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February, 2006


by Valerie

After a trip to northern Wisconsin in February, it is difficult not to be impressed, obsessed, and fascinated by snow. As I think back to my first couple of decades, living in Illinois, my first reaction is that I took our winter precipitation for granted. But maybe not. I have many fond memories of playing in the snow, and often sat at our windows on snowy nights, watching as the flakes fell through the illumination of the street lights.

"Falling snow is always a beautiful sight, but on a still night, it becomes magical. The temperature remains moderate while it's snowing because of the cloud cover, so warm clothes make it possible to really enjoy the weather. If there's already a thick blanket, with more big flakes falling, all sound is muffled. There is only a faint hiss as the snow hits. Everything is soft and moves in slow motion, and people and cars appear as black alien beings in a white world. The diffused light adds to the strange landscape and it feels as if one is in an alternate reality."

I wrote the above paragraph back in 1986, in a book titled Moments that I gave to Larry on our first anniversary. Over twenty years ago, the memory of snow was still vivid enough to prompt me to write about it. The trek to a snowy landscape this month was not so much a "And now for something completely different..." sort of experience as a fond return to a very familiar clime.

Snow has different personalities depending on the temperature, humidity, and time. On a still night, with the temperature dropping to a dry 15°F, the crunch of the horses' hooves on the snow sounds brittle and crispy. A snowstorm at dusk, with large, fluffy flakes pouring from the sky has a soft dampness and fresh, clean smell. When the temperature rises to just above freezing on a sunny midday hike, the coolness of the brilliantly sparkling groundcover brings welcome relief from the toil of plodding through snow, tall grasses, briers, and branches. The packed snow of the sledding hill provides a fast, hard ride while a pristine drift affords a soft landing to a novice on skis. I'm not quite sure where the myriad tiny sparkling ice flakes originate, but the air is filled with them on some dry, clear, cold mornings, and they reflect the early sunlight like bits of crystal. An older layer of snow may become crusty and shiny on top, drifts form like wind-blown sand on wide beaches, and the flakes may stay powdery and light as dust or pack together like clay.

One of the most interesting aspects of snow is its ability to record events. The trails left by animals through the night are clearly visible the next day, from the hunting weasels and foxes to the foraging mice and rabbits. An otter's strange trail is unmistakable along a creek, while deer tracks lead to and from their nocturnal resting places. A tiny bit of fur, blood, or droppings are all evident against the bright white slate of snow. Trees stand out in stark contrast as they poke up through the blanket, and even common dead seed pods of weeds look like works of art isolated against a minimalist backdrop.

While living in warmer regions, it is easy to forget how pleasant the snow can be, and to overrate the discomfort of low temperatures. It is simply a matter of wearing adequate clothing and becoming accustomed to the cold (within reason - all bets are off when the temperatures drop to the subzero range). With a warm farmhouse waiting, it's not at all difficult to have a grand time in a true winter wonderland.

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