A Winter Afternoon in Gray and Stillness

In the grasslands today, there was the stillness of a year that has ended and has not yet drawn the first breath of a new year. If the winter solstice ended nature’s year, then we are about a week into what will become a new year. But today was still, as if there was no forward movement of time.

The sky was uniformly gray, muting the warm browns and straw colors of grasses and leaves. I sat on a camp chair on a trail in unit 29, in northern Wise County. At the height of the chair, I looked through the thin stalks of little bluestem, needles stuck in the mounds of thin, curled leaves like small fountains of grass pouring from the ground. Beyond the little bluestem were blackjack and post oak, either bare branches or still holding some dry, brown leaves.

I walked past a blackjack oak that held onto some leaves. A small breeze made them flutter and they produced a dry rattle – like a wind chime made of stiff leaves that could not ring but only make a thin clattering. And the sound was very low, one of those sensations that highlighted the overall quiet of the place. And that is one of my favorite experiences, out in nature with nothing to mask and overwhelm the natural sounds such as these leaves were making.

The occasional crow called out, and then for a while there seemed to be no sound. But after a while, a group of blue jays began calling back and forth, perhaps taunting or daring or otherwise saying something in no uncertain terms. And then the quiet returned.

The day seemed to be saying, “Pause and rest. Let stillness and quiet, the distant conversations of birds, and the occasional rustle of leaves – let those replenish you.”

In nearby unit 28, I stopped in a woodland opening amid lots of chickadee calls. One flew to an oak sapling about 20 feet in front of me. I love seeing and hearing chickadees. Today their little community was very fussy.

I sat for a while, but I was torn between wanting to explore (this being my first time in this unit) and wanting to soak up more stillness. Exploring won; there is a strong tug to see what’s around the next corner or over the next rise. Then I could settle in, sit and be still.

The air had hung in there at 66 degrees for some time, but as I thought about how different this day felt from those sunny winter days I’ve experienced, the temperature began to drop. It was not just the gray clouds making this day feel damp and wintery (even if not cold). I glanced down to see the thermometer showing 63 degrees, and a few fine raindrops fell on me.

A few more words and I was done. “Against the winter-gray sky, the bare oak limbs are stark. Even a little grim. The temperature falls and the rain begins.”

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