European spindle (Euonymus europeaus) berries. (Photos by Anita Barbour)

Lately I have taken to saying that we are living in a hoax. Conservatives rightly point out that climate change is nothing new, but then, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, they wrongly argue that present climate trends cannot be attributed to human causes. As usual, politics trumps reality.

Black swallowwort (Cynanchum louiseae) seed capsules.

Clearly the trend today is toward warming, despite regional diversions such as the deep cold that has overtaken Eastern Europe this winter. But Rasputina, on the opening track of their 2007 CD Oh Perilous World remind us that “1816 was the year without a summer,” when summer crops were frost-stricken in Europe.

A human problem with warming is that we like it. Have you noticed how appealing people find the global warming cliché of palm trees growing on Cape Cod? It’s all beaches and surfing and tanning and if the heat is too much, just turn on the air-conditioner. Yes, some prefer skiing and snowboarding. But these winter-lovers are just outvoted.

Goldenrods (Solidago spp.) in winter sunset light.

So how do people feel about this year without a winter? As you may have found by schmoozing around, most people love it.

But what about non-human life forms that stay outside most of the time? Consider mice and voles and moles. Winter snow is the roof over their heads and more — the building space for their infrastructure of tunnels and nest chambers built of grasses and sticks, and stuffed with a harvest of nuts and fruit and dormant insects. These insects may be more or less accessible depending on snow depth. Deep snow may protect cocoons and other overwintering invertebrates to some depth below the snow line where rodents can’t easily forage, reducing available food. Little rodents are prime meals for owls and foxes, but these predators successfully hunt their quarry in the snow.

Among winter-active herbivores, squirrels stash nuts and seeds all over the woods, and dig these morsels out of deep snow with ease. Deer and rabbits are hampered by deep snow and slick ice, but snow-free they readily find green basal leaves of ground herbs, and tender shoots of shrubs. Their consumption of greens may leave less for hibernating vegetarians that need fresh leaves, such as the woodchuck. The porcupine fares well in any weather, consuming woody stuff, even spruce and hemlock branches.

 

Rose-of-Sharon (Hibiscus syricus) seed capsules.

Plants are doubly plagued — by winter herbivores and by cold that penetrates deeper into snowless ground. Freeze-thaw frequency — this winter may have set a record – disrupts the soil and dries it out, increasing exposure and dessication of roots, and making low plants more susceptible to the erosional force of rain when it does come.

One perk for nature-lovers is this extended season of winter plant forms free of the crushing and concealing effect of deep snow pack. Yes, we are missing picturesque scenes of grasses and weed stalks rising and casting artful shadows on white wavy drifts, but we have the dead plants erect and intact, pretty much all of them everywhere. Opportunities abound for appreciating the beauty and form of many more plant species in their winter state. Crisp and translucent in the suspended animation of seed release and slow decay, winter plants reflect the season’s ambience more directly and distinctively than sky and cloud and even ice and snow.

In low winter light, plants make great studies in contrast and indeed color, the full palette of summer giving way to a more subtle variety, toned-down but equally arresting. The southern winter sun, passing through a greater thickness of atmosphere due to its low angle, is warmer in color, shifted toward the red end of the spectrum like the light from distant stars.

What we learn deepens our appreciation of nature’s breathtaking beauty, a value beyond price and a constant reminder of our deepest existential roots. This mild winter has been a great chance to stay close and keep tabs on the winter nature scene, to get out and take in, to celebrate. So bundle up, venture forth and take a good look before it’s over. ++