Sunlight casts tree shadows and crystals on new-fallen snow.Rachel Lovejoy photo
“It is the life of the crystal, the architect of the flake, the fire of the frost, the soul of the sunbeam. This crisp winter air is full of it. “— John Burroughs
As winter continues to display its many different moods, we live with the knowledge that spring is once again just a few days away. From the deep subzero freezes and hip-high snow banks to the misty gray fogs and bare ground of the lulls between storms, only in winter are the many weather variants so obvious and so personally experienced.
There was a reason our ancestors took getting ready for winter seriously. Back in “the good old days,” before central heating and insulated plumbing, there was much to be done before Jack Frost’s arrival … banking houses with hay, wrapping pipes, tucking cloth in around drafty windows, and stocking root cellars with the garden’s bounty. I’m old enough to remember when many folks closed certain rooms off in their houses in an attempt to contain the heat in a smaller area. As a child, I slept in a second-story bedroom whose only source of heat in the winter was a small grate in the floor above an oil stove in the kitchen below. Needless to say, that method wasn’t very effective in January when the actual outside temperature was 20 below.
I remember watching as my parents lugged pails of hot water upstairs whenever the pipes in the second-floor bathroom froze. And I recall how, every year, they would move into one of the smaller of three bedrooms upstairs, as the “big bedroom” got too cold to sleep in. Which meant that my sister moved in with me until spring, a situation I did not always appreciate.
Winter does demand more of us than do any of the other seasons. After all, aside from wardrobe changes or reinstalling air conditioners, we never hear of anyone getting ready for spring, summer, or fall. We ease into those seasons easily and joyfully, looking forward to more sunny days and a respite from cabin fever.
Yet as dark as the days of winter can be, I tend to see them as a time when I actually appreciate the sunlight more. On gray days, I long for it. Then, when another day dawns with no clouds on the horizon, it’s a gift. And not a day goes by that I don’t hear someone say “The days are getting longer!” with an enthusiasm not felt since last year.
Like so much else in winter, it seems that the light struggles to be noticed. And it’s amazing how it goes about achieving that. It can be a radiant sunrise where the light is broken into a spectrum of purples and golds as it bounces off low-lying clouds. The light also manifests itself in the billions of snow stars that scintillate both as they fall and as they come to rest on top of each other. The beauty and intricacy of a single snowflake is quickly lost in the maelstrom. But together, they form a small galaxy of their own upon the frozen ground. And who hasn’t marveled at the artwork of a frost flower on a window as the sunlight accentuates its every delicate stroke?
I’m sure I’m not the only person who has wondered how something so random and unplanned can display such intricate design. After all, it’s not as if someone were sitting there with a brush painting ice crystals onto a window into a specific pattern. The process is actually quite marvelous. When it gets cold enough, moisture from the air lands on a window pane and starts to freeze. It sometimes solidifies into an unbroken sheet. But when there is dust or particles of grit or grease on the glass, the water moves around them, resulting in the seemingly miraculous “frost ferns” that we see before the air warms enough to melt them. So it appears that even dust has a purpose in Nature’s grand scheme of things!
As everything starts to loosen up toward spring, as the sunlight begin to feel warmer on our faces and the “crisp winter air” loses its sting, the marvels that only winter can provide are put away once again. I, for one, am thankful for them. The more effort I make to seek out those marvels, the faster the sunless days seem to pass. And when, like Dorothy, I open the door once again to a more colorful time, I can thank Nature and its winter magic for helping to make it a much more enjoyable journey.
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