The month of January was named, it is told, for Janus, the Roman god with two faces. One face looked backward to what was in the past, and the other looked forward into the future, for what will be. In January, the future is ripe with promise.
I've always thought of January as the great leveler. September, for example, is a bumpy month. There are fruits ripening, insects hatching, birds migrating, trees changing color, weather trying to decide what to do, always so much going on. January is a level month. There is snow, and sometimes more snow, and as we watch it from our well-heated perches indoors, the snow blows across the lawns and fields and forests and covers everything in an even blanket of white. January is no respecter of title or position. The snow comes in January, and covers all.
In a previous life a quarter century ago, I lived in Vermont. Foster Brown's Voyageurs would have called me an "hivernant," an over-winterer in the North Country. It was there that I learned about January.
January seemed like a death sentence. The fall foliage ended in early October, then came the frosts. Snow fell in the mountains across the valley where I lived, and every week, the white cap of the mountains came creeping, creeping downward, until by December it came to our elevation. And stayed for three months. Forest paths disappeared, then became unrecognizable, then even the tree blazes disappeared beneath the snow. Cross-country skis, fashionable at that time, were useless in five feet of powder snow. I sent away for snowshoes and spent January exploring the same forests and meadows I thought I knew two months before, now unrecognizable and changed. The temperature dropped that January and, for three weeks, never rose above zero.
And yet I learned that life went on, in snowy abundance, a lesson that carries down to us today here in Cleveland Metroparks. My office partner and mentor was Peter Marchand, an internationally recognized expert on alpine environments and author of the popular book, "Life in the Cold." Pete taught me that life did indeed flourish in January, even in the most extreme of winter conditions. Tiny voles and meadow mice pushed on through the snow at ground level and created amazing series of tunnels rivaling the complexity of the Los Angeles freeway system. Other creatures, like northern flying squirrels and red squirrels, shared the same subnivean runway system, easy transport between food and shelter, five feet under the snow. Beavers’ lodges betrayed the presence of the warmth within on perfectly still mornings, when the moist heat of beaver-bodies within created a smoke-like steam rising above their lodges. Even certain plants remained green and growing in places where the snow depth still allowed enough light of the proper wavelengths to allow slow photosynthesis. No leaves? No problem. Aspen carries chlorophyll in its bark, and the bark produces food for the trees when the days start to warm. Adaptation meant survival, and to anyone venturing out into the glorious white fluffy snow, signs were everywhere. Tracks in the snow told stories of success and failure of wildlife survival. Even insects held forth, the snow peppered with tiny Collembola, called snow fleas, that bounced to and fro gathering tiny bites of algae growing on the snowpack in the dead of winter.
In a far away place and time I learned that January was a beginning, not an end. By month's end, the length of day became more and more apparent, and the songs of chickadees and titmice heralded the onset of the thaw that would lead to spring. I learned a lesson in those cold, dark Januarys, that resilient life goes on even in the worst of circumstances, and that with a little patience, the white snowy cold of January always gave way to the wildflowers of April and May. Remember that, my friends, as you watch the snow swirl past your windows this month. Throw another log on the fire and laugh. The days are lengthening, and by month's end, in the forests of Cleveland Metroparks, the chickadees, cardinals and titmice will once again reaffirm the coming of lovely, lazy summer days ahead. In the meantime, the trails of Cleveland Metroparks await. The trails are easy to follow, with quick loops or long trails, providing adventures for the taking. Come out and discover the stories in the snow, and make new ones of your own.