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Winter rules

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The errant woodpiles tell the tale of the season's approach. Once hidden by textured layers of greens, our tin-covered fortresses of firewood now dot the winter landscape deep into the forest.

Years ago, a friend offered me a well-past-its-prime shed, complete with barn-board siding, framing and a roof. All I had to do was haul it away; not only did I get two low-tech tree houses from the planks, but my gnarly two-by-ten tin sheet collection was born. They now serve as the shelter for our seasonal warmth.

Trees are culled from the forest according to nature's random schedule. We haul felled logs to the nearest path, leaning them against a healthy hardwood to let the biomass dry until winter use. During sunny fall walks, those gypsy woodpiles are reassuring reminders than we are ready for the next season. With mid-October's first frost, it's time to clean the chimney, take the plants off the wood stove, caulk the front grate and prepare to tuck ourselves in.

The neighbor's 5-year-old boy is an eagle-eyed sentry of the world around him. He knows which trails are newly cleared, where the beavers have moved and how to find a frog. That bent branch, that rock pile, the dirt at the creek bed's edge—for him, they're all clues. "Hey John, the shortest day of the year is coming," he announces, and I know he's right.

The shortest day usually means hard frosts every week, with huge night skies, bigger moons, dogs curled up by the back door and frozen water bowls in the chicken coop. The shortest day means it is over for the garden. The bushy basil plants have passed to the dark side. The last pepper plants are but stalky memories. The raised beds look like rolling waves of chia pets, covered as they are in robust, nitrogen-rich red clover.

Our big black dog loves the change, thinking it's all for his entertainment and comfort. He's happy that we're outside with him, getting ready for winter. The other day, he carefully watched as I insulated and buried an exposed water hose from the well house to the garden. When I was at work, he dug it up and chewed up the insulation. With all the leaves down, large squirrel nests are clearly visible 30 feet high in the poplars and hickories that ring our house. They taunt him acrobatically from above.

These December dawns crunch underfoot. With our leafy buffer now gray and brown on the forest floor, sound carries in weird ways. The dogs howl at all the activity from the rural fire station down the road, or at pickup trucks and school buses around a curve.

The nearly full Cold Moon winks above the tree line toward the southwest, reflecting reassuringly off the roof of the nearest woodpile. Just like that, the eastern horizon explodes with oranges and reds. Just four months until the last frost.

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