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
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
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