Nature in the City: Out and about in late December

By Elsa Lichman

We get our first real snowstorm. As most of my neighbors and the city are snowblowing, digging, plowing and sanding, the young family next door is out playing in the snow. I smile as I recall the childhood joys of winter. Later, from my window I see two interlocking circles in the large snowy yard, each with double tracks, at least 20 feet in diameter. And there is the telltale cart, in which the mom must have pulled her two kids, with wild abandon.

I am on a quest for arctic ducks, as I approach the waterfall behind Shaw’s on River Street. There, I watch as many mallard ducks swim to the edge, then fly down to the river below, necks and heads stretched forward. Only one curious bird slides right down the churning chute of water, and then flies! Near the Mary Early bridge, many geese and ducks rest on ice or at the river bank. Amazingly, I see “Blondie,” the pale female mallard I have not seen for two years! Her coloration is the result of leucism, a genetic anomaly. I learn that mallards can live at least three years in the wild, and often many more.

As I cross the bridge, I look to the right and see tiny, active ducks diving fast and deep, foraging in our live water. They are a bufflehead pair, the male with crisp black and white patterns, the female with a white cheek patch! A great blue heron flies low over the water. At the Mt. Feake cemetery, I had seen a pale, large-winged bird fly high over a cove, like the ghost of a heron. There, a mature red-tailed hawk flew at ground level past my car and up into a tree. One evening, a hawk flew several feet over a gentleman’s head before swooping to a tall tree, as if strafing him.

On the way to Marblehead, on a small bridge leading to the Lynnway, a greater black-backed gull stands sentry on a tall lamp post. I walk along Lynn Shore drive, and gaze at the flat calm sea. There are light turquoise swirls in a pale green sea, which quickly turns to steely gray, as the sky darkens and wet clumps of snow fall. The tide is low, seaweed drapes over exposed rocks. A herring gull on one rock stands out stark white against a murky backdrop.

I attend a memorial service, which is open to the public, at the Mount Auburn cemetery. It is held in the Story chapel, built in 1898, a small jewel of a building, with stained glass shining, then dimming as the day darkens. We hear strains of a string trio, and sink into the warmth of the candlelit environment.

Opaque glass holds shimmering candles, and the pulpit is covered in swaths of pine, which seem to await a pure white snowfall. Carved wooden angels, like ships’ maidenheads, reach out above, each holding a chain carrying a chandelier. We light candles and place them on an alter. The electric lights go out, and we see only flickering flames glowing, and an eagle statue atop a podium, in silhouette. The organ plays, accompanied by the rich tones of a golden flute, its last note fading into silence.

It is the actual winter solstice tonight. A poem by Jan Richardson is read: “Blessing for the Longest Night.” I would like to share it with you here, as it is comforting as we enter our darkest season.

“All throughout these months as the shadows have lengthened, this blessing has been gathering itself, preparing for the night. It has practiced walking in the dark, traveling with its eyes closed, feeling its way by memory by touch by the pull of the moon even as it wanes.

"So believe me when I tell you this blessing will reach you even if you have not light enough to read it, it will find you even though you cannot see it coming. You will know the moment of its arriving by your release of breath, you have held so long, a loosening of the clenching in your hands, of the clutch around your heart, a thinning of the darkness that had drawn itself around you.

"This blessing does not mean to take the night away but it knows its hidden roads, knows the resting spots along the path, knows what it means to travel in the company of a friend. So when this blessing comes, take its hand. Get up. Set out on the road you cannot see. This is the night when you can trust than any direction you go, you will be walking toward the dawn. “

I wish you all a year of light and peace.

-Elsa Lichman's Nature in the City column is a regular meditation on life and the outdoors in Waltham and the vicinity. Send feedback to