Winter, robins and sassafras tea


By Jim McGuire - Contributing columnist



Jim McGuire | For the Troy Daily News A recent visit by a bald eagle to the writer’s cottage home along the Stillwater River — a rare, but alays exciting event.

Jim McGuire | For the Troy Daily News A recent visit by a bald eagle to the writer’s cottage home along the Stillwater River — a rare, but alays exciting event.


I’ve figured a quick countdown and here’s some heartening news … just over five weeks from today, spring will officially arrive!

We’ll pass the moment of equinox. Winter will be over. And the sweet vernal season which brings us warblers and wildflowers will commence its green-suffusing reign.

That’s not wishful thinking on my part, nor the untrustworthy prognostications of a sleepy groundhog. That’s the scientific calculation as reported by the 2018 edition of the venerable Old Farmer’s Almanac.

Check it out yourself!

Of course an equinox is merely an invisible waypoint amid time and space, based on astrophysics. While it acts as a welcome road sign along our annual journey around the sun, it’s best viewed as an article of faith rather than a cosmic mandate.

Who knows whether or not local weather will cooperate?

Any long-term resident of the Miami Valley can tell you, the latter half of winter is notorious for being a fickle, unpredictable affair. Whimsical, capricious, almost teasing.

We want it to be spring, therefore, the merest hint of change sets us into sudden flights of fancy. We’re regularly fooled by the occasional mild day — a skewed perception encouraged by winter weariness and the longings of our heart.

Reality is more more likely to be the reappearance of temps in the low-twenties and several inches of new snow. Shiver-worthy cold and a white-blanketed landscape.

But please don’t misunderstand — I’m not being cynical or playing the role of resident pessimist.

Seasonal change is indeed afoot and coming nearer every single day. I’m only advising gentle caution—saying to take precise almanac dates with a grain of skepticism. Seasons almost never follow such schedules.

What prompted all this was a morning inundation of red-breasted robins. A perky, pushy multitude which suddenly invaded the yard.

Resident robins, I expect, rather than travelers. Birds who chose to eke their way through the Buckeye winter ensconced amid the deep shelter of some nearby woodland thicket.

Such retiring locals typically keep to their secure cover until the weather breaks — out of sight, out of mind. A handful of birds might occasionally turn up in the dooryard, scratching about beneath the fenceline cedars. But such abundant delegations usually don’t start appearing for another month. Unless you’re a winter rambler, prone to exploring the densest corners of the nearby backwoods, you likely never realize how many robins regularly decided to stick around.

Watching those sassy robins sprightly darting about was as heart-warming as the bright sunshine streaming through the sycamores.

Were they seasonal signs? Oracles or prophets?

I dunno. But while watching, I sipped on a mug of sassafras tea. Hot, fragrant, sweetened with honey from a neighbor’s bees. Delicious … and the first cup of a new batch of sassafras roots I’d collected a few days earlier when a warming spell had melted the snow cover and I could head afield without needing to bundle up as if setting off on an arctic expedition.

Sassafras tea has been a staple of my winter sipping pleasure for as long as I can remember. When I was a kid, Mom would take a handful of the dried roots, toss them into the teakettle with perhaps three quarts of cold water, and soon the entire house would fill with the heady fragrance of steeping tea.

About 20 minutes later we’d savor cups of the spicy-rich, amber-red brew — sweetened with either honey or brown sugar — which tasted like a combination of cinnamon, cloves, allspice, nutmeg, and root beer. My father, who never drank coffee or any other sort of hot liquid, was apt to quaff three or four cups.

I always try and keep a sufficient reserve of dried roots stored in the pantry — especially when heading into winter. Winter is my favorite season for sipping sassafras tea. However, this time around I either over-sipped or under-stocked and my cache ran out.

Enduring whatever remained of winter without sassafras tea was patently unacceptable; a foraging mission was hastily undertaken!

Dad and I generally set out about this same time every winter, too, looking to restock our home supply of piquant roots. You can dig sassafras any time — spring, summer, autumn, winter — and opinions as to the ideal time vary. But somewhere just after the first of the new year is the traditional gathering season.

When I was a kid, February sassafras outings were mostly a cure for cabin fever. We seldom — if ever — actually ran short of tea-making root chunks. But once rabbit season ended and before fishing time began, any good excuse to get out of the house was welcomed.

My recent unanticipated shortfall, though, triggered desperation and immediate action. A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do!

It’s a good thing I dug my sassafras roots when I did. Because the day after my replenishment foray, daytime temperatures took a nosedive and several inches of fresh snow fell.

Timing is everything.

For bob-bobbing robins, sipping sassafras tea, and those of us who must wait while winter plays out, and the tilted earth spins its way along the ancient path which delivers us into another spring.

Jim McGuire | For the Troy Daily News A recent visit by a bald eagle to the writer’s cottage home along the Stillwater River — a rare, but alays exciting event.
http://www.tdn-net.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/21/2018/02/web1_Eagle.jpgJim McGuire | For the Troy Daily News A recent visit by a bald eagle to the writer’s cottage home along the Stillwater River — a rare, but alays exciting event.

http://www.tdn-net.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/21/2018/02/web1_Jim_McGuire.jpg

By Jim McGuire

Contributing columnist

Jim McGuire, a nature columnist, resides in Englewood, and can be reached at naturalrambler@gmail.com

Jim McGuire, a nature columnist, resides in Englewood, and can be reached at naturalrambler@gmail.com

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