A bridge over the Green Harbor River at Daniel Webster Wildlife Sanctuary in Marshfield.

On a crisp, clear December day, I pulled into the parking lot of a small office building on the banks of the South River in Marshfield. The sun shone brightly, and it drew my attention to the water, where light sparkled like stars in a midnight sky. I expected to see the usual muted tones of the winter marsh, shades of brown and gold now losing their luster in the weak winter light, but instead I saw white. Up and down the northern shore of the river for as far as I could see there were seagulls, perched at the water’s edge, basking in the sun.

The sight of the gulls surprised me, but it was nothing compared to what I saw next. Turning back toward the building, I happened to glance across the grass into the yard next door. There I saw what I at first perceived to be a couple of those fake Canada geese that people sometimes use as lawn ornaments. I began walking away, but from the corner of my eye I saw something move. I looked again, and the two geese had become twenty, maybe forty — and not fake at all. I turned downstream and saw twenty more, milling around on the shady side of the river.

White gulls, brown geese, lined up on either side of the river at regular intervals. It was like a chess game about to begin.

When I went inside for my appointment, the massage therapist asked me if I had seen the birds. She too found them fascinating.

She began the massage, folding my arms at my sides like wings.

An hour later, on my way out, I peered out the second-story window at the river below. Most of the birds were gone.

Some birds fly south for the winter, others stay. We could say the same of humans.

In late fall, as the days grow shorter and the landscape loses its vibrancy, a significant portion of the local population migrates to warmer climes. By January, the light generated by the holidays has faded, and even those of us who stay spend most of our time indoors, where it’s warm.

A month ago I caught the dreaded cold that everyone has been talking about — the one that never seems to go away. Winter doesn’t generally keep me indoors, but for the past few weeks, I haven’t had the energy to go on my usual weekly walks. Starved for some variety of landscape, I finally ventured out the other day, for a short tour of Mass. Audubon’s Daniel Webster Wildlife Sanctuary.

For the past few years I’ve been exploring the public lands of the South Shore, predominantly within the watershed of the North and South Rivers. But lately I’ve committed to visiting those places even closer to home. The Sanctuary is only a mile from my house, and it’s become my accustomed walking place.

If you’ve never been to the Daniel Webster Sanctuary (aka Dwyer Farm), you should consider a visit. If you’re a bird lover, you’ll have plenty to see — the northern harrier, eastern meadowlark, and dark eyed junco are common sights at this time of year. You may also see eagles and hawks. If, like me, you’re more of a landscape enthusiast, you will not be disappointed.

What I like most about the Webster Sanctuary is the shape of the land. For centuries it was a farm, so most of the trees have been cleared away, leaving gently sloping hills and acres upon acres of meadow and marsh. You can walk down a rutted farm road, or take some of the narrower trails into the woods and follow a boardwalk through the marsh. For a wider perspective, you can climb Fox Hill. The little-known Green Harbor River flows through the property as well.

This time of year when, on the surface at least, so much seems dormant or dead, I am most attracted to inconsistencies in the landscape — things that stand out. These are the stark shapes of winter: the dark barren trees that appear to dance gracefully in the pale-colored sky, the waves of golden meadow grass matted down and woven together by the wind. There are irregular patches of ice on the water’s surface, bare shrubs with clusters of frozen berries, milkweed husks . . . so much to see, although you may have to look more closely.

Annie Dillard wrote the classic Pilgrim at Tinker Creek after recovering from a long, difficult bout with pneumonia. When she was finally able to explore the outdoors again, she realized that the illness had given her new eyes. She saw things she had never taken the time to see before — the smaller, finer things in the intricate web of life. If you’ve been cooped up since the first day the thermometer dipped below forty, you may consider putting on a few extra layers and venturing outdoors. You’ll probably see things you’ve never seen before.

by Kezia Bacon, Special to the Mariner
December 1997

Kezia Bacon serves on the Board of Directors of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association.