It may not have been the most superior year for snow. That would be when the door had to be shoved open, an impressive snow drift refusing to budge until you put your weight into it. But any winter was a different world from what I have now. Foremost in this land is rain: chilled, heavy or sparse, freezing or just slanting and bitter wind-blown, intermittent or all day and night. Inevitable. Not that I don’t like rain. The Pacific Northwest depends on lots of it, while I count on the lush green landscape to remain enchanting. And from May until late October it is mostly clear, sunny and festooned with flowers.
But I still have moments of snow yearning.
A recent long walk triggered memories of my mid-Michigan childhood. My hair, despite a cap anchoring it, was tangled by wind. My cheeks were getting chafed, felt perhaps twenty minutes from being immovable. I jammed gloved hands into my jacket pockets and sped up my pace. But the scent on gusting drafts held familiar sharpness: it teased me with a remote chance of snow. I kept a faster pace to keep blood well pumped through all systems; I am no longer acclimated to very cold temperatures (below 50…). Still, ridiculous to entertain the idea of snow arriving. There was snow being dumped in the Cascades, accumulating on volcanic Mt. Hood, our highest peak. Snow in the valley–unlikely. If it happened, a light layer would tantalize, cause school closures and then vanish in more usual temperateness.
But as I walked scenes of lustrous white flashed in my memory. They arose from flat, spare lands of the Midwest of my childhood–oh the swirling, drifting, diving snowflakes that fell upon my world were like magic. A dependable, ever powerful magic. I would awaken to a silence so deep it swaddled the mind. I’d peer out my upstairs bedroom window at the driveway to find cars blanketed, bushes shaped into capricious forms, trees wearing their dresses of fluffy whiteness. The cloudy sky was densely stuffed with more impatient snowflakes. If only school wasn’t required. I’d have to wait for play until after the afternoon trudge home in boots and scarf, mittens and snowsuit. Then I had only a short time until dinner, then homework and practicing cello. Schools and businesses were rarely closed due to snow; we still had plenty to do.
But if it was Saturday (not Sunday, that meant church until noon), a good portion of the day was mine. (And the night. I loved the evening hours even then, and the snowy landscape took on a unique beauty.) After accoutrements of said snow lover were accounted for–long pants, undershirt and shirt with sweater and long johns and thick socks in addition to outerwear–I readied myself for the first breath. It hurt. It stung like it was supposed to, a sudden swoosh of cold that could freeze the hairy lining of your nose, poorly protected flesh. I’d experienced hands so over-cold that when indoors by the heat register they would burn terribly. If, though, the wintered air could seem mean-spirited and brittle, it was in fact welcome, a lively impetus to move the limbs, embrace the weather. I would lift each heavy-booted foot and plow through the back yard. First off, the obligatory snow angel: lie down, spread legs and arms to make windmill motions and an angel appeared at once. Because I loved angelic beings, because it was the tiniest artistic moment, this proved quite satisfying.
The towering pine trees that rimmed our back yard stood like empresses with ermine capes, already present for the party. My favorite climbing tree, a graceful big maple, was naked and ghostly still. Bushes responded to passing legs and a few swats with sprays of snow that covered my glasses. I’d have to take off mittens to wipe away wetness so I could see where the next step would lead. They all led, back there, to Stark’s Nursery, the land of –at least to me, a city child–the wild and free. I decided to get my Radio Flyer sled, in case there was anything interesting to drag home. In case I wanted to sit down and warm up my snow-crusted mitten-bound hands by slapping them hard against each other. Once out on the rolling land of the nursery, I saw other kids searching for good spots to begin the snowball fights. From behind walls made of hand-built rectangles of snow, a fort of sorts, they would ready, aim, fire off a guarded supply of hard packed balls. Woe to anyone not paying attention. I had a decent throwing arm but snowball contact could be disastrous when meeting flesh. Like exposed faces. Since I wore glasses until a teen, I tended to avoid the heaviest skirmishes; I wanted to be able to see it all.
I might scope out a place for an igloo. A snowdrift half as big as myself helped me get started. I would begin to carve out a good hollow, then pack snow for base and sides, adding a little here and there as I built upward to the roof area, shape bigger blocks as needed to frame things out nicely. Soon other kids might join in to make the interior broader and deeper. If the snow was the sort for exceptional packing, we might add a small wing, carving out a connecting tunnel. And that made for a cozy snow abode. I recall sitting inside and thinking that nowhere else, no matter how fancy, compared to such a spot. I was surrounded by glistening whiteness. By then I was warm, even sweaty, and frigid air was welcomed anew. Shimmering sunlight bounced off the nursery’s open range: snow blindness might ensue so I’d close eyes, rest, rudimentary thick, curved walls keeping all of us that fit both snug and safe.
Pulling an empty sled through ankle-to-knee-high snow attracted freeloaders whose weight slowed or stopped my progress. We took turns hauling each other a bit. But a sled was good for piling on broken branches the snow’s weighty load had snapped off, then taking them to the igloo to decorate. Or use as brushes on smooth snowfall. Better yet, pile a couple fallen heavy icicles and give one to a friend for a rousing sword fight. But what I now recall about sled pulling was how it made two deep tracks in a perfect, scintillating expanse. I found it lovely, a design of curving, shadowy swipes upon a canvas of snow. I don’t know why this captivated me, but there it is: voluptuous snow; fresh ruts; light moving across the yard; festooned trees leaning about.
At night it was the best time, that entrancing time between twilight and darkness now informed by a gently undulating carpet of whiteness. It was the side yard that drew me first. To the left hibernated a huge garden plot kept by our crotchety bent-over neighbor. To the right was our two-story cheery yellow and turquoise house, its many windows glowing, parents and older siblings ensconced and busy with work. I could slink around, watch and listen undetected, seek shelter within snow-swathed bushes with their poisonous but pretty red berries. I would act out stories of grand heroics wherein I was rescuer or explorer or brave lost orphan. No one could hear or see me, so I had full creative license.
By night, traffic had slowed to a trickle on our often busy street. The corner streetlight beyond our front yard would swing in winds from an Arctic front, casting shape-shifter shadows over and around all. Our front porch was made of brick and cement. I could sit on one of four corner built-in seats. The air seemed imbued with blue and amber as lack of light and swaths of artificial light intermingled, then separated. Cold and quietness spoke to this enthralled child, reflected peace woven with mystery. Things present and things to come. Of a world that was made of fabulous parts, an earth created by a omnipresent God. If it was a full moon night then it was even more shivery good, the dark blueness and whiteness limned with silver.
But when I prepared to go ice skating, time seemed suspended. Even as I changed from boots to figure skates, my heart pounded, muscles tensed, ready to spring my body forward. I could not get out to the ice fast enough. I took a lungful of crisp air, pushed off with a thrust of sharp blades: it was all motion inside speed, taking risks, threading my way around the busy outdoor rink. The thrill of it, hard, slick ice beneath my feet; rushing, cold breeze over my skin; hands aiding balance now often bare, my limbs reaching as I urged my body forward–then rose from the surface. Gravity defied for a few instants as I leapt and spun and jumped. The unrestrained happiness of it, radiant winter sky above, legs strong and feet sure. There were very few things I felt passion for as I did for figure skating, even the study and daily practice. Even the falls and the rising up again. I felt both moved beyond and fully occupied by sinew and blood, nerve and bone. My breath rasped in, out and energy coursed through my innermost center. Ice skating was heavenly, that was all. (I still dream of it and occasionally put on my skates for a lovely spin.)
There was also sledding, inarguably excellent fun even if my town held only a trifling of hills. But more so: tobogganing. We had two great toboggan runs deep in City Forest a few miles out from town. To be a successful tobogganer requires fearlessness, decent muscle strength, a spirit of adventure, and willingness to take any blows and bruises. A shiver of recklessness is what I felt. The framework that created the elevation and length of those iced runs were made of wood. Standing in line as we climbed up steps to the top was part of the experience, a sense of danger, as the high tower helped support two of four elevated toboggan runs. They were wooden, had been around awhile. In any case, toboggans in tow, up we went, no turning back. The runs were five hundred feet long, thickly iced and snow lined as well. We squeezed up to four on a toboggan and held on to each other from behind. The ride down was bumpy, fast, long enough and breathtaking, every one screaming in enthusiastic compliance with such an event. Occasionally someone would fall off or get a hand caught between the side and the toboggan (we were strongly cautioned by adults), but overall it only felt like a crazy ride. In short: a winter thrill.
There are miscellaneous winter bits, like the few happy times I skied on quite giant bumps of earth further up north, only giving it up due to the large expense. There was ice fishing, much further down on the happiness meter unless I could be indoors by the fire, watching for a red flag signaling fish nabbed beneath the hole. There was deer season, the one time I did not want to be in Michigan woods at all. And winters on the Great Lakes, when you were blessed beyond measure just to stand and freeze as you took in the panorama of beauty.
The snowbound months comprised one season among four others, and surely snowflakes gathering all about meant home. But now I have lived over twenty years in Oregon and it is a different tale.
So there I was, walking after a cold brief rain, thinking I smelled the electric, bright scent of snow on the horizon– indulging myself. Kidding myself. For if it does snow in the Willamette Valley this winter, it will be pretty and pleasing–but it will not be too exciting. Flat-out marvelous. Not to me, as I’ve already had some of the best snowy moments that can be had. Being a child helped immensely; that is, the gifts coming to an outdoors sort of kid in the northern Midwest seem some of the very best. Nostalgia notwithstanding, it had its pros and cones, I suppose. The perils of icy roads and raging snowstorms were real, too. Shoveling heavy snow was not a blast. All that clothing was not easy to maneuver within.
But I will take these rainy days and nights, too. Gladly. At best, I now find in it the rhapsodic aspect of winter, even though these clouds can seem leaden and dampness does not abate for any length of time. It is still a deep affection I feel, even when our famous roses go on hiatus. The falling waters are signs of a time to turn more inward–though I still walk with raincoat and scarf, gloves and a moth-attacked blue cashmere hat. I take to the streets and find good surprises while woods and wetlands eventually dry out some. While mud is not snow and raindrops not snowflakes, the varieties of rain comprise musical programming that keeps me soothed. Water is critical to life and any precipitation keeps it flowing. At its worst, the rainy season keeps me rooted to chair more often. Sends me scurrying toward others so as to share cups of steaming tea or coffee. I engage in indoor experiences less urgent when sun blares for six months. But this emerald acreage, the density of wilderness is all about me. The rainfall nourishes, transforms and prepares the earth for more adventures to come. I am ready and willing to partake of it all.
It seems one’s sense of home is a combination of elements, tangible and intangible. I have learned to carry home within me and in that regard I count myself fortunate. So now that December is here: welcome, rain. Or let it snow a tad. I will find a spot in winter’s design and then just ease on in.