At long last, the Winter Solstice—and with it, the return of the sun. The ancient Celts get a bum deal this time of year: all their very best traditions, from carving melons in October, to illuminating conifers with candles in December, get appropriated by our interloping religions.
Personally, I prefer their approach to the winter season—particularly if it means an excuse to be outside.
We decide to celebrate the day by taking a snowshoe hike on Hogback Mountain, near the coast. The snow is deep here—at least two feet in most places—but Ari leaps valiantly through the piles. Along the way, we stop for views and an excuse to catch our breath. We also leave apples and tiny handfuls of seed as holiday offerings to the mountain inhabitants. The caninaturalist picks the locations for these gifts: she buries her head in the deer and fox tracks, breathing deeply and recreating their paths. Her preternatural gift for finding hidden creatures has not been muted by the snow. As we walk up the hill, she leads us first to a group of pine grosbeaks (Pinicola enucleator) and then a series of hairy woodpeckers (Picoides villosus), tucked high above in the uppermost branches of preternaturally large white pines (Pinus strobes). Not much other animal activity these days: if Ari’s heaving chest is any indication, it’s just too hard to push in and out of all this snow.
As we near the summit of the mountain, Ari stops and sits firmly on the trail, as if to say no further--not today! This is unlike her--even with the difficulty of travel. Greg and I both stop, listening for sounds of another animal. Maybe a Canada lynx? A newly-woken blackbear? We toy with whether or not we should continue. Greg offers to take the lead, and Ari seems content to walk behind him. Another hundred yards or so, and we see the cause of her consternation: enormous moose (Alces americanus) tracks, the sizes of small plates, cross immediately across the trail. Ari sticks her snout in each track and inhales down to the tips of her toes. She doesn't even notice the large pile of scat the moose has left: she's just too inebriated over this new, musky scent. It takes us nearly ten minutes to pull her away.
My science colleagues tell me that moose often taken to the mountains during winters like this: packed up coyotes and even rumored wolves in the area are adept at hunting these massive creatures, often by chasing them out onto the ice, were the moose's hooves are no match for canine prowess and slick surfaces. But our lone representative of that set seems more wary than she does predatory today, and she sticks close as we make our way back down the mountain.
Back home, the two cats have taken up residence under the Christmas tree. They live down there most days lately, which makes me wonder if they are tapping into previous their feral existence--or something even more primal. For Ari’s part, she seems envious of their close conspiracies under the boughs. She yawns and stretches as long and lean as she can make herself, eventually depositing her front end half under the tree. The three of them have become our own nativity scene.
We’re all waiting to see if animals really can speak at midnight on Christmas eve. If these three can, I’m sure they’d have a message of pure joy. Until they find their own voices, I’ll serve as proxy and wish you all a season of peace and happiness.
All our best, Ari and Kathryn