Tuesday, February 5, 2013

BETCHA CAN’T LICK THAT FENCE POST! – Acquiring a Taste for Winter

It’s been said that the Inuit language has scores of different words for snow. While most linguists dispute this, wouldn’t it make sense for a culture in which snow is such a constant, intimate presence? I suppose we’d have lots of words too if snow were more than an inconvenience to us—or if we paid more attention to its sublime beauty.


No matter how well equipped you are to describe snow, the stuff has many amazing qualities. Its sheer whiteness; its power and beauty as a reflector of the sun, from enchanting sparkle to blinding glare; the incredible designs of its flakes, shards and pellets; the range of textures those particles create en masse—from powder to “corn,” to snowball-able, to slush; the graceful shapes it assumes when sculpted by the wind; and its ability to record everything from the passing of a vole to the progression of climate change over millennia.

An airplane, sounding so close it must be coming 
in for a landing, is really a speck, still three or 
four miles up.

One of the silver linings of those crystal clear 20-below-zero nights we have up here is the sounds. When it gets that cold, the air’s usually so dry that the snow sounds like Styrofoam when you walk or drive on it. As a January evening’s concert lets out, the hall’s yet-unplowed parking lot becomes its own musical postlude, a chorus of squeaks, crunches and groans from scores of tires compressing tiny crystals.

Extreme winter temperatures also do amazing things to the atmosphere. You can almost feel the molecules of subzero air huddling closer together. The world seems to compress around you. Sound carries differently too, as if you were inside a big box.

Music, kids’ laughter and the clatter of hockey sticks, carrying from a rink three blocks away, sound like they’re right next-door. An airplane flies over, sounding so close it must be coming in for a landing. You look up and see that it’s a speck, still three or four miles up.


There’s a whole library of winter folklore up here on what we call the frozen tundra. One example: when it’s minus 25 or more, you take a pan of boiling water outside and throw the water up into the air. The droplets freeze so fast that they explode into a fine, frozen mist with a loud hiss.

Extreme cold like this exerts a strange attraction on some folks. One night a few years ago, the temperature in Tower MN reached minus 60. (That’s the thermometer temperature, not the wind-chill index.) When the forecast came out, people flocked up there from all over the state to camp out that night. All survived, though many of their cars required defibrillation.

I noticed something on one of the metal posts. I shuddered when, on closer inspection, I discovered the distinct taste buds.

When I was in grade school, I was walking home one January afternoon and came to a chain-link fence I passed nearly every day. This time I noticed something on one of the metal posts. I shuddered when, on closer inspection, I discovered the distinct taste buds. It was a quarter-inch-square piece of some poor kid’s tongue.

Everyone around here knows that story; it’s part of the mythology. But I know—and, more poignantly, that poor, gullible kid knows—it’s true.

Playing hockey outdoors before indoor rinks were common was a lesson in physics. Steel on ice, both of them rock-hard solids, one gliding effortlessly, not on the other, but on a thin film of water. Rubber pucks, their molecular structure transformed by the cold, shattering like glass when they hit the goalpost just right.

Flesh, exposed to minus 50 wind-chill, turning in blotches from red to frostbite white. Capillaries in toes, feeling like a thousand needle stabs, flowing again as they warmed from their pre-frostbite numbness.

All right, I know everyone who lives anywhere has his or her own  war stories about their weather. But I say you can have your hurricanes and heat waves, your supercells and sand storms. I’ll take the winter weather wonders of Minnesota any day. C’mon, I know you’re envious! 


Susan Blake said...

Hi Jeff,
Wellllllll, yeah it's pretty, it's amazing, it fills the wonderment category to the top! I will be getting my fill next winter when I move up to Eagle River, Wisconsin permanently. I am hoping, however, to escape a month or two of the coldest part to someplace warm. But who knows? Maybe Suzie Snowflake will resurrect herself and go outside to play in it!

Jeffrey Willius said...

Hi SuZen -- Oh, yeah, you'll be way up der! Should be plenty of good winter war stories to share.
Where do you like to escape when you get away from winter?

InsideJourneys said...

I hadn't thought of the Styrofoam sound in ages!
In Ottawa one winter, my cousin put his keys in his mouth as he scraped ice off his car and it stuck to his lips. Oh and they have to plug in the cars at night. That's way too much cold for me.
I don't listen to the weather report anymore, it's the same everyday - hot! The coldest it gets here is the low 70s. Snow's even more beautiful when I don't have to be in it. Enjoy!

Jeffrey Willius said...

Hey Marcia - You're in Jamaica right now, right? Was Ottawa your previous home? I'd say that qualifies as a deep freeze, wouldn't you?
Even if you don't get the thrill of freezing solid, I'm sure you have plenty of amazing small wonders there -- all of which prompt day dreams from us northerners! ;-) Thanks for visiting and commenting, my new friend!

Vishnu said...

good case for enjoying the snow:) I lived in the Tahoe area for a couple of years and vowed never to live in snowy place ever again in my life. :)

Jokes aside, Jeff, the beauty and peace that snow brings trumps the traffic delays, crazy drivers and vehicle overturns. :) I do enjoy watching the snow fall and blanket the area with serenity.

Jeffrey Willius said...

Hey Vishnu -- Welcome to One Man's Wonder! Many thanks for your comment. I understand your first comment - as I see it, there's snow...and then there's Tahoe-type snow. Isn't it routinely measured in feet?
I guess I'm just a glass-half-full kind of person. I choose to see the snow as if I'd never seen anything like it before. Awesome!! I can tell you're secretly envious ;-)

Unknown said...

I suppose we’d have lots of words fence companies menomonee falls too if snow were more than an inconvenience to us—or if we paid more attention to its sublime beauty.

Jeffrey Willius said...

Thanks for coming to One Man's Wonder, Muhammad, and for commenting. Not sure what you mean in the first part about fence companies, but it sounds like you appreciate winter for what it is, inconvenience or not. Keep seeing generously, my friend!

Jeffrey Willius said...

Hey Pebbles -- Thanks for those kind words. Appreciate your comment, though I'm curious how you came across this winter post now that it's mid-May.

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