In the new year, nature stays the course
By Mitch Mode
Special to the Star Journal
The shrike killed in the dawning, a blurred movement in the shadows, fast, laser-focused, deadly. It took one of the chickadees that had come to the yard to feed after the chilled blackness of the January night. The chickadees were a loose assemblage drawn together at that moment. The shrike came, a feathered shadow in the darkness become deadly reality in the thin light of daybreak.
The shrike killed the bird; the survivors scattered. One wonders what the small birds think, should they be able to process such thoughts, of the randomness that leaves one bird dead while the others, no different, live on.
The shrike impaled the lifeless chickadee in a long spike of lilac branch and began to feed.
It happened so quickly that we needed time to process. The butcher bird, the fatal strike, the quick death of the chickadee. Life and death drama in a few seconds on New Years Day at the dawning of the new year.
Sally said, “I hope this is not an omen.” A somber thought; 2021, by everyone’s account, had not been a banner year. Was this an omen of the same to come? The lightning-like strike of a killer bird on the unsuspecting gathering of the innocents?
The shrike fed. We watched it from the kitchen window. Small feathers drifted on the wind like new year’s resolutions gone early to naught. In time the shrike, sated, flew off. A wing of the doomed chickadee hung in the lilac like a macabre prayer flag. An omen to all who passed? A reminder that the shrike is always there no matter the calendar page, that last year and this are the same?
That afternoon I skied on a ragged ski track, hit a rock that was covered by a skiff of snow, fell hard and landed on my pole. The pole splintered, carbon fiber tendrils limp in the cold air as the feathers on the bird’s wing of the shrike’s kill had waved in the wind of the morning. I thought, “This year is not starting out very well.”
I stood on the ski trail, fractured pole in my hand, bruised ego but no further damage. Then I skied the mile back to the truck. Sometimes the best one can do after a hard fall is to get up and move forward. Maybe that was a lesson of the year just passed.
The early days of the new year jolted onward, a series of ups and downs, a raggedy process as these times often are. I skied on a cold Sunday morning with temperatures near zero under a rising sun that gave false hope of warmth to come. It never came that day, the warmth. Mid week I skied again on a day gray under gloomy skies and temperatures near 30 reminded of springtime. The ebb and flow of a typical Wisconsin January evidenced in a handful of days.
The birds came to the feeders, the indefatigable chickadees, the cautious nuthatches, blue jays and finches, graceful mourning doves and the irrepressible red cardinals. The shrike did not appear but its memory was always there, the dark cloud of fear that had the smaller birds on edge.
On the days and nights of dark cold the Boston terriers hobbled on the bitter cold snow, holding one foot at a time off the snow, trying to deal with the harsh reality of January. They have no body fat, their dainty little feet the size of my thumb and not insulated against the ice and snow.
They look at us with eyes forlorn and sad. They hate this time. They were not made for Wisconsin Januarys.
Winslow is further slowed by a late season case of Lyme disease, laid up for a few days, not himself and only after medication and rest, coming back to his rambunctious self.
Indoors the terriers seek out the hot air vents at floor level, drawn to the heat as a summer flower turns to the sun. The Bostons lie next to the air grates and bask in the furnace’s heat. Outside the wind rattles and the temperatures drop and the small birds fluff down against the cold. One wonders how they can survive the freezing darkness. Inside, the dogs sleep blissfully in the furnace’s warmth. I wonder: Do they dream of summer’s heat? Do they remember better times?
Bella handles it better, the snow and the cold. Her coarse fur sheds snow, her long legs power through drifts, and at 18 months she has filled out enough now to insulate against the cold. I have skied with her a handful of times and now when I dress for skiing and tighten ski boots she looks at me with anticipation. But not all ski trails allow dogs and when I tell her she needs to stay her eyes show question and then a sad-eyed acceptance.
Perhaps we can learn from the dogs, accepting of the world as it is in spite of what it can bring us. It’s not always smooth ski trail; rocks and rough spots lurk. And all days are not balmy and sun-filled and best to take them as they come. At times in this world in which we live curling up next to a hot air vent does not sound like a bad idea.
On a gray morning light snow falls. I sit at the kitchen table, drink steaming coffee and watch the yard. I wonder if the shrike will come. I no longer see the bird as an omen but more of an ongoing presence, a menace and a threat that is a constant now, not unique to last year or this, simply there is if a spirit in the dark winter days when optimism can seem as fleeting and rare as heat from the wan sun of a cold winter sky.
I finish my coffee. The shrike does not come. I go into my day, into the new year.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post, downtown Rhinelander. Call 715-362-5800.