Winter is here

(Photo by Will Dendis)

November came, and just like that, it was woodstove season again. It happened so quickly this year.

Every year around this time, I’m reminded that elevation matters. Here in Margaretville, we’re at 1316 feet. It’s only about 500 feet higher than Phoenicia, some 20 minutes’ drive away on the other side of Belleayre Mountain, but it’s enough to make a difference. The hills around Margaretville are already purple, but this time of year, driving east on Route 28, you can still roll around a bend in Big Indian and come face to face with the golden flank of a mountain bright with autumn leaves.

The hiker’s rule of thumb is that for every thousand feet of elevation, temperature goes down somewhere between 3.5 and 5.5 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on the moisture in the air. Add in the moderating effect of the Atlantic Ocean, and the temperature gap between us and sea-level New York City is often more like 10 or 15 degrees. It’s enough of a difference to move the boundary of winter by several weeks, up in the hills. Twice a year — now, and again when the new growth of early spring appears — the difference is especially palpable. Driving downstate is like traveling in time.

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Fall and spring have a way of reminding us that up here in the mountains, home to a thousand little microclimates, we all live in our own separate worlds. Scan the Freshtown parking lot on a morning in November; a few of the cars might have a dusting of snow, and a forensically-minded observer might guess at where they’ve driven in from. In town, where asphalt and buildings keep the streets a few degrees warmer, the trees hold on just a little longer than their cousins on the hillsides all around.

At this time of year, we pay for our shimmering green summers and picture-book snowbound winter days with long stretches of damp and grey and chill. It’s nothing season, in-between season. Now that the last few golden days of what we still boorishly call “Indian summer” are done, just about every business in town is battening down the hatches for the slow, torpid period until the skiers arrive. It might be weeks, or it might not arrive until after the New Year. Farmer’s markets are shutting down, summer hours are over.

Some trees in the broadleaf forest hang onto dead leaves through the winter. Botanists have a word for this: marcescence. In the heart of winter, months after the sugar maples and birches have all gone by, it’s common to see an oak hung all round with thick, leathery russet leaves, or the wan specter of a beech lifting its armfuls of curled paper, a pale shimmer of color in the grey woods.

Holding onto leaves might have some benefit. Ecologists have surmised that a spring mulch of dead leaves might help trees hoard moisture and nutrients, or that clusters of unappetizing dry leaves might protect tender buds from the depredations of browsing deer. But not everything in nature has a purpose. It’s possible that in some trees, marcescence is just an evolutionary way station en route to becoming fully deciduous. In any case, those clinging browns and ochres will soon be the only color in the landscape ‘til the green shoots of bulbs begin to emerge in springtime.

Autumn this year was so golden, so unexpectedly glorious, that the transition to winter feels especially hard. We got used to those bright warm days and balmy nights, to T-shirts and late-blooming gardens and sunbathing amid falling leaves in the slanting October sunlight. All over, with the finality of a window shade snapping down. Now we turn reluctantly toward the dark half of the year, maybe with some lingering regret that we didn’t enjoy the bright season as much as we should have.

There’s always Florida. It’s such a haven for Catskills snowbirds and expats. Every year, it seems like more of my neighbors are spending the winter down there.

I don’t think I’ll ever be among them. The more frail and fleeting summer is, the sweeter it tastes.

Lissa Harris is the former editor of the Watershed Post. She lives in Margaretville with her wife and daughter. Send her Catskills news tips at lissa.e.harris@gmail.com.