Saturday, December 3, 2022

TALKING SNOW – And Other Winter Wonders

It’s early December here in Minneapolis. We’ve just been visited by the season’s first snow storm, which blanketed my home town in eight inches of beautiful, sparkly-white powder. In a typical winter we’ll expect another four to six feet.

Like most of us norteños, I entertain mixed feelings about the coming four-and-a-half to five months of winter.  From mild depression over its getting dark at 4:30, to annoyance at having to don two or three extra layers of clothes to go outside, to the sheer exuberance of a nice ski with the right wax on fresh snow.

My trick for staying reasonably happy through a Minnesota winter—or any season for that matter—is to overcome the downsides by opening my eyes and my soul to wonder.

Here, in no particular order, are a few tips I hope might warm your way through these long, cold, dark days, alternating with some of my most memorable winter experiences related to each tip:

Forget the notion that snow is white, and look more carefully for the many colors it wears.

During a watercolor painting class I tried painting a snow scene. I kept wondering why it looked so flat, so unconvincing. The instructor explained that my snow was just “too white.” She was right; I added shadings of blue and violet, even hints of gray, and nailed it.

Snow and ice love to play. Blow them; throw them; slide on them; build with them; make igloos and angels.

When I walked to school as a ten-year-old, I’d pass an old, iron fence whose posts were capped with three-inch spheres. Every cold winter day, my friends and I would each spit on one of those balls. By February, barring a major thaw, we’d have three- or four-inch spit stalagmites.

Snowflakes seem so calm and silent. But see if you can’t make out their whispered breath when a few million of them settle and shift in a light breeze. Listen for snow’s “hush, hush!” under ski or sled. Heed its complaints when crushed under foot or tire.

When Sally and I head home from an evening event on one of those crackly-cold, minus-20 January nights, I love the concert that emanates from the parking lot: snow's squeaking like Styrofoam underfoot; its groaning and crunching under tons and tires; the rasp of scrapers on icy windshields; the labored cranking of cars’ starters.

Don’t curse the freezing air; celebrate it. Marvel at the way it reveals your breath. How its density carries sounds. How it lets you walk on water. Or skate…or drive.

When it drops to minus 20 or colder, I love to take a pan of boiling water outside and throw the water up in the air. It explodes into a cloud of snow, hissing as if you’d thrown it onto a white-hot griddle.

             The hard rubber puck hit the goal’s
             metal post…and shattered.

If it gets really, really cold—like the minus 36 I experienced last winter up in Bemidji—remember how that feels; it’ll make for a kind of warped bragging rights the rest of your life.

My high school’s hockey rink was outdoors, unenclosed. One day when the temperature hovered around 25 below one of my teammates hit a great slap shot. The hard rubber puck hit the goal’s metal post…and shattered.

Appreciate the graceful shapes snow assumes when sculpted by the wind; and its ability to record everything from the passing of a field mouse to the progression of climate change over millennia.

Right after a fresh snowfall, Nature bore witness to a poignant, life-and-death drama right in the middle of my back yard: a line of delicate mouse or vole tracks that ended abruptly. And flanking the very last tiny footprint, the subtle, but unmistakable, imprints of two-foot wings.

Discover snow’s sublime beauty in both its micro and macro forms. An individual snowflake is one of Nature’s most elegant, beguiling creations. And, in the billions, they can bury a freight train, shut down a city or become the medium for gorgeous drifting dunes.

During my Army stint, I spent a weekend leave in New York City. Sunday dawned to the hush of over a foot of fresh snow. The normal hustle and hum of big-city life had been damped down to the easy murmur of a village. The only things moving were people on foot; the only sounds, the laughter of folks having a snowball fight…and swish-swish of one guy skiing.

Discover how, when a lake’s unbridled liquidity freezes solid and flat, it sets free your own gliding, swirling dance. You will need skates.

I’ll never forget my first skate on “black ice." Sunfish Lake had just frozen over (just a couple of inches thick), and neither wind nor snow had yet marred its glassy, obsidian perfection.*

Shed the scratchy, stifling coat of adulthood for a while, and free your inner child to delight in the season.

While skiing through the woods, I stopped in a pool of sunlight. I don't know what prompted me to lift my gaze, but suddenly I was awash in a fine, dazzling-diamond mist. The five-year-old in me opened my mouth and caught as much as I could on my tongue. I took a deep breath of pure, sub-zero air and vowed I’d never forget.
I haven’t.

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 super cells and sand storms. I’ll take the winter weather wonders of Minnesota any day. 

 C’mon, I know you’re envious!

* I later learned that another skater had fallen through the ice that day on the same lake. Officials insist lake ice is safest to walk on when it’s clear and at least four inches thick. Even then, you should carry a pair of picks designed to enable your escape in the event you break through.


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