December’s celebrations as prelude to a season of rest

Tue, 11/23/2021 - 5:15pm

For many, December is a month that launches our sense of celebration. Evidence of festive adornment and activities abound at this time of year: think of the bursting bittersweet and winterberries ablaze on their now leafless armature; think of splashing and ducking hooded mergansers and coots, and of the unassuming and silent arrival of a snowy owl who may appear like a favorite relative coming to share their presences, wisdom, and memories.

December is a two-part month. At first, ushering in a time of celebration, and ending with a nod toward a season of rest. Many of the world’s great celebrations are a prelude to a period of time that is marked by serious endeavors, reflections, or rejuvenations. Spring celebrations are short compared to the long seasons of work that follow. Mardi Gras’ exuberance is followed by Lent and Easter. Winter Solstice is celebrated in most cultures (modern and ancient) with an excited hooray for the light but it is followed by a long period of rest and conservation of energy.

When wandering around the island in December one easily witnesses signs of celebration.

A visit to the shores of Sachem Pond will offer opportunities to see and hear the splashing antics of newly arrived winter ducks: American coot, ruddy ducks, hooded mergansers, American wigeon, bufflehead, and so many more, all whooping it up in pursuit of food and the relief that the shelter and warmer water of the pond provides.
At the New Harbor shoreline and Old Harbor dock our human neighbors are currently engaged in a frenzied harvest: celebrating the bounty of scallops and squid to be enjoyed now and preserved for festive meals and winter fare.
Any walk afield at this time of year offers opportunities for observations that can only be assessed as surprising celebrations of life. Look closely and you’ll see late-season blossoms of chicory or butter-and-eggs. If you are out in the evening at the Hodge Preserve admiring the constellation of Orion, you may be greeted with a celebratory barn owl fly-by. A saunter along West Beach or to Sandy Point may be accompanied by reveling gulls and sighing seals. And, a walk to the channel entrance of the New Harbor will reveal a sand plain studded with black pines that are at once cheery and offer a noble alternative to an inside holiday tree. No matter where you look, your observations are likely to inspire a sense of celebration.

December walks will also exhibit signs that the time of deep rest is upon us. Turn over a loose stone on a wall or lift a fallen tree limb, and you are likely to find a curled wooly bear or snake, alive but in a restful torpor. Or, scuff a pile of leaves and maybe you’ll discover a hibernating gray tree frog. Or peer in a tree or bluff cavity and catch a glimpse of a sheltering bird. Enjoy the celebration, but embrace the coming rest.

Celebration and repose may seem like contradictory activities: thus is the nature of December, enjoy them both.

In this year-long series of monthly articles I have taken to heart the truth that each season is not a three-month period but rather a continuum of microseasons (each about five days long) that more specifically express the nuanced and varied nature of any season. Like the season of one’s life, it is the rich assortment and accumulation of discrete flourishing that make the whole being –or the whole season.
Squiggling Squid & Clamoring Scallops: December 1 – 5.
Soon the sea water temperature will be dipping into the 40s and the time for squid and scallops will be past. The New Squid Moon will occur on December 4. The peak time for seal watching starts in December and early reports of pups on our shores have already been reported. The Lowest Clam Tides will occur on December 4 and 5 at approximately 2 p.m.

Dabbling & Diving Ducks: December 6 – 10.
Winter ducks are filling in all of the island’s larger freshwater ponds. Teal and pied grebes may be largely gone but look for an assortment of dabbling wigeon, bufflehead, ruddy and black ducks, as well as diving hooded mergansers, and diving sea ducks such as loons and eiders. The earliest sunsets of the year will occur from Dec. 5 through Dec. 11, at approximately 4:15 p.m.

Winged Sumac Berries Ripen: December 11 – 15.

Many of the island’s native berry-laden plants are at peak ripeness at this time. Sumac berries are particularly beautiful and nutritious but are often overlooked by humans. Although most berries will persist until eaten (either on the vine, stem or from the ground) they will start to dwindle (if not eaten) after the first hard freezes.

Skim Ice: December 16 – 20.

Mid-December is the time to expect the season’s first hard freeze with skim ice on the ponds and possibly a first snowfall. The Full Holly Moon will occur at 11:35 p.m. on December 18.

March of the Holly Trees: December 21 – 25.
After the hard freeze most plants will have lost their leaves, this is the time to notice the abundance of American holly scattered around the island landscape. Many are small and tucked in the bramble where the deer cannot get them. A festive tree to be sure, and perfect for celebrating the Winter Solstice, which will occur on December 21 at 10:59 a.m. The Ursid Meteor Showers will reign from Dec. 17 to 25, peaking after midnight on Dec. 21. Alas, the newly full moon is likely to “wash-
out” the viewing this year.

Sleeping Frogs & Meadow Voles: December 26 – 30.
At this time the moments of celebration give way to a time of much-needed rest. Embrace a period of rest, while remembering that all beings cannot rest at the same time. For instance, while the island’s turtles hibernate, the jaunty sparrows and kinglets are flitting around in search of food and warmth. Be prepared in this time of physical and mental slumber to offer respite and sustenance to all beings. The latest sunrises will occur between Dec. 30 and Jan. 7 at 7:12 a.m.
To share with others your sense of celebration for the season, get ready for the Community Bird Census on December 26, and/or sign up for one of The Nature Conservancy’s many December programs: Go to for the schedule.