By early February, the landscape is heavily blanketed with many layers of snow. Some days I stand in awe at the silent beauty of this season. But there are other days I curse it! Today, it’s a …
By early February, the landscape is heavily blanketed with many layers of snow. Some days I stand in awe at the silent beauty of this season. But there are other days I curse it! Today, it’s a little bit of both. Soon I will dive whole-heartedly into the familiar routine of shoveling paths — from the front door to the woodshed, out to the driveway, and then to the bird feeders.
This morning, after completing my outdoor chores, I moseyed back to the main house. But en route, I noticed a series of little holes tunneled into the snow on each side of my foot path. I was intrigued by the symmetry and sheer number of them. They were clearly a system, organized by a variety of small creatures. Parallel-running tracks clearly marked favored routes that facilitated travel across an inhospitable landscape for any above-ground excursion. Mice, squirrels, voles, weasels, mink and others, well-adapted to survive even the harshest of winters.
I am an avid gardener. Were it summer, seeing signs of such fervent activity would trigger thoughts of malice for “these little devils who invade and plunder the precious product of all my hard work” preparing and planting a bountiful harvest that would provide a significant portion of my annual food supply. This cadre of marauders are competent competitors spawning an all-out war to defend what I have presumptuously claimed as “mine”.
I am also a lover of birds. Their frequent visits to my feeders not only enhance my quality of life, but also are essential to my mental health! Especially during winter when birds bring color and movement to our otherwise monochromatic and frigidly snowbound landscape… which brings me back to those tunnels.
Winter has its way of forcing us to hunker down into conditions resembling “solitary confinement,” whether it be dens carved in tree trunks, warrens burrowed beneath abandoned brush piles, or hovered around the warmth of a wood stove in a humble log cabin. This is why those little holes in the snow brought me to a standstill — the thought of all those little critters huddled beneath the surface, invisible to my (shiver) naked eye, a place that was warmer, quieter and shadowed by filtered light. I imagined their scurrying about and meeting along shared byways. I wondered, “Do they use lanes like we do? Or sidings, like trains, where one pulls off to the side and lets the other pass first, in some semblance of courtesy or fairness? Are there little exits to hollowed out rooms where lucky finds of seeds and other edibles are saved for the coldest days and darkest nights of the season? Cached away for those times when leaving their underground shelter could result in either a slow death brought on by the unforgiving elements, or one that is sudden from attack by a hungry predator, also unmercifully driven by an instinct to survive?
Honestly, I hadn’t thought about this underworld before, despite having caught an occasional glimpse of something swiftly darting across the path. That’s not to say that their tracks haven’t intrigued me. More than once I’ve returned to the house to consult my Naturalist’s Guide to help identify who’s been traveling through the neighborhood. But never had I experienced such a dreamy examination of life beneath the snow.
Suddenly, a smile arose out of nowhere. “It’s kind of like the Rio Grande!” I thought.
But instead of this migration going north and south, it travels east and west. To the east of my cabin are my makeshift but functional bird feeders. To the west is where I plant a large area for my vegetable garden, now fallow and filled with lots of “left behinds,” some fresh frozen, others fermenting — roots, stalks and rejected fruits of my labor, available in various stages of decay, some of which I’m guessing (at least to scavengers) could be quite tasty by now. With all that abundance comes great temptation. I try to imagine how many cross at this spot, magnetically pulled to what’s on the other side. I bet a high number now that we’re well into February.
Now, when I spot one of those furry little critters sitting boldly on the feeder, stuffing its cheeks with sunflower seeds, I no longer find myself railing against its greed, depriving needed sustenance from hungry little chickadees and nuthatches. Instead, I find myself softening. And when I discover that a mystery marauder has uprooted the beets or carrots I’ve left in the ground for a mid-winter treat, I no longer take it as a personal assault. It seems since my day of musing, I’ve tempered my outlook. Now, I picture all those little guys wisely hoarding everything they can in order to make it to March, with sunflower and Niger seeds acting as the staple foods, with a garnish of rotting herbs, corn husks, or asparagus spears. From this epiphany, a peace accord is born!
So now it’s time for detente. Instead of conducting never-ending catch and release operations, or worse, catch, detain or destroy, I am learning to observe and appreciate. Live and let live. However you word it, I’m putting an end to nasty futile attempts to eliminate these migrants’ movement across some invisible manmade border. Aren’t we all out for the same thing? Safety, shelter, nourishment, and belonging. Simply put, survival for ourselves and our loved ones? And we’ll all work tooth and nail to secure it. That’s nature. Our instinct.
So, I’m trying to adopt a new way of seeing. Instead of dominance and control, or total annihilation, I’m rolling out a new policy that eliminates “MDS” — the policy of “Mutually Assured Destruction” — adopted during the Cold War Era, designed to include the for-real nuclear option where nobody gets to win, and switches us over to “MAS” — “Mutually Assured Survival” — and for everybody!