I spin the globe that sits by my desk. All of my life I have lived in the north. I was born and raised in southern Minnesota at 43.6666 degrees N. latitude and over the years have migrated up to my current location of 48.0095 degrees N. latitude. (The 49th parallel is the boundary between the U.S. and Canada.)
Living in the north requires big attention during the shift from autumn to winter. Before the chill, important rituals of readiness for gardens, yards, and homes need tending. There are no precise dates for these rituals, only approximate guidelines that require me to pay attention during the darkening days of late fall. I love the challenge of being alert enough to track and respond to these changes. How I tend the third of an acre in my care provides much of the foundation for my sense of earth stewardship.
Here in the maritime climate of Whidbey Island, Washington the biggest sign of seasonal change is the return of the rains, coupled with cooling temperatures. Squash plants in the garden just give up—turn yellow and refuse to put any more energy into growing larger. Ritual #1—harvest the garden before things rot. Leave a few plants that prefer late fall.
Because we get such heavy rains in the winter, it is important to plant a cover crop to return nutrients to the soil and to protect the soil from compaction. Ritual #2—plant the cover crop and, of course, the garlic! I love garlic. I plant the cloves from the biggest and best of the previous year’s harvest and green shoots begin to come out of the ground in January, just when I’ve given up all hope of spring returning.
In the Pacific Northwest the biggest and most widespread trees are conifers. We are lucky enough to live next to a guardian Douglas fir tree. Stewarding this huge tree in our backyard requires periodic pruning by an arborist and many, many sessions of blowing needles off the roof and out of the gutters as the winter winds blow. Ritual #3—Clean up after the trees.
As I make my way through my “outdoor TO DO list,” I find myself both focused down on specific tasks, and lifted up to notice the beauty and shifts around me. The red maple leaves are gone, but the birches shimmer yellow in the rain. The mountaintops lie under heavy clouds, then reveal their new snow cover. Rain forecasts for days also bring rainbows and pockets of momentary sun. The fourth and final ritual is the most important. Ritual #4—appreciate the beauty of the season.
Birds migrate through. Rabbits spend more time in their warrens. Chipmunks are virtually invisible. Deer bed in the pockets of undisturbed woods around our home. Evergreen plants and trees carry out their photosynthesis throughout the winter. Time to take a stroll in the State Park near our home as rains revive the mosses. Then home to split wood, light a fire in the stove, have a cup of tea and just be amazed. Ready: plants, animals, and me.
Post script: Thanks to my father, Frank M. Brown, who taught me many of these skills. He passed away four years ago this month.