A Winter World

To one who lives in the snow and watches it day by day, it is a book to be read. The pages turn as the wind blows; the characters shift and the images formed by their combinations change in meaning…It is a shadow language, spoken by things that have gone and will come again. ~ John Haines, ‘The Snow, the Stars, the Fire’

Some winters I see lizards scattering across stones as I clamber the hillsides, retreating to the dark crannies that pockmark the slopes like the hollows of a sponge. I see butterflies resume their flights with the same uncertainty as children learning to ride bikes, slow and unaccustomed to light after a period of hibernation. I see reckless wildflowers uncurl towards the sun, prescient, fragile, doomed if the weather turns. But until it does they spark like coloured lights amongst the wind-raked grasses.

Other winters are different, mysteries of crystals and ice, when a world of white snow settles after falling, falls and settles again, a silent stillness austere and astonishing. Snow muffles the season, hushes the hours like a monastic spell. Ice lengthens into hanging spires, a winter citadel upturned along each village roof. Burst rosehips are scattered red across the snow by small mammals, little bundles of seed and skin, one of the few wild fruits to be found with any certainty in a frugal season. Hare tracks stipple the drifts, a loping set of indentations separated by white space, revealing how little they are bound to earth when they move. An afterimage of feathers shows where a bird has landed on snow to leave an imprint of its presence, a delicate etching akin to animal calligraphy.

From the first frosts of November I watch the skies for storms, looking for the grey ceiling of clouds that might coincide with a chill air, searching for the metallic, glittering light that often signals a fall. But in recent years the snows have been scarce, and all but the highest mountains have passed the winters bare. In our warming world I worry about the lake which is sustained by snowmelt, the rivers that bring life to the wet meadows and irrigate crops throughout the basin. Winter is no longer a sure thing.

But I also miss the joys of winter. Seeing snow fall from a mountain sky never fails to delight me. It takes me back to my childhood in Canada, when snow instigated a building of forts and ramparts, a cairn of snowballs at my side, as my brother and I spent the dwindling hours until dusk pummeling each other’s defences, or traipsing through the white drifts in snowsuits that hissed with our steps, ploughing paths with unrivalled excitement. We were explorers in a vast and uncharted wilderness, sending boats of bark sailing down rivers of ice we’d cracked open with our heels.

That mystery has never faded; I still thrill to the falling snow because of its simple and elemental beauty. It casts a spell that is different from other weathers; encourages intimacy with one of the planet’s magical processes. And the notion that each snowflake falling from a billowing white sky is unique in its form is as astonishing as the multitude of stars that umbrella the clear winter nights. Each one a rarity, a pattern indescribably its own.

Born in 1865, Wilson A. Bentley was entranced by snow by the time he was a teenager growing up on a farm in Vermont. Absorbed by the long winters, Bentley set out to photograph snowflakes, eventually overcoming the technical difficulties of the age by attaching a bellows camera to a microscope and transferring each flake from a piece of black velvet to a microscope slide, capturing his first snowflake image in 1885. Before he died of pneumonia in 1931, after walking six miles through a blizzard in order to make more images, Bentley, also known as The Snowflake Man, had photographed more than 5000 snowflakes, including 2,500 for his 1931 book Snow Crystals. In all that time he never discovered two that were alike. One of the first to capture the ephemeral forms of snow before they melted, Bentley proclaimed that each flake was unique.

“Under the microscope I found that snowflakes were miracles of beauty and it seemed a shame that this beauty should not be seen and appreciated by others. Every crystal was a masterpiece of design, and no design was ever repeated. When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost. Just that much beauty was gone, without leaving any record behind.”

While the beauty of a snowflake is visible individually, taken together they have a cumulative and transforming power. Snow strips the land back to the bone, revealing its very essence, the shape and profile of a place. It’s like seeing a first draft of the land, an outline before the grace notes were added: the lichen-frilled rocks and scattered shrubs, the wild and tumbling grasses.

The ridges above my home are white and skeletal this winter, curved into smooth and sinuous lines. Bare trees stand sentry across the fields. And at the foot of the valley the lake has taken on the hue of ice, though it isn’t frozen. Instead it seems to know this winter is different, more in keeping with the way the season should be, what it means in this corner of the world. Far from being a dead time, winter restores and replenishes; it lays the ground for the long, searing summer months. For now the lake reflects the sky off the snow, turning deep blue in the process, the blue of distance and longing. The same watery blue the snow will melt into come spring.

31 thoughts on “A Winter World

  1. Beautifully written elegy to the wonderful phenomenon of snow, Hoff. Some wonderful metaphor and similie; I especially loved these two sentences:

    ‘Snow muffles the season, hushes the hours like a monastic spell. Ice lengthens into hanging spires, a winter citadel upturned along each village roof.’

    What gives your writing its particular magic is your subtle eye for the beauty of the commonplace. Your ability to show us with a lightness of touch, what we know, but seldom recognise, provokes a thrill of recognition.

    The account of Wilson A. Bentley’s labour of love photographing snowflakes is astounding. It’s sad though fitting that it was a blizzard that did for him in the end, the second blog post featuring an artist killed by weather-induced pneumonia that I’ve read today:

    http://acrosstheminch.wordpress.com/2012/01/19/i-crossed-the-minch/

    Funnily enough, I read your post after returning from a walk in the snow along the River Kelvin. Wet snow though, it hasn’t settled.

    1. I feel very honoured by your touching comment, Pete. Thank you…

      Like you I was drawn to Bentley’s obsession, and the nature of his death. It seemed to somehow fit the pattern of his fascination, despite being undeniably tragic. Likewise I was interested to read of Louis MacNeice in light of this; I don’t think I’d ever know that he’d died after a walk on the moors. I imagine that must have resonated with you.

      To cap off the winter our pipes froze yesterday, during the day! When this happened once before the water didn’t return for two months. Still lovely out all the same as I begin a new regime of hauling 5-litre jugs of water from a friend’s house across the road…

  2. Thanks Julian. Beautiful as usual! You are one of my favorite writers in the blogosphere. For that I have nominated you for the Versatile Blogger award. Not sure if you accept awards or not but I wanted to thank you for your work.

    1. Wonderful to hear from you, JE! And many thanks for the kind thoughts about my writing. Although I don’t officially accept these blogging awards I do accept them in spirit, and I’m extremely grateful and touched that you thought of me. Having such a thoughtful group of readers as yourself is my award. Hope all is well and best wishes,

      Julian

    1. Thanks for this lovely comment, Diana! I’m delighted that you compared these posts to a walk. It’s a walk that I’m so pleased to be sharing in. A winter world might have made a little change from the weather you’re used to! Hope all is well in the garden…

      Julian

    1. Thank you, Stephen. I’ve heard that it can be pretty wintry in Minnesota, somewhere I’d very much like to visit actually. Thanks for reading and hope all is well with you,

      Julian

  3. This post was a pleasure to read this late afternoon as our first snowstorm of this winter is winding down. This time last year we had had more snow than ever in Connecticut history and this year nothing until now. It does make me wonder about global warming…

    Your pictures are stunning and I enjoyed learning about Wilson A. Bentley and his passionate interest in snowflakes. “A line of snow, a line of sky” has a striking mood and I love the long winter shadows in “Glittering.” Thanks for the gentle reminder that “winter restores and replenishes; it lays the ground for the long, searing summer months.” It’s a beautiful season.

    1. Thanks so much, Barbara! I remember your posts from last winter when you really got hit hard with snow. So much of climate change is about turbulent weather patterns and I believe we’ll experience more and more of these violent shifts in our lifetimes.

      I’m always drawn to dark skies and how they reflect and reveal a particular landscape, showing it off in different ways. There is a real beauty about stormy weather, I find, and I’m delighted that you enjoyed the moods of these photos. Many thanks for the fine words, and hope you enjoy the remainder of this “beautiful season.”

  4. You have this uncanny knack of putting into words all that goes through my head in winter. Your evocative treatise on the power of snow said everything I haven’t quite been able to put into words myself.

    Thank you for sharing that bit of insight on the history of snowflake study. I’ve always found it staggering to think of the infinite ways in which water can become art.

    We’re finally having a proper winter here, though the snow is still on the lean side. Like you, I’ve always had an affinity for winter and all the possibilities it holds. The tracks on the snow make me feel closer to the wildlife that silently shares the forest with me every day.

    Stay warm.

    1. Thanks, Heather! Nice to know we’re thinking along similar lines as your posts always clarify for me a question or puzzle that seems buried within. They enable me to look more carefully at the world around.

      It’s been a pleasure sharing something of the history of snowflake photography as it was fascinating to research. I’m always enthralled by how inquisitive the human mind can be, and Bentley followed a path of his own making.

      Winter is biting here; we’ve been without water for over a week now and one by one other villages in Prespa are losing their water to burst pipes and frozen and shattered pumps. More a case of the poor job of water infrastructure that was done some years ago in my opinion, as these kinds of winters aren’t unknown here. The villages could be awash with water come spring when the roads are unlocked from ice!!

      Enjoy following the tracks…

  5. You have expressed so poetically and evocatively my favourite thing about winter: “Snow muffles the season, hushes the hours like a monastic spell.” I love the silence of a gentle snowfall. Most of our snow this year has come in on the insistent wind, so it has rather been rousing the world to howl than muffling. However most of what you say is so familiar and as always put into such beautiful words. Your images, too are so welcoming, so very beautiful.

    I used to have a book in the library called “Snowflake Bentley” which attempted to describe his work to children. I just checked my database and it’s not there and I don’t remember what happened to it. Gone the way of the habitually ignored, I guess. A quiet topic. Too quiet for the rush-addicted generation. A shame.

    1. Indeed, Cindy, that hushed quiet is also my favourite aspect of the winter months. It’s like the world is being sealed in. To walk into it is to be intimate with silence, a rare quality these days. I led a group of people who were here as part of a cultural exchange on a walk in the hills a couple of years ago. We all laughed with the joy of coming downhill in the sun after a tough climb up, and one of the young women turned to me and said, “This is really great, but it would be even better if I was listening to my iPod.” The world’s songs are much quieter…

      A great shame about the book; “…a quiet topic,” but one that I hope still reaches people, particularly children. I’m going to reply to Susan with a few thoughts on this.

      Thanks, as always, Cindy, for your beautiful comments. I deeply appreciate it…

      Best wishes,
      Julian

    1. Thank you, Sybil, for the kind and generous compliment. I deeply appreciate having you along, and it’s a real pleasure to hear you’ve been enjoying the blog! My very best wishes,

      Julian

  6. Thanks for transporting me back to me days as a “professional snow fort builder” when I lived as a young girl on Long Island New York. The snow was what we lived for and it was truly magical. I can remember the deafening silence in the early morning after a big storm (“snow day” were my two favorite words). Everything was so still and quiet except for the crunch crunch of my hand-me-down snow boots.

    We played in it, fought with it, slid down it, and even ate it (real “snow cones” with milk and sugar and food coloring….but not yellow)

    Thank you for introducing me to Wilson Bentley and his work! I found a copy of “Snowflake Bentley” and am going to send it to my 7 year old niece who lives in Philly. I also am going to order Wilson Bentley’s book, “Snow Crystals”. I think I will copy and frame some of the images and put them in my workroom. they will be nice to look at on a 100F day here in the south in the summer!

    Thanks again for a wonderful post!

    1. Thanks so much for sharing this wonderful story of “storm days” and the “crunch crunch” of your hand-me-down boots, Susan! I felt along for the ride, the walk, and the slide, though I’ve never had a true snowcone! Not sure how they passed us by, but you’ve detailed that expansive world of childhood so beautifully and I’m delighted to hear that you’re sending the book to your niece. After reading Cindy’s comment of the Bentley book getting lost or going missing in her library I wondered how children might perceive that world of snow in this day and age of fast and relentless video games and texts etc. I had a message on my Facebook page yesterday from an old friend who said how much her young daughter loved the snowflake images of Bentley’s that I’d included in this post. I smiled at that; here was a child growing up in contemporary North America who was delighted to see photographs of snow taken over a century ago. Childhood retains the possibility for immersion in all kinds of wonder, even if as a culture we’ve put them to one side, inferior things in comparison to the technological bounties of our age. I went to bed last night thinking of that child enjoying ‘ancient’ images of snow on a computer, and felt a surge of delight at how odd and wonderful our world can be.

      Hope those snowflake photos cool your summer days, and looking forward to hearing how the book goes down with your neice…thanks again, Susan.

  7. This is such a wonderful post, Julian. I like your description of “reckless wildflowers” and thinking of the impression of a feather in the snow as an etching, like animal calligraphy. And the story about the snowflake photographer is fascinating! I really hope your pipes thaw out before spring. When I read your first comment about it, I thought it was like when our pipes sometimes freeze overnight, but it sounds like you can’t do anything to unthaw them. I remember one winter when I was a kid, in the 70’s, when the snow banks seemed to be as tall as houses, but that doesn’t happen anymore. Thanks for these beautiful descriptions and images of winter.

    1. Thanks ever so much, Cait, for the kind compliments and your thoughts on winter. I was a kid in the 70s around Toronto and the snows back then were like mountains, and not just because of my tiny size! It’s precisely how I recall those winters, and when I look at old photographs with my parents the snow is perhaps even higher than in memory. But as you say, that sadly and worryingly doesn’t happen anymore.

      I’m afraid it’s not just a nightly freeze unfortunately! The pipes are frozen through and some point a long way from the house and I have only a vague idea of where…so spring it is! After a couple of days of rain here it is now snowing heavily again. And although it would be nice to have the water back I’m too excited watching the snow to be that worried about it. Hope all is well with you, Cait, and that you’re enjoying the tracks and signs and sounds of the season.

  8. Growing up in Northern Ontario, snow was a big part of my life for half the year. As an adult, I love the way it softens the rough contours of the land, just like fog. We’ve had so little snow this winter in Nova Scotia. Halifax area will often get rain instead.

    Loved reading about Bentley, ‘the snowflake man.’ He must have been a very gentle person to undertake such a study.

    1. Great to hear from you, Amy-Lynn! I can well imagine the snow of northern Ontario as I remember a fair bit from the southern end of the province. But yes, in conversations with family and friends in Ontario and the Maritimes it seems that winter is a different season these days. I thought long about Bentley after researching this post and came to a similar conclusion: of the care and sensitiveness of one to see through such passions. Delighted you liked the post, and hope all is well with you in your corner of the globe.

      Best wishes,
      Julian

  9. I have been writing on the mystical and metaphysical meaning manifested in snow and to find your elegant blog and read this beautiful essay today at dawn was incredibly moving. Thank you for sharing with us the beauty you embrace with such eloquent writing.

    1. Thanks ever so much, Rima, for your moving comment. It was a joy to find it yesterday, and to hear that these winter words had touched you in such a way. I’m very interested in what you’re writing about in regards to snow and look forward to stopping by your blog to discover a few of your own words. Thanks again…

      My very best wishes,

      Julian

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