At the Promontory in Stewart Park
- Temperature: about 33 degrees
- Wind: 1 MPH
- Feels like: 33 degrees
- Clouds: thick, low, misty snow clouds
Animals seen and heard:
- Huge flocks of water birds like clouds above the lake
- Handfuls of Canada geese flying overhead
- Song of a White-Throated Sparrow
- Calls of Gulls
- One set of tracks from a runner around the promontory
- Handful of cars slowly driving around the Stewart Park loop
I'm sitting in the falling snow, looking north over Cayuga Lake. The snowflakes aren't really flakes, they’re tiny shards of ice. It's too warm for fully-formed flakes. But it suits me today. Hundreds, thousands, of the shards land each second, coating me, and everything else, in damp heaviness.
It's a winter morning that carries more weight than just the wet snow's. My dog of thirteen years passed away four days ago, and my heart is dense with sorrow. As the splinters of ice fall, it seems as if they are fragmenting my heart further.
Winter personifies this emotion. Traditionally, winter is a time of dormancy and shutting down, a time of reflection and contemplation on the inner world, and for some, a time of death. The winter solstice was less than a month ago and marked the shortest day in the calendar year. It was a day where darkness prevailed and the northern lands tilted their farthest away from the sun.
Today the lake is white, the ice reaching out to the second lighthouse. These recent cold days have pushed its boundaries far from shore. Canada geese fly overhead, aerodynamic in their Vs and honking directions to their flying partners. I wonder what they make of winter. Are they warm in the lake water, just at the edge of freezing? Do they wonder when the sun will return full-force? Do they feel the pressure of death?
As I walked around the promontory to reach this bench where I now sit, I paused to investigate a dormant tree being choked by an equally dormant strangler. The bark of the tree was rough and grey, and bulging over where the vine was wrapped tightly, suffocating. At least for now, in the depth of winter, the tree is safe. But I wondered how long it would survive once summer comes and it needs to expand outward. The strangler wasn’t wild grape vine (Vitis spp.) or oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus), two common invasive stranglers, but I couldn't determine what it was. Just one more thing I sought to understand.
Winter means darkness. For Native people, the solstice was a way to mark time. For modern scientists it is a way to chart the relation of earth and sun. For me, in some ways, winter has come to represent death. Last year, I suffered through the sudden death of an old friend. The year before, I felt my heart shatter as six- and seven-year-old children in Newtown, CT were murdered in their school. And now, my canine companion has passed on, and left me to sit here alone in the snow and reflect on death yet again.
I don’t know what happens after we die. I’m not quite convinced about reincarnation. I don’t believe in heaven, nor a happy doggie park in the sky where my pup can frolic freely forever. Maybe our energy turns in on itself and becomes some other configuration. I don’t know.
What I do know is that my world has shifted again, without my influence nor my consent. Autumn passed and winter arrived. I do know that the earth’s tilt has put me in my farthest position from light, and I am surrounded by darkness. And yet, I also know that the earth is going to keep turning on its axis and time will pass and eventually I will find myself closer to the sun.
I leave the bench and wander farther around the promontory loop. I come to the one quiet oak tree on the path. Unlike many other trees, the oak hangs on to its lifeless, autumn leaves well into winter. Orange, drooping memories that will fade sometime in the future when the light returns. It sparks in me a warm memory of what was.
I move along the path and cut under the porch overhang of the Boat House. Here, I come across a snow-free patch of moss, glowing green amidst the surrounding grey. In this burgeoning winter, I would have expected moss to disappear, to shrivel up and hide like the rest of the plants of New York. Like I want to today.
And yet, I want to touch it. To feel what I remember moss to be. I want the spark of those orange oak leaves to ignite the life within this moss and help move me back toward warmth.
As I reach out to the greenness, a perfectly-formed, hexagonal snowflake lands on my mitten. I marvel at its flawlessness, its precision, its magnificent geometry that captures the white light of this short day and reflects it back out onto the world. It is beautiful. It sticks there for a few seconds before slowly turning in on itself and becoming a droplet of water.
For everything you want to know about winter solstice go to EarthSky.org