There won’t be any New Year’s Eve party here on Lightnin’ Ridge. Things will be about like they are almost every night during the winter. Before midnight, a pair of raccoons will be ambling along the small creek that leads down to the river, looking for food that is becoming harder to find because the crawdads are in deep water and the frogs are buried in the mud, just as it has been for hundreds and hundreds of years.
A great horned owl will leave his perch at the edge of the meadow and sweep down upon an unsuspecting deer mouse without a sound other than the rustling in the grass when he pins it against the cold earth with sharp talons. A great horned owl’s wings still make no noise, just as it has been for who knows how long. Unfortunately for the mouse, he won’t live to see the new year, but he doesn’t even know that there is one coming. He didn’t see the coming of the last one. He has lived only 10 months, and that’s a long time for a mouse. The field where he has lived is a home for dozens of field mice, voles, cotton rats, and shrews; nearly a dozen species of small ground mammals, some of which spend the entire winter beneath ground in hibernation. Fortunately for the owl, and other predators, there are some species of small mammals that do not hibernate, but remain active throughout the winter or at least much of it.
Inside the big oak where the owl sat, a pair of fox squirrels sleep in a small, protected cavity. They will miss the dawning of a new day and a new year if the temperature is well below freezing for a good while. Squirrels do not hibernate throughout the winter, but in periods of extended extreme cold, they will sleep for days, in a semi-hibernation much like the raccoon, the skunk and the opossum.
There are some big sycamores along the bluff over the creek, and several wild gobblers spend the eve of the new year asleep on their branches, their forms plainly visible in the moonlight. Three are big old toms, but there are five jakes which have never experienced a new year’s eve before. They sleep through it, with tightened tendons in their legs securing their toes to the limbs of the sycamore like the grasp of a vice. Their ancestors weathered the passing of hundreds of new years in the same way. Change is not clamored for amongst wild creatures. It is a resistance to change that ensures survival of the species. It is sameness that gives security in wild places.
In a cedar thicket, buried in the grasses, a covey of bobwhites form a ring, ten of them in all. There were nearly twice as many in November. The new year brings little for them to celebrate. With their bodies huddled together, warmth is passed to the weaker members of the covey by the stronger and they preserve heat as feathers fluff and insulate. When there are too few and the temperature plunges, there is less chance of survival. As the new year begins, smaller groups find birds of another covey and join them, in greater numbers finding greater strength to resist the cold.
Huddled beneath the cedar, they are unaware of the grey fox, which passes as the new year approaches. His is an eternal quest for food, and if he only knew they were there, what a New Year’s Eve party he would have. But like the owl, he will settle for a few small ground mammals on this final night of an old year.
A half dozen mallards spring to flight as a bobcat streaks across the river gravel bar where they rest, upstream from the mouth of the creek. He leaps high to grasp a slower member of the flock with his forepaws and pulls her down, taking that weaker, slower individual for a new year’s feast. The hen mallard is a substantial meal for the bobcat. The rest of the flock circles in the moonlight and will settle into another hole of water upstream.
The dying protests of the quacking hen breaks the stillness, but other sounds of nature at midnight are subtle. A buck snorts from a cedar thicket above the creek. A dying rabbit shrieks from the field across the river, as a mink ferrets him from a brush pile. Smaller than the rabbit, the mink can go anywhere, and he wraps his body around the cottontail’s neck and hangs on, his teeth buried in the soft fur as the life and death struggle which marks the beginning of a new year is just as it has always been.
Here where the creek joins the river, where the woodland breaks into meadow, there are thickets of briar and cedar, standing as they have since men first came to change and scar the land….life goes on. There is no celebration here. It is only the passing of another night, the coming of another day.
And I know that for some it is necessary on this night to group together and make much of the ticking of a clock, where alcohol flows and the noise grows to a blaring crescendo. But I’ll walk that quiet wooded ridge above the creek at midnight, and treasure the silence, listening for little more than the distant yodel of a coyote. I’ll survey the river bottoms in the moonlight and be thankful for the stability of unchanging nature…wild creatures living as they always have, evidence of God’s unchanging laws which even man will eventually answer to.
There is perfection here…thank God we haven’t ruined it all. We will in time, I suppose. These mushrooming numbers of human beings will destroy it all eventually. But maybe not this year… On this little Ozark ridge-top, there is life continuing as it always has.
This quiet wooded ridge overlooking the moonlit river, is a good place to ask the Creator to allow us all to enjoy one more year, to ask that the coming year be a good one…. a year wherein wild things and wild places continue to exist.