If ever there were a winter to study snow, this one is it. Right now outside my window, I have whimsical snow globe snow, tiny flakes floating down, but also up, as though the world has been shaken and will take a few moments to settle—and maybe that’s what’s happened. Yesterday it was fat clusters falling hard, the kind that blind me when they smack the lens of my glasses. We’ve been hit with stealth snow, quietly piling up in the night, and walls of snow, sliding from dark clouds across the horizon. We’ve had snow that came down heavily and then seemed to just blow away without accumulating, perhaps ending up somewhere in Pennsylvania.
I grew up in Wisconsin, and spent winters digging caves in snowdrifts and sculpting snow-things and sledding, sledding, sledding. No roller coaster can beat racing down an icy hill on an inner tube, hitting a snow ramp and catching air. I had an aluminum saucer sled with rope handles. My dad coated the bottom with cross-country ski wax to make it extra slippery (he also taught us to ride down hot metal slides in the summer sitting on waxed paper—same effect). After school it was dark when we were sledding. The hill, next door, dropped from behind our neighbor’s house, and they generously allowed the neighborhood kids to cling around their backyard, waiting for a chance to slip screaming away. On the saucer, I spun and spun, hurtling, disoriented, into the cold.
I’m not generous with my snow. When I was a kid, my mom discouraged us from sledding the tiny hill in our front yard that dipped to living room picture window; she wanted to look out over the untouched smooth white clean. Even now, when she’s gone too long without a good dusting back in Wisconsin, she tells me she needs some new snow to cover up the old snow, tarnished by road sludge. I, too, relish my snow unblemished, marked only by the tracks of the dog and squirrels and rabbits, lightly quilted with the vees of bird feet. I curse the snowmobiles trespassing along my front yard; does everything have to be a road to somewhere?
Wind shapes the snow into bowls and waves across our property, collecting mounds around trees, sweeping the ground almost bare in stretches. But this year the wind formed something I’d never seen before in all my studies of snow. In the fields along the road I take to work, strong gusts had grabbed bits of snow and rolled them along, forming donuts of snow called snow rollers. The conditions for snow rollers are precise—snow covered in a layer of ice covered in wet snow blown by strong winds. In the morning sun, the cylinders of snow curling across the land caught the light, casting long shadows. Though I had my camera, the roads weren’t well-plowed, so I couldn’t pull over. Built of layers, like pastry, they only lasted a day or so before collapsing or eroding away in more wind.
A thaw moves in this week, and the snow will shrink down, revealing the green tips of iris reticulata and daffodils, a glimpse of bright noise beneath quiet. I often find surprises in the thaw, a rabbit half-eaten, a bird stunned underneath a window, a forgotten bouquet on the compost pile, some carrots waiting in their patch, or simply just a trowel left out on a fall day, mid-dig, sturdy and indifferent.