Winter Walks

by Rose Riley | March 1, 2015

Behind the Webb Deane Stevens museum grounds is a small wood.

It is perhaps an acre in size with two paths that run the length of it. It is bounded on one side by backyards and on the other side by the community gardens. I walk in this wood nearly every day of the year. Each season has its merits, spring full of promise of the season to come and summer a cooling refuge from the heat and sun. Some autumn days flash a carpet of gold under the few deciduous trees on the path.  Winter however, is magical.

View of Webb-Deane-Stevens Arbor from Woodland

A grey day in November is the dullest time in garden, field and wood (a sunny day in November is quite another story – full of color and movement).  Today I walk simply to exercise the dog.  As we walk down the path in the wood, we are overtaken by a large bird.  It glides silently down the path in front of us  with wings outspread and barely moving, and comes to rest on a tree limb near the end of the path. It faces the museum but turns its head around fully to look at us. I recognize this silent presence as a barred owl.
I had read of owls’ silent flight but until this walk in the woods had never experienced it. The owl watches us intently as we continue up the path toward it. I must admit that once under the limb and past the owl I wonder if it might view us as dinner.

Winter woods, without snow, need careful observing. By late December few buds or berries are visible and the pines in this wood  have not yet dropped their cones. However they have dropped their needles and they make a beautiful patterns underneath the trees. If you have ever seen any of Andy Goldsworthy’s books, these patterns evoke the patterns he creates using natural objects.
Woods at Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum
Later today a snow comes. The woods in a quiet snowfall are magical. There is a sense of stillness and closure there that I find at no other time.

Early January
It is 2° when the dog and I set out for the woods. There are two paths at the entry to the wood – one dark which goes through the woods, the other, bright-lit,  goes along the community gardens. I choose the one through the woods, not because it was less traveled, but because the path by the community gardens leads east, directly into the low, winter morning sun and the dark path through the woods provides some shelter from the frigid wind.
There is a light snow covering the ground outside the woods from snow squalls in the past days but in the woods the only snow on the path is where deciduous trees allow it to reach the ground. There is little to see in the woods.  No birds or animals are about in the bitter cold.
I walk with my eyes bent down, studying the patterns of the needles and decaying leaves on the ground. When I do look up there is wonderful light caught in the tree tops. What a neat trick of the low winter morning sun to tangle itself in the swaying branches.
At the end of the woods I welcome the shortcut to the community gardens path.  It looks to me as if it is warmer because it is so bright but when I make the turn to start my trip home I realize that I am walking directly west and into the wind. Eyes still cast down, I notice that the ground ivy on the side of the path remains green and at the end of the path a grass or sedge glows emerald.
Woodland Path at Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum

Late January
We have had several snowstorms recently but the path through the wood remains accessible. As we approach the wood, I noticed animal prints in the snow. Many are bird prints, easy to identify by the shape of the prints and many more are dog prints (with their owners’ prints aside them). Rabbit prints too are easy to identify and plentiful at the entrance to the woods. Sadly one set of rabbit prints ends with a flurry of snow, blood and fur. Our resident hawk or perhaps the owl has had dinner.   Farther down the path large canine-like prints cut across the wood from north to south.  A large dog off the leash? Or perhaps something wilder?

Early February
The deep snows in recent days have made have made walking in the woods difficult. Today we see that a path has been made by some prior traveler and set off to go through the woods. The path is only the width of a pair of boots.  I try to walk in the boot prints but sometimes it seems they were made by giants and sometimes by elves.  Each time I step off the path I am up to my knees in snow. It is too deep even for the dog to go bounding through the woods and he keeps to the path in front of me.  To the side of the path are the trails left by cross country skiers.  I envy them their form of locomotion.
The path ends by the entrance to the large field behind the museum grounds.   It appears that the prior traveler – elf or giant as it may be – turned and came back on on the same path.  I, unfazed, trudge on through the unbroken snow toward the driveway behind the museum. My stalwart dog now trudges behind me.
Winter Tracks

Late February
It is late February as I write this. Seemingly unceasing snowfalls have filled my woodland path again. I look forward to March. There is a small bank bordering the path of the community gardens and edging the the woodland. This bank faces south and catches the first sun.  It is here that I will soon see the green leaves of ground ivy and the early sedges.
In the wood the scent of honeysuckle will tease the walker.   But that seems far away now and the woods wait quietly under a deep mantle of snow.

~ Rose Riley, Master Gardener

Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum