winter spots today, in fact, to get some much-needed fresh air and sunshine on my face. Thanks for another thought-provoking post, Judy. (And thanks for the link to my blog about the Saw-whet Owl.)
Your walks in all seasons inspire me, Kim, and I agree that seeing places in more than one season gives us a deeper connection to them. Thanks for sharing your experience. Looks like you picked a great day to venture out!
Thanks for reading and for the nice comments, Pearl.
Beautiful! I love the garden in Spring, Summer and Fall! However, the knowledge that I can’t do that in the Winter and am “forced” to be inside, cozy, with a cup of hot chocolate and a good book with the fireplace going is comforting. An occasional break for a walk in the snow is an “adventure”!