September 23, 2019

Walking through the woods on a snowy afternoon Nature remains alive, if less visible, in the dead of winter

They don’t call this the dead of winter for nothing.

Everything that isn’t covered with snow looks gray, shriveled and barren. It seems like everyone – including humans – has gone into hibernation. When it’s this cold out, the idea of curling up and falling asleep until the crocuses appear sounds tempting.

But if you’re brave enough to head outside and strap on a pair of snowshoes or cross-country skis, you’ll find there’s a lot more to look at than you thought. That’s what I discovered during a recent trek along the banks of the Stillwater River in Orono.

I was fortunate enough to have a knowledgeable companion in Lois Stack, a specialist in ornamental horticulture for the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. But you don’t need to take an expert along. All you need is a keen eye, a free hour and a sense of adventure. Oh, a Peterson’s field guide wouldn’t hurt, either.

“Most people recognize trees by their leaves and sometimes by their fruit,” Stack said. “To look at a tree and to know it by its bark and buds is a totally different thing.

Buds are most visible in the winter and bark is at its most beautiful in winter. The leaves aren’t covering it up.”

The show isn’t over once autumn’s brilliant foliage fades. In some ways, it’s just beginning. When you go for a walk in the summertime, you’re surrounded by wildflowers, underbrush, tall grasses and shady trees. With so many distractions, it’s easy to overlook the subtlety of nature’s architecture.

In the winter, the beauty lies in simplicity. In the skeletal structure of a tree’s branches, reaching toward the sky. In a lone cluster of red berries that jumps out against the snow. In the curve of a fern frond or a tuft of goldenrod.

During our walk, which started at the Fay Hyland Arboretum on the University of Maine campus, I felt a childlike sense of wonder, stopping to ask “what’s this?” at every turn. Given the time of the year, we were lucky to find a few rose hips left over from a dogrose shrub, and a single cluster of fruit from the American cranberry bush viburnum was all that the birds left behind.

“A lot of roses have already been eaten and the viburnum fruit doesn’t last this long,” Stack said. “A lot of the fruit is gone, but then you look at other things: bird prints, animal tracks, bark.”

She pointed to the long, silvery bark of the Eastern white cedar, and the nests that birds had carved out of the trees. She also noted the yellow birch, a native tree whose bark has a distinctive color and a tendency to peel in thin, curly pieces.

Bark isn’t the only thing that stands out. Often, the geometry of a plant’s branches is striking against the snow. Unfortunately, it seems the invasive plants are among the most attractive, whether it’s the lacy structure of a honeysuckle bush or the unusual, “winged” branches of the burning bush. Oriental bittersweet is also an invasive showstopper, with its yellow-hulled, deep-red berries and curly vines.

Evergreens and their cones look good year-round, but in the winter, you may notice something strange on a spruce tree. What you thought were cones could be defects in the plant. These harmless brown growths are called Cooley spruce galls, caused by the Cooley spruce gall aphid. We found a bunch on a red spruce tree.

Some of the more interesting sights on a winter day have more to do with fauna than flora. And the aphids were only the beginning. What I thought were rabbit tracks actually came from a squirrel (next time, I’ll bring a guide). And by the looks of it, a bunch of beavers had been busy gnawing trees along the riverbank. We couldn’t find a dam, though.

Given the temperature (it was brisk, to say the least), we weren’t about to look. We were getting chilly, and it was time to turn back. But we were satisfied with what we found – walking on snowshoes gives you an opportunity to go places you wouldn’t normally go in the snow and, in turn, you get to see things you wouldn’t normally see.

Was it cold? Indeed. But the brisk walk changed my mind about the “dead” of winter. There’s plenty of life out there. I just needed to get out of the house to see it.

To help identify plants, Lois Stack recommends the Peterson Field Guide to Trees and Shrubs.

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