Landscapes of a Calendar Year on the Hills
January 1 as the beginning of the calendar year seems to have been an arbitrary decision. Adopted before the acceptance of the Gregorian calendar, it seems to have been chosen for no particular reason. If they had to choose a religious festival, Easter would make more sense to me. Rebirth, rejuvenation, the awakening of nature in spring – about mid-April in my part of the world – that’s when I feel like celebrating. The Buddhist Theravada New Year would have been perfect, celebrating for three days from the first full moon in April.
April, when the snow, rotted and pebbly, or frozen in slabs in the crevasses of roots and rocks, is clearly losing the battle against the sun, having quietly risen high enough on its arc to touch sleeping nature.
April is when the year should begin. Since it is barely a fraction into the long six-or-seven-month winter, January One is merely a tease. Nothing is beginning; the earth is in deep dormancy, not even aware enough to scoff at our restrained hope that soon another cycle of nature will begin.
Nevertheless, we do mark the change of numerals; the exchange of twelve-page, humourously, gaudily or artfully illustrated calendars in kitchen and office. Treating the impending date less as a deadline and more as a fresh start, we chronicle the year in Christmas letters and put the paperwork in order. The impulse to record the past is strong, for future reference or to merely put it behind us. Despite my disapproval of the particular date chosen, I too am compelled to comply and so offer a record of 2011 in Swan Hills landscapes, (each clickable for better resolution).
Another year…that begins, and ends, with winter.
January, and the year begins. But as flora and fauna are deeply settled into their winter routine, they are unlikely to note the occasion. The hare and mink blend into the white blanket; the surface downy or crusty. Voles and the crowns of plants stay below in survivalist activity or quiet repose. Squirrels dwell aloft among crepitating and thickly needled branches, following their aerial circuits to sustaining caches of pine and spruce cones. Moose dig for nourishment, or plunder the shrubs, bending the branches to reach the softest growth.
February is a short but obdurate month that could just as well be the end of January and the beginning of March. Winds will blow, snow may accumulate, but by holding the earth in limbo, it doesn't distinguish itself from its line-mates so barely deserves its own name.
Despite the dictum of the constellations, Leo is unlikely to be inclined to give way to Aries through the vernal equinox to the end of March. Aries will rise but may be as quiet as a lamb while the wanton lion continues to rampage across the landscape throughout the month. Lethargy yields to dolorous impatience and the bravado of endurance wanes.
Ah April! Softly gliding in as March lets go its hold, gently touching earth carrying promises, not of April showers or even May flowers, but of colour nonetheless: reflecting the deep blue of the sky on a skim of water; drawing the reds and yellows to willow branches and enriching the greens of the conifers.
As the ground thaws, slowly releasing the long-trapped moisture, buds begin to swell and sap to rise. May can be a dangerous month. No longer covered with snow, last year's exposed vegetation dries quickly in the wind. Still dormant, dry and brittle branches, waiting for sap to rise from still frozen roots, are most vulnerable this month to the catastrophic but crucial effects of fire.
Now the earth is animated. June's energy is contagious. In a rush to complete botanical cycles, plants take advantage of the long hours of daylight. The vitality of accelerated transformations is palpable. The forest seems sentient and embracing. The irony of the summer solstice, just as growth gets going, is not lost on the human inhabitants, who while rejoicing in the reassuring scent of summer to come are grounded by the subtly shortening days.
Perhaps a few degrees of warmth below the average, July here is nevertheless a classically salubrious summer month of wooly clouds, warmth and wildflowers in bloom. Sedulous nature slows its pace as vegetation languidly draws in sunlight and suitable nutrients. The canopy is quiet as, after the cacophony of mating, songbirds settle in to raise their broods, although through the late sunset you may still hear the sonorous call of the white-throated sparrow: 'Dear sweet Canada, Canada, Canada'.
By the middle of August, the shorter days have given their message to the plant and animal kingdoms. Many species of waterfowl begin to gather in local wetlands in preparation for migration; other birds have already begun their long journeys. Assisting the escaping sun, the sky itself seems to convey the message of warning with diabolic displays and vigorous storms.
By the beginning of September, the message is clear. Winter will come again. Blossoms have fallen and berries are ripe and have sweetened under the first frosts. A lucky glimpse will reveal the buds of soon-to-be magnificent antlers on handsome ungulates preparing for the rut. Low shrubs turn orange, red and yellow and the uniquely deciduous tamarack changes into a blazingly golden cloak before dropping its needles.
October is a capricious month. Warm, soft breezes or arctic winds may lift the drying carpet of leaves on any given October day. Layers of outerwear are donned and doffed between and within the indecisive days. More often than not, this month will give way to winter before its days are out and we rush to finish yard cleanup and ensure that Halloween costumes will fit over the children's snowsuits.
The low-slung November sun holds the stars to earth on billowy clouds of snow throughout the shortening day. Shadowy indentations of hoof and claw reveal the nocturnal activities of predator and prey. Conifers hoard the pretty, protective mass, testing the strength of laden branches; the weaker ones will hug the earth, providing shelter for animals and eventually sustenance for the next generation in the soil.
It is a very unusual Christmas that is not a white one in these hills, which seem to stand in the way of storms driven from the north, knocking precipitation from them. Unusually mild temperatures brought wet snow, falling here in this middle-aged timber plantation where no tracks of hare or weasel crisscrossed its shelterless understory.
Weather may not control life any more – we go on about our business regardless, considering the sky only when donning our outdoor apparel – but it does continually transform the landscape. While an abundance of snow sculpted a brilliant winter wonderland last year, this winter has been unusually mild and windy, slopping muddied white paints unevenly across a lusterless undercoat of browns and grays. The calendar notwithstanding, nature’s year will not begin for some months yet and however un-photogenic the rest of the winter may prove to be, I will wait patiently, striving to embrace rather than endure the coming months.
An interesting article in Scientific America discusses the commercial time-management advantages to overhauling the Gregorian Calendar. While they’re at it, they really should make sure the year starts in spring. Oh wait – whose spring? Yours or mine?
When ever your spring might be, I wish you the best of all twelve months to come. Happy New Year and I sincerely thank you all those who stop by here for your continued support and encouragement.