Last Day of the Year

Reading and photographs by Robert Towe

From my nature journal, December 31: Low in the west, a fiery sun smolders with streamers of cloud smoke, burning down the last night of the year. Red evening glows in gray limbs of the orchard, lighting the few remaining rusty apples, long-withered with frost.

Another Christmas has come and gone. Dear out-of-town family members and friends have left and returned to their separate homes and cities. The holy days were rich with food and music, meditation and prayer, sharing of old stories and new beginnings.

As every year the week between Christmas and the New Year, there follows a quiet melancholy in the wake of it all. Symbols of the Christ-child King, along with His precious retinue of family ornaments, memories and strings of lights, have all been put back in boxes. The old crèche is stored again until next December in the dark starless cave of a stale closet.

Now, where joyful conversations and cooking were shared, I stand in the quiet kitchen alone. The seasonal music is finally silent. All the tasty leftovers have been been consumed. Burning in the bare woods, the year’s last sun leaves a fading radiance on the windowsill. Sunlit Poinsettias and the dark-wine petals of Cyclamen brighten the shadowy room with soft rose-lights. Tea water steams and simmers on the stove. From outside shrieks the thin screaming of jays in the dark green pine grove.

At the feeders, black-eyed Chickadees and gray Titmice grab a few last sunflower seeds to burn in their tiny furnaces the long cold night. Lit with winter sunset, a Cardinal glows deep scarlet in charcoal trees and darkening shadows. Seldom do we hear him sing during these days of low suns. When longer days start warming and brightening the land, the pituitary gland in the brain of birds responds to the growing light, and songs again begin, heralding the approach of nesting season. But for now birds must endure the deep winter nights. Untold numbers do not survive the hard cold and storms. Earth’s efficient scavengers quickly dispose of tissues, feathers and bones. Nature is complex rhythms of interwoven cycles: birth and life, joy and sorrow, death and resurrection. Energy and matter disintegrate and reform endlessly---color and shadow, stone and mist, silence and song.

Earlier, I went down to the winter river and sat on my favorite boulder half an hour. The old year’s light flashed across the tumbling froth. Raw wind from the far blue north cut like a seal hunter’s knife. I hunkered down, watching, listening to the breaking wash of timeless waters rushing over stones. The global water-cycle is far older than our science, our smoke-stained cave-art, even the ancient scribbled parchments of faith. As I sat there in the sharp wind a few young kayakers paddled through rapids and around boulders, shouting with joy in their bright plastic craft.