Sun dogs

“Whirling wind month.”

The cold moon.

The hunger moon.

“Sun has not strength to thaw.”

“Bone moon,” because bones and marrow soup may be about all there is to eat.

These are just some of the ways Native Americans referred to the months of January and February, according to the Native American website,

Our 21st-century gas heat, warm houses, and well-stocked home freezers and grocery stores certainly take the edge off – but it’s not so hard to understand our predecessors’ perspective if we venture out to experience the Iowa winter.

Single-digit temperatures and below-zero wind chills can demand your attention quickly – even if you’re bundled in multiple layers of PolarFleece, polypropylene, Gore-Tex, and other miracle fabrics.

Yet, it’s exhilarating to hear the squeak of the fresh snow beneath your skis, and to catch your breath as a gust of wind engulfs you in a mini-whiteout. Still, you’re comforted to be within minutes of a cozy fire in the wood stove, with a cup of hot chocolate brewed in the microwave.

Snowy junco

But we’re humbled by the ability of wild critters to deal with the cold. The goldfinches and juncos and chickadees at the feeder merely puff up their feathers to provide more insulation, then feast even more heavily on sunflower seeds to stoke their internal furnaces.

Oblivious to the cold

The deer bedded down in the woods apparently are kept so warm by their hollow-haired coats that they don’t even bother to seek a sunny opening. You still have to feel sorry for the whitetail doe that stands on her hind legs to nibble on a red cedar, though. That prickly foliage can’t be very tasty.

Hungry deer

Although your fingers grow numb and your cheeks sting from the bitter air, you can’t help but pause to drink in the beauty of the season. Sun dogs dance on either side of the Sun, shimmering arcs of light reflected through ice crystals.

The wind sweeps the snow into constantly changing sculptures around fences, trees, hay bales, grassy ridgetops, and field swales. The setting sun tints the black-and-white landscape with accents of blue, pink, and gold.

Sculpted by the wind

Leafless trees march in place like two-tone sentinels. The leeward side of the gray trunk contrasts sharply with the snow pasted on the opposite face by the last storm. Prairie plants – long dead and brown – still sway gracefully over the white blanket covering their temporarily dormant roots.

Side oats gramma

That blanket – besides tempering the earth from the extremes of the season – also becomes a map upon which you can follow the wanderings of cottontail rabbits, the bounding route of a deer, the no-nonsense trail of a coyote, or the seed searches of a flock of juncos.

I may grumble at having to shovel the results of the next storm – but I seldom tire of the magical ways that winter can transform the natural world.

Before the snowplow comes . . .
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