Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Nature Bulletin No. 402-A   January 16, 1971
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

The older we grow -- many of us -- the more we grumble about winter. We dread the cold, the howling winds, the pavements made hazardous by snow and ice. The youngsters have fun; a few hardy older people take hikes through the woodlands that appear so bare and lifeless; but most of us stay indoors as much as we can. We yearn for spring.

And yet, a sauntering stroll through the forest preserves on a winter day can be a rich experience. The solitude itself is a welcome relief from the hurly-burly of city life. If you are alert and observant you may learn many curious things. Beneath the carpet of fallen leaves, in the soil, under the bark of trees -- in tunnels and dens and hidden chambers -- there are seeds, dormant roots and buds, cocoons, and sleeping animals. A few plants -- such as columbine, curly dock, catnip and thistle -- actually have young green leaves. "There is a slumbering fire in nature that never goes out, and which no cold can still. .

Winter is a good time to study trees and learn the characters which are hidden in summer when they are clothed in leaves. Each kind has its own way of branching and its own pattern of twigs silhouetted against the sky; its own kind of buds differently arranged along the twigs. Under a magnifying glass, those buds exhibit a fascinating variety of forms, colors and markings. Also on the twigs, are the scars left by the stems of last year's leaves and some of these -- with a little imagination -- look like a camel, a monkey, or human faces.

At first, as you wander through the woods, they seem utterly silent. Presently you hear the chuckle of a brook as it trickles downward beneath the ice; the ghostly moans of naked branches; the tapping of a woodpecker searching some tree for grubs beneath the bark; the warning caw of a watchful crow as it wings away. You may be startled by a cottontail as it bounds from its hiding place; you may see a few juncoes, a chickadee or a nuthatch; but not much else.

Walk that same route on a morning when the land is newly muffled beneath what John Burghs called, "the tender, sculpturesque, immaculate warming, fertilizing snow. " Then the woodlands and the meadows are truly beautiful. Then you will learn that they are peopled with wild creatures which are abroad at night. Their tracks are your only clew to their secret lives and doings.

Fantastic stitchings on the coverlet of snow, and holes to their tunnels underneath, tell of the travels of meadow mice and the hungry shrews that prey upon them. You may follow the tracks of a weasel, a mink or - - if the night was not too cold -- a skunk or a raccoon. Squirrels come down their den trees and hop about, digging up acorns. Tracks show where the rabbits played together, where they nibbled the tender bark of shrubs, or perhaps where one was chased by a fox or a hunting dog. If it was a fox, his tracks are more pointed and more nearly in a straight line than those of a dog. In the meadows you may see birds feeding upon the seeds of weeds that stand above the snow. The snow itself is white but, being a myriad of crystals, it reflects the colors of the sky. The crystals themselves, under a magnifying glass, are symmetrical six-sided jewels and there are no two alike.

To be interested in the changing seasons is, in this middling zone, a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring. "

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