Fall and winter are not the gardener's favorite seasons. Nothing in the plant world grows in fall and winter except underground, out of sight. While the autumn rainy season and winter's deep snowfalls are welcome for the replenishing water supply they bring to the lakes, rivers, streams and plants, their cloud cover and ever-diminishing daily hours of sunshine do put a crimp in the spirit. A surfeit of backache-inducing snow shoveling looms in the immediate future. Hunters with lethal firearms are abroad around the hiking trails. Death and dormancy are the dominant themes.
When the choleric of the overcast skies and cabin-fever inactivity start to shrivel hope and laughter, it's time to lace up the hiking boots and head out in search of nature's cure for the winter blues. In northwest Michigan, each of the four seasons plays out in full fettle. Even in an era of global warming, winter here will be long, lasting at a minimum from November through March, it will be cold. Watching all the leaves disappear from the woods and denuded branches replace swaths of greens and golds, it always seems at first as if winter means months to be lived in gloomy, monochromatic blacks and greys. Taking afoot to the woodland and shoreline trails, however, reveals again, every year, winter's sweetly muted, dappled and multifarious palette of colors.
Along the beaches and dunes, multitudes of marram grass drape clouds of burnt-gold blades and seed heads across the tawny sands. The speckled white bodies of beech trees stand out in bright relief against the tumbled, bruised pewter of the sky. Whimsical milkweed pods fold open to release Santa Claus whiskers in delicate fans. Cherry tree and dogwood branches blush barn red.
On trails across dune meadows and moraines, color abounds in the wild, tomato-red rosehips (as pictured above), sumac, chokecherries, honeysuckle and cottoneaster and bittersweet berries. The characterful, wizened bark of the wolf maple, the shagbark hickory and the willow are on display, the velvet grey elephant-hide trunks of the beeches emerge.
Wherever conifers grow, dozens of variations of green march tall and vibrant across the landscape. The first snowfalls of the season came in off Lake Michigan this week, bringing not much more than a few inches of accumulation but laying a downy white blanket on the fields and hills. The snow backdrop makes the greens, golds, ochre, reds, purples and other tints of winter stand up and shout. Pine green, forest green, kelly green, mint, olive, the seaglass green of the hemlocks, these all intensify and grow prouder against the subdued light of winter. And the cornhusk gold of the beach sand and dunes, faceted here and there with hoarfrost, draws and holds the eye softly, warmly.
It gets very quiet in the forest and on the sands. Maybe it is the muffling effect of the snow, partly it is the reduction in traffic and people, dogs and birds larking about. A sacred kind of stillness hovers in the air. The soughing of the wind in the treetops, the rare call of a hawk or crow, the purl of the waves beseeching the shore, the ancient creaking of a fallen tree against the trunks of its brothers and sisters, every sound speaks with more clarity and meaning.
As long as the temperature stays above 20 degrees, as it usually does in this moderate strip of climate bordering the lake shore, one doesn't get chilled when out and about and moving. Whether skating, skiing, hiking, sledding, shoveling or otherwise keeping the limbs pumping and the blood coursing, on a still or gently snowing winter's day even mild exercise keeps the body plenty warm. As an added bonus, it sends happy chemicals swimming into the mind and spirit, washing away the cobwebs of melancholia. Hush a minute, look around you, discover everywhere plentiful and beautiful reminders of the palpable gifts nature presents to us, even in her season of hibernation and sleep.