Monday, December 27, 2010

The Glory of Winter

Thick, almost grey clouds wrap anxiously around the ridge like a well worn glove. Chickadees, Nuthatches and Blue Jays flutter back and forth from the boughs of nearby pine trees to the hanging feeders and suet. A handful of woodpeckers of various sizes peck relentlessly on the hollow trees scattered randomly in the woods creating my favorite rhythm section. A plump red squirrel sits beneath the frenzy, nibbling on sunflower seeds that fall to the frozen brown earth. I imagine touching her silken fur but know better.

It’s late December and we have just celebrated a rare but not impossible brown Christmas. Of course it is always better in New Hampshire to absorb the warmth of the fire, sipping hot chocolate while the lights twinkle against the backdrop of a frosted window with perfect geometrical snowflakes floating outside. There is a heightened level of coziness when there is snow on the ground. Otherwise the cracked frozen earth resonates deep in my chest leaving me with a definite longing. A fresh blanket of white snow eases the pain.

Last night it snowed.  Finally.

The birds returned, only this time with a flock of Red Polls and American Tree Sparrows. The Hairy Woodpecker came all the way in to hang on the suet.

As a child, a yard full of snow meant art, especially if the snow was heavy and sticky – favorable sculpting consistency. If the snow was light and fluffy, the medium changed, leading to the creation of flocks of snow angels and huge messages and designs created by dragging my feet while walking or using a stick.

Last night was such a night. I found myself walking in a large circle and making a peace sign even though I knew that the only viewer would be a possible snowy owl or unsuspecting silver fox.

As a home school family, it was typical for me to call my children when it was time for art. You have a field of clay, I told them. We were active potters at the time. I provided them with a wide assortment of shovels, spades, pails, cups and other plastic shaping items, water color paints and sometimes food coloring. From eight foot turtles and cheetahs to two story forts inhabited by our cat Felix, the creatures and structures in our yard were quite impressive. We put Frosty to shame with entire snow families complete with crazy hairdo’s made from hay (we had a farm) and funky clothes.

As important as the ocean is to a Cancerian, I have lived most of my life on farms on mountain tops. (I must have found my water connection to lakes, rivers and ponds to be sufficient). My childhood homes were either perched on a hill or had several good hills within close proximity. Sledding was a daily event in the winter. We had everything from long, wooden, L.L. Bean toboggans to the Flyer runner sleds and metal flying saucers.

The latter were so effective that I have a dim memory of sitting in a silver, dented saucer with my puffy mittens jammed into white canvas handles, careening down a steep hill with my mother and two sisters running after me hollering. I lost them. I was about two years old. Because of ideal conditions, I cruised on and on through the woods, miraculously missing trees, all the way to downtown Plymouth, finally stopping by the edge of a busy parking lot of a grocery store. I remember sitting very still with a peculiar feeling about being there without my mother or the car.

When we weren’t sledding or skating, we were skiing. We had wooden skis and ski boots with laces. The hills were always big enough to bother skiing on. It took a great deal of time and effort to pack down the snow for skiing, but it was well worth it. I used to go to skiing lessons at a small ski area called “Red Hill”. It had a rope tow. It seems that the most important worry at that time was making sure that your mitten didn’t get stuck to the rope when you let go. I learned the basics of real skiing there. Back then we used terms like snow plow and stem christie.

In my middle teens, I started snowshoeing. That became one of my favorite winter activities, which still holds true today. During the stage of my life when I wanted to explore and inhibitions and fears were falling away, I began snowshoeing at night under a full moon. That is when I first discovered the moonfield. The brightness of the moon explodes off of the white snow; the shadows are dark gray and a little suspicious. The silence in the woods in mid winter under a full moon is intoxicating. The atmosphere is quite thin, making everything clearer than usual. I think that the clarity involves all the senses, not only sight.

When the snow is crusty, it shines like glass. After a fresh storm, sometimes the snow sparkles like diamonds and the wind creates wispy, swirly snow devils.

There is a small mountain in Holderness called Rattlesnake. One of my favorite memories is snowshoeing to the top of the mountain and looking out over the snowy landscape of Big and Little Squam Lakes. I’ve been climbing that mountain since girlhood. It has become a huge tourist attraction, so climbing in the winter restores much needed isolation and the magnificence of solitude – distant memory.

My children and I used to snowshoe all over Carter Mountain, where we once lived and had a thriving farm. Often in winter we found ourselves at the top where we enjoyed pastel pink and grey sunsets that complimented a deserted barn in the woods. I think it’s the fact that we can go places on snowshoes that would be otherwise impossible. We marveled at and identified the array of wild animal tracks in the snow, sometimes solving mysteries and always telling stories.

After a warm spell that may involve rain, when a deep freeze returns, the surface of the snow becomes a hard glazed crust. Depending upon your weight and the thickness of the crust, sometimes you can sit without a sled and slide from one place to another. It’s exhilarating, but one must take precautions, as it can be difficult to stop.

We made colossal snowmen by rolling balls in the sticky snow. There is skill required in the rolling process to insure roundness. Some of the greatest snowmen and women in the world have been born in my fields and schoolyards.

Like timpani drums in my tummy, I feel the distant, rumbling snowplows. When I was a little girl, they scared me with their huge orangeness and flashing lights. The howling wind scared me too. I used to make deals with it, or warn that it did not frighten me, at which time it almost always rose in pitch and intensity. You cannot lie to the wind, it knows.

Each time we were promised snow this season, we were disappointed with a mere dusting at best. I spent the past three winters in a tropical climate, enjoying the beaches but longing for snow. When I watched the national weather, I envied the recipients of the great snowstorms that fell in New England.

Now it is my turn again. I was so pleased when it started snowing hard last night. I was like a child when I scrambled out of bed this morning to see how much snow had fallen - to assess the situation. It was okay, a respectable storm, but nothing spectacular. The wind howled and the sun actually threatened to peek out behind a solid wall of clouds. I didn’t want the sun to come out just yet. I needed to feel the storm. I don’t like quickies or instant gratification. It went away. No sun. The winds are increasing and the wind chill factor will trigger my nesting instincts.

I listened to the AP news on the local radio station earlier and was baffled by the terminology and the fact that many states or places have declared a state of emergency. I also heard enough on mainstream television to know that the message being sent out on the airwaves is dramatic as it describes this blizzard pounding the Eastern Seaboard and New England. Are they serious? We have gotten hammered much worse (better) than this in my lifetime. Several times…a thousand times. This is winter.

I conclude that Americans are accustomed to sensationalized stories. If a storm isn’t pounding a region, ravaging neighborhoods, devastating fields or destroying property, it is not newsworthy. Is it so difficult to report that we are having a winter storm? Do we need to feed our insatiable appetite for upheaval and chaos? Perhaps it is the need to keep everyone on the edge of their seats and living in fear and dread. Maybe it is because there is something else going on altogether, and focusing on a typical winter storm in the Eastern United States is a distraction?

Get out your snowshoes, sleds, skis and mittens. Go out and play. Make a snow family and a few snow angels here and there. Bang your feet off before you track all that wonderful fresh snow into the house, and have a cup of hot chocolate and a plate of cookies. Curl up beside the fire or under a patchwork quilt with your favorite book or kindred spirit and be thankful for winter and all her glory.

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