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Being present

Nature's Notebook

A winter landscape with neither snow nor sun can seem quite barren even to a naturalist. There are no riddles to be read in tracks in the snow, no long shadows and low angled light providing visual contrast. It takes a different kind of eye — and attitude, really — to appreciate what nature still has on offer on a matte-gray day. Sometimes it takes the curious heart of a child.

Last weekend on just such an overcast afternoon, I walked through a Berkshire woodland with my children. We identified trees by their bark. We marveled at a sinkhole where a limestone cavern had collapsed of its own weight. We noted the scat of coyotes heading in on the trail, and fresh scat in our path on the return. I heard the wind in the hemlocks and hollow white ice cracking beneath a prodding stick.

We sorted through last year’s leaves scattered at our feet — four kinds of oak, along with basswood, and ash and beech — but while I drew their attention to diagnostics in morphology, my children observed that they were not all uniformly brown, and some had darkened with decay. There were trees that had split beneath October snow and others that wrapped their living wood around a hollow core.

I am always amazed by unassuming plants that remain evergreen in winter. We saw the trefoils of sharp-lobed hepatica, which is able to endure even snowfall but is less able to resist a dry frost. There are many ferns that keep their old leaves until spring, among them the Christmas fern that is common in our woodlands. Delicate strands of partridge berry vine often thread through the duff beneath the trees.

In these woods we found the bare, dead trunks of light-starved cedars here and there beneath the canopy, evidence that the forest was not as old here as it might seem. Fifty or 60 years ago it might have been an old field, with cedars as early colonists. As the pines and deciduous trees grew up around them, the cedars failed, but their bleached branches and rot resistant wood still stand beneath their successors.

I have walked these woods when the snows were deep, and when wildflowers blushed at every turn. I have seen them in more dramatic light. I must confess, though, that I was never bored during the two hours or so I spent here with my family last weekend. There was too much to see and rediscover.

Tim Abbott is program director of Housatonic Valley Association’s Litchfield Hills Greenprint. His blog is at greensleeves.typepad.com.