Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Nearly winter

It's cold here now. We woke up this morning to -5 degrees, and the temperature never climbed above 3 degrees. It's so strange - the day was stunning, blue and bright. I thought, with the sun shining, the day must be warming up - but when I opened the front door, it was like stepping into a fridge. And yet, it's a different cold to NZ - while the temperatures are colder, it's a crisp, dry, still, coldness, which is not unpleasant (yet).

We seem to live in a little micro-climate here by the lake. When Jill and Emma and I went for a walk at Shelburne Farms last week, there was still autumn colour in the woods.

 And the first touch of snow showed on the mountains beyond the lake.

With the onset of the colder weather, there is the sense of everyone preparing for the winter. In New Zealand, we slide imperceptibly from autumn to winter, but apart from making sure you know where your coat and gumboots are, just in case you need them, there are no real preparations to be made. Not so here. Here we see firewood being stacked in huge piles and boats taken off the lake and shrink wrapped in boat yards.

 Soon the water system around Long Point will be emptied and closed off: because the pipes are above ground (on account of the houses being built on solid rock), there's a danger that they will burst when the deep ice comes. So the only people who can over winter here are those with wells. Houses that were full of life in the summer are now boarded up against the wild winter weather.

In the garden, this sense of preparation is even more intense.In the daytime, the chipmunks are now good-naturedly sharing the deck with grey and red squirrels (they do not, however, share with one another - and we are often entertained by three chipmunks chasing one another around the garden, while the cackling blue jays steal their food).

The birds never stop - and we hear new calls in the garden each day. My favourite sound comes from the chickadees  - they're so cute and little, you'd think they'd make a  sweet peep peep call. But when I'm filling the feeders in the morning, they sit on the branch just above my head reporting to one another on my progress in voices that sound like tiny daleks ("do not ext-erm-in-ate the hu-man yet - she has thi-stle seeds to-day").

One day, I was cleaning out a feeder and accidentally spilled a handful of seed on the ground. That day, a small flock of a bird we'd never seen before spent most of the day on the lawn, to my delight. Since then, I've thrown out seed every day - and they fly down in the morning and are gone by lunchtime.
In the evening, the garden comes to life in new ways, as the nocturnal animals feed up for the cold months ahead. For a few weeks, we've been watching the family of opossums who live under the house, and we feed them a bowl of apples in the evening.

They're very hard to photograph - but they really are very cute, and fun to watch (for you kiwis out there, you have to realise these are very different to our possums, and are not the same danger to the environment). They're so tame now, they don't even mind if I sit on the deck in the shadows to watch them.

Recently, however, we've had a new visitor - a beautiful, furry skunk, with a splendidly flamboyant tail. But don't let looks deceive you: he's not a shy or friendly creature.

 Yesterday, as we were watching the skunk, we were surprised to see one of the young opossums come careering out of his burrow at top speed, and try to push the skunk out of the way. The skunk chased him off and returned to his food. Whereupon, the opossum, in a moment of madness, dashed at the skunk and bit his bottom!

You can imagine what happened next. Musk meets the Mouth of Hell is how my friend Casie describes the smell of a skunk. I've never experienced anything like it. The opossum made an indignant and outraged retreat, and I spent today worrying that he'd been permanently damaged - but he was out on the deck this evening, undeterred, and engaging in battle once again.

In the not so distant past, preparation could have meant the difference between those who survived the winter and those who didn't. As I watch the squirrels and chipmunks, I realise that, for the animals, that may still be the case (though I have to say the creatures in our garden are sitting pretty). But while human survival is no longer entirely dependent on the preparations made now, it feels as if there is some deep memory working in every creature, a memory that compels their actions and shapes their thinking: Winter is coming. 


  1. This is so interesting - it's so different to winter approaching in New Zealand. And I can't imagine having all these little furry creatures in the garden. I love the story of the possum fighting the skunk - so funny!

  2. Hi Anne-Marie, I could spend my entire time watching the little creatures in our garden! I'm going to miss all this activity when we head home.

  3. I'm guessing you will have some serious heating appliances in your cottage - is it double glazed as well? Keep warm!

    1. Hi Diane: our cottage is very toasty - which we are appreciating very much! and I've almost trained the girls into the realisation that ALL trips outside now equire coats, socks and shoes!