Midwinter is a breathtakingly beautiful time of year here. This week, a thick snow cover lies over the ground; the tree branches are bare. Today the sun is beaming out of a milky blue sky, and the trees and fence posts throw crisp shadows onto the snow cover.
December, even after snow falls, often has a muddier cast. Because the temperatures are warmer then, the snow that falls often partially melts on a ground that is not entirely frozen to begin with. But now, in the coldest part of the year, no mud mars the sparkling whiteness. The fields shimmer with gently rolling curves of snow; the pond is indistinguishable from the surrounding pasture other than being flatter. The dog runs across it, looking confused by her new ease of access through the woods where once a large body of water lay.
When I go out in the mornings now to feed the cows, I find them standing shoulder to shoulder by the barn waiting for me. Their spirits apparently rise as hay bales tumble from the loft; they butt each other out of the way to get their heads into the bales even though there’s enough for everyone, not just in the general sense but quite specifically: I feed out six bales for six animals. Nonetheless, for reasons I can’t understand, they clump together, preferring to shove each other around over one or two bales than to spread out a little and eat solo. It’s tempting to anthropomorphize and assume they prefer the conviviality of breaking bread (or hay) together, but that seems so counterintuitive based on what we know about animal nature that I can’t believe it’s that simple. The sheep, meanwhile, trot out of their enclosure when I open the gate and find four or five untouched bales in their path; since this is four or five times more than they normally eat, this has to be pleasing to them.
What strikes me most at this time of year, even more than the beauty of a pristine blanket of snow or the sharp gray branches and evergreen needles against the blue sky outside my home office window, is the light at the end of the afternoon. Just two weeks past the winter Solstice, I know the days aren’t growing substantially longer yet, but the light appears different to me than it did a month ago. Late November and December afternoon light has such a grayish muddy look, like the ground, as if the early sunset means the afternoon never opens up entirely to daylight. At this time of year, perhaps because of the sparkling white snow cover or perhaps because of something more celestial, the late-afternoon light looks brighter to me, even just before sunset.
Whatever the reason, it feels like a promise of milder days and longer afternoons ahead, but there’s no rush. Right now we are in the coldest and most frozen time of year, and that has its own beauty, a winter luminescence of snow and ice and blue sky. When I go running midmorning these days, I frequently see the brilliant red feathers of cardinals in the trees, or the bright blue of a blue jay flying by. The colors are sharp, the cold bracing, the air clear, and the winter breathtakingly lovely, and so right now there’s no hurry for spring.