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The last leaves have blown free from my cherry tree. Oak leaves, light tan and fragile, retain their shapes in piles of mulch where vegetables and flowers once rose. Sparrows swarm in hyperactive, feathery swirls about a half-full bird feeder; a lone junco and two fat gray squirrels eat the fallen seeds below. Chinese cabbage, komatsuna and minutina resist the cold of hard-frost nights, sending up new green leaves while most garden life has faded and dried into gray-brown hues. The year’s garden harvest is in, young leafy vegetables survive in a coldframe and stacked cords of seasoned wood begin their slow fall dwindle. A fast wind sharpens a whistle through the bare tree branches stretching out above. I watch and listen as the season’s cold settles in.

As the northeast began its fall chill, I resurrected a set of simple seasonal rituals in my struggle to stay warm during the freeze of coming months. These rituals also help me to conserve energy, contribute to the fertility of next spring’s garden soil and help cut the costs I incur trying to outlive the winter in these parts.

Window rituals: Windows become important portals for light, heat and cold in cool climes. Using a 50-percent- distilled-vinegar, 50-percent-water solution in a reused pump bottle, I cleansed the windows of my house, with a priority given to panes that face south. I used paper towels that vary in their recycled material content, but were composted following this use. The cleaned windows will let more sunlight in, providing a means to bring into my house modest additions of natural light and radiant solar energy.

Windows can also be a source of unwanted winter drafts. My window cleansing rituals include checking that the combination storm windows insulating each closes snugly into place. I clean each pane with vinegar water, and remove any dirt and debris that has gathered in the tracks the storm windows slide and click into. The tighter the storms close, the less cold air will infiltrate. I also check the snugness of fit of the main window, add weatherstripping where needed, and clean out any debris that may have accumulated on the sill between both windows.

Regardless of how tight-fitting one’s windows, they also bring coolness into one’s shelter due to the convection effects created by the cold glass surface as circulating warm air passes over it. Windows also allow some heat energy to escape directly into the cold outdoors.

To reduce these cooling effects, I’ve installed insulated window shades. These fabric shades provide a layer of trapped air in their internal honeycomb cells that helps insulate the warm room air from the cold glass. They also block some of the heat energy that may try to bounce out of my home directly through the glass.

I keep some of the shades on the northern side of my house closed throughout the winter. The shades are a translucent white, so a good amount of daylight gets through even when they are closed. Raising the rest of the shades becomes a daily morning ritual, unveiling what the night’s weather has wrought. I lower them around sunset to keep my home warmer at night.

My south-facing windows also support shelves of houseplants that help add moisture to and cleanse the dry indoor air.

My window rituals help reduce the energy used in my home by providing natural light that offsets light that would be otherwise generated by electricity and reducing the infiltration of cold outside air, resulting in more efficient home-heating efforts. These reductions in my energy demand translate into lower pocket and environmental costs and a healthier indoor environment in which to stay warm while waiting for the spring.

Fire rituals: Like our ancient ancestors, most of us are still dependent on fire in some form to stay warm. In my case, this fire comes in the form of wood burning in a stove and a natural-gas-fueled boiler. To prevent chimney fires, each year in the early fall I have a chimney sweep perform his cleansing practices and check my chimney before starting the season’s first fire. That first fire becomes a salient symbolic act for me, indicating the cold weather months have arrived. With it, I rekindle both my fire-starting and fire-safety skills.

A high-efficiency wood stove is my primary source of heat. I haul a number of small loads of wood in from well-seasoned stacks out in my backyard each day, dropping the split biomass into old wooden apple boxes kept a safe distance from the stove. The exertion required also contributes to my degree of body warmth.

Through the glass panel in my stove’s door, additional light is cast into the room. There is also a mesmerizing and relaxing aspect to watching the stove’s flames at work. I keep the glass in the stove’s door clear through regular applications of the same vinegar and water solution used on my windows.

I regularly remove the stove’s ash and add it to the mix of my backyard composters. In order to accommodate this ash and the compostable kitchen materials generated in my home during the cool months, I emptied my composters into the garden in early November. This resulted in plenty of space to handle the compostables I expect to produce as decomposition processes slow down with the dipping temperatures outside. This ash recycling will further enrich the compost for my spring garden.

Clothing rituals: Another set of my fall rituals revolves around clothing. Reorganizing my access to coats, insulated vests, sweaters, sweatshirts, turtlenecks, hats, gloves, warm socks and a couple of pair of long underwear make the layering of clothes to stay warm easier as temperatures drop. I also waterproof the shoes and boots I expect to slosh through the coming months with.

Well, with these fall rituals I hope to persevere through another winter and eventually witness the return of my cherry tree’s leaves.

—Tom Nattell


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