Article and photos by Joe Mish
A Red fox fills out a page in its daily diary, handwritten in the fresh snow along the South Branch.
The thirty-one days allotted to January on the calendar is only a suggestion, as far as that month is concerned.
January arrived ahead of schedule this December in a fit of impatience at the slow start of winter. The dull cold and dark days that prefaced winter’s birth seemed to stall the arrival of January and the blistering pace of expanding daylength and razor sharp cold.
As December reflected on the satisfaction of delivering twins, in the form of winter and light, the cold, wind and snow remained idling in the dark, awaiting a new leader. January came to the rescue as it honed the sharpness of the cold to a razor’s edge with forceful arctic wind, in whose draft, daylight was pulled along at an accelerated pace.
The whirlwind that is January never rests as it constantly delivers snow and light wrapped in cold and often spiced with biting wind.
Despite being scheduled for 31 days, January makes the time fly along with everlasting snow and does its best to co-author February weather.
In an attempt to freeze time so it can linger longer than scheduled, January’s frigid breath turns the river’s surface into a crystal lattice of solid ice. Impressive, but not miraculous and arguably unintended.
It is actually possible to watch January at work as it arranges hydrogen and oxygen atoms into a three-dimensional arrangement as it forms ice. A fast-moving cold front dropped the temperature below freezing. The river water was already cooled to 38 degrees and colder in the shallow eddies along the shore. As I fumbled with my camera I noticed ice forming along the edges of one pool. Crystals began to grow from a branch, mid pool, as well as the edges. When I looked again a few minutes later, the ice had expanded several inches. It was like watching a time lapsed movie where time is condensed from hours to seconds. However, this was happening in real time. I was amazed how quickly ice was forming. Crystals grew especially fast from three different areas. Two looked amazingly like feathers, one mimicked a large bird feather while the second looked so much like the cut feather used to fletch an arrow. The third crystal was an exact image of a starburst, where five pointed spikes began to outgrow the shorter but expanding tines. I stared in amazement as the ice images grew before my eyes as if watching an artist at work. The arrow feather magically turned into the body of what I imagined to be a grouse. The other feather grew into the body of some other large bird, the intricacies of each quill carefully detailed. Ice grew from the edges until the sheltered water had been completely sealed with a plate of fine transparent etchings. Though the artist was invisible, evidence of his existence was apparent.
January may seem harsh at times but all life has evolved to cope with its overly enthusiastic nature. As a concession, January snow provides a comment section for life along the river to tell their stories. Even the wind has the opportunity to take a single blade of grass and delicately etch its thoughts into the blank white slate.
A gray fox reveals its path and daily activity, as if written in an open diary, from the moment it left its sheltered nook to the strategy used to capture a tasty vole and the heart of a January love interest.
Fox tracks in the new snow with strands of straw colored grass bathed in the contrast of subtle light changes would make a fine Christmas card from the fox. The tracks convey a signed message that translates even to those who aren’t conversant in the language of ‘fox’.
A page purloined from the fox’s diary reveals its thoughts and activity written in the January snow. The fox stopped here atop a snowdrift to scan the area ahead for a meal or a mate, whichever came first.
Loathe to depart, January wills its wintry legacy to February who politely accepts it to bolster the enthusiasm of the fading winter.
December is as far as the year will take us, though fear not, January awaits holding the door to a new year wide open with a welcoming ice cold wind to ensure we enter fully awake and energized.
A red fox is a magical creature but even a fox cannot walk on water unless January turns it into a crystal lattice. This fox crosses the river, lured by the siren call of a potential mate.
Author Joe Mish has been running wild in New Jersey since childhood when he found ways to escape his mother’s watchful eyes. He continues to trek the swamps, rivers and thickets seeking to share, with the residents and visitors, all of the state’s natural beauty hidden within full view. To read more of his writing and view more of his gorgeous photographs visit Winter Bear Rising, his wordpress blog. Joe’s series “Nature on the Raritan, Hidden in Plain View” runs monthly as part of the LRWP “Voices of the Watershed” series. Writing and photos used with permission from the author.
This fall the LRWP joined Jad Kaado and coLAB Arts for conversations about the role of artists, illustrators and authors in advancing environmental restoration. Then at the annual Comic-in-a-Day art making competition at the end of November, coLAB celebrated the artists and authors who incorporated themes of environmental restoration in their work. Three teams of illustrators and writers worked together to create a standard American size comic book of 24 pages, all within the span of 24 hours.
Check out the comics they produced!
Paperless by Christian Angeles and Ryan Smith
Reclaiming Sanctuary by Sam Romero and Allison Baldwin
Runoff by Marlon Dunn and Joe Cascia
Article and photos by Joe Sapia
Note: The yard references are to my house in the section of Monroe between Helmetta and Jamesburg in South Middlesex County. My yard is in a Pine Barrens outlier on the Inner Coastal Plain, the soil is loamy, and my neighborhood is on the boundary of Gardening Zones 6b (cooler) and 7a (warmer). Notes and photographs are by the author and for the period covered, unless otherwise noted.
The foliage change of colors may be past its peak, but the colors continue to dazzle. Here, morning sunlight shines on a cove in a section of Farrington Lake on the East Brunswick-North Brunswick boundary in Middlesex County.
VOICES FROM AFIELD, DIANE LARSON, EAGLES: Diane Larson, who lives along Beaver Dam Creek in Brick, Ocean County, checked in: “Just wanted to share what happened (Sunday, November 26) morning. We noticed the seagulls abruptly flying, like they were spooked, then saw these two guys flying right above our house, and landed on the house across the lagoon from us!” Bald eagles, “Haliaeetus leucocephalus.” In New Jersey, the species is “endangered” as a breeder, or in immediate peril, and “threatened” otherwise, meaning if conditions continue, it could become “endangered.” “They flew in the area all morning, it was awesome to watch,” Diane said.
Two bald eagles in the Beaver Dam Creek area of Brick, Ocean County. (Photograph copyright 2017 by Diane Larson)
MORE EAGLES: Michael Franken has been reporting bald eagles from the boundary of Cranbury and Plainsboro in Middlesex County.
Bald eagles on a deer carcass along the Cranbury-Plainsboro boundary in Middlesex County. (Photo copyright 2017 by Michael Franken Photography)
VOICES FROM AFIELD, DIANE LARSON, NO. 2, JUNCOS: Diane Larson, who is the home horticulturist for the Monmouth County office of the Rutgers University Cooperative Extension, said, “I just went out to the back to check on the gardens behind our office. I heard unfamiliar bird sounds and followed them to see dozens of juncos (“Junco hyemalis,” or snowbird) on a tree back there. I then saw why they were there. They were all around the sweetgum tree (“Liquidambar styraciflua”) eating the seeds from the sweetgum balls.”
SNOWY OWLS: Reports are coming in of snowy owls, “Bubo scandiacus,” down from the Arctic. In recent years, I have heard two theories on the uptick of snowy owls in our area, both related to their food of choice, lemmings, “Dicrostonyx torquatus.” One is that there could be a shortage of lemmings, so the owls migrate farther than normal to find food. The other theory is there was an abundance of lemmings and because of this, owls prospered, having more offspring. A snowy owl story from nj.com: http://www.nj.com/ocean/index.ssf/2017/11/snowy_owl_explosion_expected_in_new_jersey_this_ye.html.
DRIVE-BY NATURALIST, STARLINGS: As I was walking through the Rutgers University campus in downtown New Brunswick, Middlesex County, I encountered a flock of starlings, flying and perching in trees. “For much of the year, they wheel through the sky and mob lawns in big, noisy flocks,” according to Cornell University’s All About Birds website. Starlings, “Sturnus vulgaris,” are non-native. “First brought to North America by (playwright William) Shakespeare enthusiasts in the 19th Century, European Starlings are now among the continent’s most numerous songbirds,” according to All About Birds.
A flock of starlings at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, Middlesex County.
Perched starlings at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, Middlesex County.
DRIVE-BY NATURALIST, SUNSET: As I was headed to the Rocky Hill area of Somerset County, I came across a beautiful sunset on the Monroe-South Brunswick boundary in Middlesex County. It was a wonderful orange sky, with the farmland I was photographing across providing “big sky” views.
Sunset on the boundary of Monroe and South Brunswick, Middlesex County.
EARTHQUAKE: On Thursday, November 30, the rumble you may have felt was a 4.1 earthquake centered near Dover, Delaware. The Did-You-Feel-It response to the United States Geological Survey, https://earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/eventpage/us1000bjkn#dyfi.
HURRICANE SEASON: The Atlantic Ocean hurricane season ended Thursday, November 30. During the season, which began June 1, there were 17 named storms of which 6 were major hurricanes, according to Channel 6 television in Philadelphia. “Three Category 4 hurricanes” – those with winds of 130 to 156 miles per hour — “made US landfall,” according to Channel 6. A primer on hurricanes from the National Hurricane Center, http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/aboutsshws.php.
‘LIVING SHORELINES’ PROPOSAL: Congressman Frank Pallone, who lives in Long Branch, is to introduce legislation creating the Living Shorelines Act, which would provide federal grant money for building up shorelines with plants and other natural materials. The idea is to prevent flooding and erosion, along with providing habitat, in a natural way. See Pallone’s op-ed in the Wednesday, November 29, Asbury Park Press, http://www.app.com/story/opinion/columnists/2017/11/29/living-shorelines-act-frank-pallone/108143866/.
In this 2016 photograph, an Atlantic Ocean natural beach at Sandy Hook, Monmouth County, with the New York City area in the background.
CHRISTMAS TREES, SLIM PICKINGS AND HIGHER PRICES: We were just talking about how fewer trees were planted because of the Great Recession about 10 years ago. And, 10 years later, those trees are ready – in smaller numbers and, in turn, higher prices. Here is a New York Times story on the matter, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/30/business/christmas-tree-shortage-recession.html.
DEER RUT: A 63-year-old Franklin, Somerset County, died from injuries suffered in a motor-vehicle accident in his hometown that happened during the ongoing mating season, or rut, of deer, “Odocoileus virginianus.” Be careful while driving, especially during the rut, which will likely extend into about mid-December.
FULL MOON: The upcoming full moon — the Full Long Night Moon on the December 3-4, Sunday-Monday overnight — will be 2017’s only full “super moon,” that is, when the full moon comes close to the Earth, or 222,443 miles away. The closest will be at 4 a.m. Monday, December 4, when the moon will appear “about 7 percent larger and 16 percent brighter than usual,” according to the National Geographic.
The near-full moon around 4 a.m. from my backyard in Monroe, Middlesex County.
OCEAN TEMPERATURE: The Atlantic Ocean temperature at Sandy Hook was about 48 degrees over the Dec. 2-3 weekend.
SUNRISE/SUNSET: For Sunday, December 3, to Saturday, December 9, the sun will rise about 7:05 to 7:10 a.m. and set about 4:30 p.m. For Sunday, December 10, to Saturday, December 16, the sun will rise about 7:10 to 7:15 a.m. and set about 4:30 to 4:35 p.m.
WEATHER: The National Weather Service forecasting station for the area is at http://www.weather.gov/phi/.
Sunrise at Manalapan Brook in Monroe, Middlesex County.
Joe Sapia, 61, is a lifelong resident of Monroe — in South Middlesex County, where his maternal family settled more than 100 years ago. He is a Pine Barrens naturalist and a gardener of organic vegetables and fruit, along with zinnias and roses. He draws inspiration on the Pine Barrens around Helmetta from his mother, Sophie Onda Sapia, who lived her whole life in these Pines, and his Polish-immigrant grandmother, Annie Poznanski Onda. He gardens the same backyard plot as did his Grandma Annie and Italian-American father, Joe Sr. Both are inspirations for his food gardening. Ma inspires his rose gardening. Joe is a semi-retired print journalist of almost 40 years. His work also is at @JosephSapia on Twitter.com, along with Facebook.com on the Jersey Midlands page.
Copyright 2017 by Joseph Sapia