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Friends and neighbors throughout Maine are talking about the sudden change in weather since Thanksgiving, when things went from balmy to downright miserable pretty much over night. On Thanksgiving Day I was sitting in the wet woods wearing only a wool shirt and orange vest, and it was too warm for that! Now it’s suddenly in the teens with a serious blanket of snow on the ground and, of course, more to come. Such is the nature of weather in Maine – the way life should be!
What I like about this week in the winter is that the deer seasons are finally over. That means I can walk around in the woods without the high level of intensity that’s required when concentrating on whitetails. Grouse, rabbits and squirrels are still legal game for now, which is as good an excuse as any to get out there and wander around.
Another advantage to being outdoors this week is that you can expect to have the woods to yourself. Most other Mainers will be tramping the wilds of the malls in search of Christmas gifts, a chore most sportsmen avoid like the plague. The silent, serene surroundings of the woods are far more attractive, at least to me, and that’s where I’ll be every chance I get.
The December woods are quite different from what they were back in October and early November. Cold and dark now, covered with snow and ripped by chilling winds, this is no place to be if you want creature comforts. Even so, I get comfort from the creatures I find out there at this time of year, the birds and animals I can see and the tracks and trails of those I cannot. Let the snow settle a day or so after a storm and you will find plenty of evidence that the empty-looking forest is anything but empty. The dark specks of snow flea (Hypogastrura harveyi and Hypogastrura nivicola), species of springtail. They are so called because they can most easily be observed jumping about on the surface of snow on a warm winter day. Adults are 1 to 2 millimeters long. Their dark blue color makes them appear as specks that have been compared to pepper or ashes scattered on the snow, often near the base of trees. There are many other species of Hypogastrura, most of which can sometimes swarm, but not normally on snow.
Like other springtails, Maine’s snow fleas lack wings but can catapult themselves in a random direction by releasing two tail-like "spring" projections found on their abdomen. These critters don’t bite and are essentially harmless, and are mostly just another interesting woodland creature that most folks will never see. Their presence in winter is notable mostly because you have to wonder how they can live out there, on the snow, when temperatures dip below zero for days on end. Apparently they have some sort of natural anti-freeze that protects them from the cold.
I always find it interesting that mighty mankind, supposedly the dominant creature on earth, is unable to do what the tiniest snow flea can do – survive outdoors naked in the winter! I get the same revelation from chickadees, which hang happily upside down while singing a happy tune and picking away at seed pods at minus 30 degrees.
My end-of-the-year walks in the woods are meant to help me unwind and re-evaluate the things that go on in my head, so I don’t always bring a gun or bow on my treks. I am there to look, listen and learn, to calm jangled nerves and rejuvenate a tired spirit. Trudging the silent woods on a cold December morning or afternoon is like filling the oil tank with fuel – it will trickle out slowly but will keep the fire burning for a long time!
The same degree of solace and solitude can be achieved by any number of outdoor pursuits including cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, ice-fishing or hiking. It hardly matters what you do out there, the reward is the same. I can drift into the same Zen-like mental state regardless of the activity of choice because the somber woods seem to encourage me to relax and reflect, even if I’m chugging along at full speed on my snowshoes or skis. The hours and miles seem to go by in seconds, and at the end of the day my thoughts are clear and my enthusiasm is rekindled.
I like the feeling I have as I head for home at the end of a long December walk. No more mental cobwebs, no more uncertainty, no more heavy weight upon my shoulders. Some claim it’s a release of endorphins that’s the cause, but I choose to credit the soothing winter woods for my sudden change in demeanor and mood. I have seen folks indulge in plain, old exercise and come away feeling not the least bit refreshed, just sweaty and tired. But, I can walk in the woods all afternoon and come home feeling like paying a few bills, splitting some wood or even chipping away at the ice growing on the eaves.
If you feel the weight of the year upon you now, with holidays past and present weighing like bricks upon your shoulders, take some time and head for the woods. Now is the time to clear your mind and spirit, and nothing does it like a snowy walk in the woods. Walk a logging trail or poke around along the edge of a stream or lake and see what nature has to offer in the way of a cure for your woes. I have been taking nature’s prescription for nearly half a century and am never disappointed after an invigorating walk “out there.” We have plenty of time (and winter!) left for ice-fishing, hunting and other activities, but right now, peace and quiet may be just the thing you need to get through the next few weeks.
Try an outdoor jaunt and see if I’m not right. If you don’t feel better after spending a few hours away from the sights and sounds of “civilization,” I will gladly refund your money!
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