I always lament the end of a month: its rush to be over, its unfinished business, its losses and gains—now history. In contrast, tomorrow’s new page features hopeful squares waiting to be filled. Winters return might bring the same sadness if it were not for my companions on the prairie.
Skeletons of plants, once in bloom, line the driveway and on into the expanse beyond. At first glance they meld into brownish sameness but there are as many variations of hue and girth and height as there are in people.
The spindly switch grass always catches my eye with its long sturdy spine, minute seeds and pale, gracefully arching foliage. This amazing plant often stands upright even through winter’s snow. The big bluestem still towers but its characteristic crows feet are more like tufts, without their dangling seeds. In their old age they seem to have lost some height. Most of the thousands of feathery seeds have flown from the little bluestem but the stalks take on an almost maroon glow. In the summer I could hardly find Canadian rye but now that all green is gone, I see the heavy seed heads bending beautifully. The Indian grass stalks have also lost their seeds but continue to look regal, especially when the early morning light gives them a bronze hue.
Most wildflowers are only little button heads denuded of their seeds but the milkweed pods retain their skeletal remains. I love the way the brittle tear-shaped pods twist on the stem, making artistic arrangements.
I don’t know what goes on within the dying stalks or what’s happening to their long roots below the ground past the frost line. Do they have capillary systems like trees? How do they store the nutrients needed to grow again? But after ten years in this place, I know this much: the flowers and the tall grasses are really only hibernating within their seeds—ready to grow again when warmth, moisture and sun usher them back in spring.
A day comes every season when winter is in the air. All denial, based on unseasonable balmy days and abundant sunshine, fades into gray skies and damp air. It has nothing to do with official dates—those of us who live close to nature just know. On Sunday my husband urged me to take our usual afternoon walk but one glance out the window gave me the chills. Not to be shamed by my preference for warm and cozy, I bundled up. We avoided the woods as several shots had been heard from hunters getting ready for opening day. Looking over the lake from the dock we spotted a large bird gliding through the steely sky—and soon realized it had to be an eagle.
High above us, the splendid bird gave us a show. The sky showed slight variations in hew so that when the eagle soared and floated on the wind currents, it often passed a lighter spot. The movements were so carefree and playful. Shivering from the cold breeze, I should have been walking briskly, but couldn’t take my eyes away from him. I wanted to hold onto what no photograph could portray even if we had been close enough to try. I carry the image of one elegant bird that lifted my spirits by bringing a little “shine” on the day when I knew, from my head down to my boots that winter had come.
And He will raise you up on eagle's wings,
Bear you on the breath of dawn,
Make you to shine like the sun,
And hold you in the palm of His Hand.
Michael Joncas, 1979 – “On Eagle’s Wings”