When your family lights the first candle of your Advent wreath, you start out on a journey of waiting for the birth of Jesus. If you live in a northern country, during Advent, the days grow shorter and winter arrives. At the same time, animals and plants are getting ready for their winter journey, the long wait until spring.
How will they find food? How will they stay warm?
Become more aware of nature's Advent by taking a walk during the first week of Advent. Maybe you can even see some nature from your window.
When I walk in winter, I feel peaceful, but I also feel compassion—some living things seem to struggle. I've been inspired by All Creation Waits: The Advent Mystery of New Beginnings by Gayle Boss. But I've added observations from the plants and animals I've seen around my home. Here are some ideas of what you and your family could look for:
Sunrise and sunset: Look at the weather app on your phone and write down the sunrise and sunset each day as you get closer to Christmas. What do you notice?
Chickadees: Do you see small black-capped birds flying from tree to tree? Perhaps they are remembering the treasures they've mapped out all year long. Chickadees stash seeds all around our backyards, parks, and forests to keep for later—their own woodsy pantries. In wintertime, they have to remember where they placed each one in thousands of hiding places. Maybe you'll be lucky enough to see them digging out some of their buried treasure. (To see pictures of chickadees and find out if they live in your area, go to https://www.allaboutbirds.org/ and search for chickadee.)
Dusk birds: If you walk as night as falling, you might see many tiny birds all landing in one tree or even crowding into a hole in a tree trunk. We once saw a flock go into an icy evergreen surrounded by crowds of cars in a Safeway parking lot in Truckee, CA. In the 20-degree weather, the tall evergreen shook from all of the tiny wings beating. We could even hear the twittering noise over the shopping center's holiday music.
Birds can raise the temperature for sleeping much higher than that of the air outside by finding a hole in a live tree or huddling together with other birds. We shivered below as we pushed our shopping cart but they were warming up together above. See nature.org's blog for more.
Berries and other fruits: Look for berries or other fruits on a nature walk—even in winter. Do you see berries that look like little snowballs? In Oregon, snowberries come out in October but last through rainy months until winter. Robins and other thrushes (robin-like birds) and even deer eat them. Near my house, they grow at the edge of a forest near a sidewalk. I like to imagine deer walking on the sidewalk and feasting on marshmallow berries.
When you find berries, don't pick them. Leave them for animals that need food.
You might find something red, the fruit of wild roses. Birds, squirrels, and even coyotes like these rose hips much better than rose petals.
Deciduous trees (trees with leaves): Observe the trees on your walk. Have all the deciduous trees lost all of their leaves? Can you now see old nests? The picture below is an old squirrel nest.
Although the trees seem dead, like skeletons, they are hibernating in a way. The cold causes two problems: less water and the chance the tree could freeze. When the ground freezes, the roots can't bring water to the leaves. The large leaves on the tree would let too much water escape. So, the tree lets go of the leaves.
In the cold, the bark acts like a blanket to help keep the tree from freezing. Like a puffy jacket, spaces full of air inside the bark help warm the tree. Inside the tree, where there is less water, its cells change, becoming stronger and glassier and fighting against freezing.
Evergreen trees: Evergreen trees are a symbol for an uplifted spirit, according to Scottish tradition. They do have leaves—their needles are actually leaves. They don't lose them, because they are tough, narrow, and covered with wax. Because of this shape and coating, they don't lose water.
A pet cat: Even a cat gets ready for winter. When you pet your cat, do they feel furrier? Cats grow more fur starting in the fall as there is less sunlight each day.
The more you look, the more you will see the changes of winter all around you. How are you getting ready for winter?
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I'm Sherry Weaver Smith, author of The Wolf and the Shield: An Adventure with Saint Patrick. I like to have adventures in getting outside in nature, crafting, and cooking as I explore our Catholic faith with my daughter. We want to be inspired by the saints!