One morning in that blurry week between Christmas and New Years I went for an early morning walk on the beach. There’d been a full moon and the high tide that accompanied that and the sand was filled with shells, twists of seaweed and a multitude of beaten up and well worn feathers. The sky was that silvery shade of blue we get when the sun feels pale and watery and the sea was nearly white from glare and sparkled like a crystal platter.
Gulls flew silently and a small flock of brant geese floated in the still water. I picked up a moon snail shell and stopped to look at the remains of a fish of some sort. All that was left was part of the skeleton and a shaggy patch of skin.
The wind was brisk and biting, and my fingers and cheeks complained of the cold as I continued on my way. The winter beach is my favorite beach of the year, but it does take some determination and perseverance to make my way all the way down and back some days.
Much of what we find on the beach, in the fields and in the woods at this time of year is what has been cast off, shed, worn out or died. Feathers found in winter have little elegance or beauty. They are ragged and broken, bent and torn. They were well used in their lifetime but now their job is to become part of the elements that will feed and nurture future generations. They will break down into different chemical components and be spread in the environment where needed. It will take a while. What we see now are the almost robust remains. They are still recognizable and even a bit strong, but by spring most will be buried beneath sand and pebbles or dirt and grasses. We won’t see them doing the real work of breaking down because by that time we will be giddy once again with all the hope that newness brings.
The winter landscape is a constant reminder of letting go of the old. Leaves have fallen and are being composted. Most plants and animals are dormant and those that are not are struggling to survive the brutal cold and damp that is our winter.
A walk along a wooded path will reveal old nests and lairs as well as burrows and holes. We can see where the catbirds nested and the chipmunks flourished as well as occasional insect galls and nests. We can find old seeds and nuts that have not been eaten or buried and watch robins and waxwings strip holly trees of berries in an afternoon.
Out with the old, we say on New Year’s Eve. This year especially, we will hold the doors open and shoo 2020 right on out of here. We welcome a new year, but I imagine I’m not the only one looking at 2021 with more than a little trepidation. New doesn’t always mean better, after all. Remember when 2020 was new and we were all excited? I rest my case.
Nature has a way of balancing the old and the new. She treats each with equal care. Without the old there is no new. Without the new, there is no old. The circle of life isn’t just about the food chain. It’s about birth, life, procreation, death and renewal. Over and over and over again in a never-ending saga we are ultimately only a tiny part of.
It’s hard to imagine we humans are like the old feathers of a crow, something to be cast off when their use is done. We don’t like to imagine ourselves as going from dust to dust like the snakes and the bears, the trees and the fish. We look to the new instead. We celebrate babies and children and youth. We pretend our old folks aren’t getting frail and sick. We prop them up, shoot them full of medicines to keep them alive. Or, we ignore them and let them fall apart alone and unloved. When COVID-19 was still new many people admitted they thought old people should sacrifice themselves for the sake of the economy and the enriched lives of their children and grandchildren. It was an eye-opening moment for many of us, to realize how many thought we seniors just might be better off dead. Out with the old, make way for the new, had a whole new and eerie meaning. We were being told to accept horrible, preventable deaths as our due.
This is different than what happens in nature. It’s not that old animals and plants don’t die, because they do. Many go off to die alone when sick or injured or too old to keep up so as not to endanger the herd or pride or pack. Others are sheltered and fed.
Old trees fall in storms and find new homes on the ground, giving up their life in the bright, sunlit sky for the darkness of the forest floor. The difference is these deaths continue to give meaning to the lives of those who have passed. Their legacies will be that they continued to have value as they became food, even shelter. New life honors old with growth and strength and resilience. Someday, new will also be old.
As we greet the new year, let’s remember that what is new will become old and what is old can help nurture the new. Happy New Year. May it bring health and peace to all.