By Brian Arsenault
Islands seem to float above the water in the North Atlantic in Winter. I learned that from a fourth generation islander. I’d seen it myself but didn’t want to mention it for fear of being accused of submitting to the new New England marijuana laws. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I was just pleased with the confirmation from someone who’d stared at the coastal islands longer than I.
You can spend a lot of time staring out over the frigid waters of winter in these climes, even in summer when the water will only chill your lips blue not kill you in minutes. It’s in the winter, though, when the islands seem to hover just above the surface as if to escape the molten snow. As if they might float away at any moment to seek warmer climates or the edge of the earth. I see the notion of the earth being flat is in vogue again. At least the Pope isn’t prosecuting or persecuting Galileo.
I don’t know if the floating on air is the quality of light in the winter or the sea’s brooding quality which all but the hardiest or neediest of sustenance avoid. The days of billowing sales and overpowered motor boats with sunburned bodies are long gone and not to return until June, actually July if we are honest about it.
Perhaps it has to do with sound as well as sight. The ocean rumbles in basso profundo in the winter. It’s all cellos and double bass and booming drums against the shore. The light notes of violins and banjos await the warmer winds and higher suns which push islands back to sea level. This is a time of deep thoughts and contemplation, not kids joyously shrieking as they jump from the pier into the wake of departing ferries.
I’m not really sure I want to know why islands seem to rise just a bit above the North Atlantic’s surface in winter. I hate those shows about how movies are made showing all the technical effects to create Star Wars or the Ring Trilogy. Once I’ve seen such visual explanations I can never again watch the film without picturing the wizard behind the screen. It’s the effect I’m after, not the trick.
I know most magic is an illusion but not the real stuff. Such as how do chickadees survive these Canadian winters. And let’s face it, if you’re far enough north in New England the only thing separating it from Canada were those crotchety old settlers and their muskets.
Strikingly, it’s not just the chickadees. The bluejays survive, the cardinals, a red headed woodpecker or two. And the Ravens.
When the wind blows 40 and the temperature dips into single numbers, where do they go? What do they do. Huddle together for warmth. Get under a branch. Secretly light fires deep in the forest?
I know, I know. They’re cold blooded. That’s supposed to explain it. They adjust their body temperature until the cold is so deep they simply drop over dead. Until then, though, how does anything survive with feathers. with wings, with such little bodies in the case of chickadees they could sit in the palm of your hand. Not that they would. They’re too quick.
We’re not on the island all the time in the winter, though I think Kath would be if the realities of life didn’t call us back to the mainland often. When we are there we try to keep the bird feeders full.
Whenever we’ve been gone for a fortnight and return to find the feeders empty to the last seed I always say they must all be dead. As soon as I’m back in the old island house, though, the chickadees are back at the feeders and calling in the distinctive way that gives them their name. They flash to the feeders, never perch, snatch a morsel in their beaks and fly to a nearby branch to dine.
The jays come next squawking and bullying each other and any others attempting to feed. It’s a good thing they are strikingly handsome in their blue garb because their call is as annoying and obnoxious as their behavior.
The cardinals come later, cautious and shy. They might not be noticed except for the scarlet of the males. Can’t miss that.
The Ravens often announce the filling of the feeders, cawing raucously before I finish but they don’t come right away. They watch, they fly from perch to perch, they sit in the high branches until descending amidst the frenetic activity. They are reputed to be smart. In some cultures even to have brought the sun.
The Ravens descend about the same time as the squirrels arrive and there is an uneasy truce truce, though they sometimes take a run or hop at each other for a little more territory. The Ravens, too big for the perches on the feeders, seek the seed spilled on the ground where the squirrels are busy in completely squirrely way. Of course, there is always one damn squirrel who can somehow climb a slick metal post no thicker than an index finger and feast. He can empty a quarter of the feeder in an afternoon.
Kath and I produce nearly no food waste on the island. Just about anything left over from any meal or sitting too long in the freezer for palatability will be eaten by one or another winter creature. That’s how I learned that life should not be taken to seriously, whatever the challenges of time and temperature.
One morning after a pasta dinner the night before I carried out some strands of unconsumed spaghetti to the faux compost pile. Faux because almost nothing deposited there but egg shells goes uneaten. The Ravens and Kath’s friend, the mother fox, keep a close eye on what gets dropped into the compost.
The spaghetti brought a particular cacophony to the area, so loud that I was compelled to turn and look. What did my wondering eyes behold but a Raven with three strands dangling from its beak as it took flight. His triumph as comical as Stan Laurel walking up stairs.
Just how does a Raven twirl spaghetti, or slurp it in. I can’t imagine but I smiled as visions of Heckle and Jeckle danced in my memory. Or rather hopped three times in that gangly way they have on the ground, in this case atop a foot and a half deep snow, before gaining the air.
The fox? Oh, the fox. So delicate she can prance atop the snow and leave only the slightest trace yet capable of a shriek that can chill you to the bone. (Can’t get away from winter cold references, can I. Well, it is February.) Never arriving from the same direction or departing by the same path. She is a totem onto herself but that’s a story for another time.
Photos by Kathy Arsenault