“The Moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow…”
We don’t get much snow in this valley. The passes are often socked in, and the mountain pines are flocked for much of the winter, but down here we are accustomed to only a few dustings each winter, nothing awkward or inconvenient, a bit of accent snow to heighten the effect of holiday lights. Novelty snow. Window dressing.
Yesterday, however, we found ourselves inside a snow globe. Apparently the local weather team was equally surprised by the appearance of snow, by the weight of snow, and by the generous and ongoing delivery of snow. Attempting to recover the appearance of prognosticating expertise, they have been quick to announce that today’s snowfall has not eclipsed the record set in 1919. So, no big deal; it’s only been almost a century since anything like this snow has settled here.
I have a friend who happens to be an Eskimo. He was raised in Oregon but speaks the Yupik language, and so, has an opinion on the perennial linguistic squabble that bedevils academic anthropologists. Do the Eskimo-Aleuts have more than a hundred words for snow?
Don’t expect a simple answer to what turns out to be a complicated question. Of course, he argues, people who live and work in a northern climate are likely to have words specific to their immediate experience of their world in the same way that city-dwellers have all sorts of terms that country folk do not need. Any Angelino is happy to tell you that taking the 10 or the 60 is brutal at rush hour, but the 101 can be carmagedden from the 134 to the 118 0r 126. His short(ish) answer is that while snow falls in several varieties, it is the relationship of snow to all other elements and actors that matters. Gradations of wind, temperature, sunlight, cloud cover, all affect snow, no matter how crystalline or granular it happens to have been at the point of precipitation. Toss a person, a family, a tribe out there, and the relationships between observer and event become complex.
In the morning, I took the dogs into snow so deep that the smallest of the border collies had to leap from pocket of snow to pocket of snow in order to stay up with the rest of the pack. Our largest and furriest, often miserable in mid-summer, settled into a drifted bank and sat contentedly watching the others frolic. Finally, exhausted by having done some leaping myself, and very cold, I called the other dogs to the kitchen and delivered the expected biscuits. Our frosty fur bag wouldn’t budge; the world suddenly made sense to him.
Later in the day, I approached snow-related chores, attempting to free a car so that we might pack in some supplies and get my daughter to the plane she needed to catch that evening. I don’t own a snow shovel. I have a pitchfork,and a chain saw, neither of which was of any use. I had a snow shovel, and a toboggan, when we moved from Michigan in 1989, two of the many objects I have cast aside in moving from region to region. I knew I would need them; why, oh why, did I listen to the voices of “reason”? This is exactly why I haven’t discarded the ventriloquist dummy and the LP Christmas albums. Who knows when they will be needed?
I’ll admit that my feelings about snow were altered as I faced the challenge of freeing the car. I wasn’t annoyed, exactly, but let’s just say, less appreciative, as the-second-worst-snowfall-since-1919 filled my boots. An ill-spent youth in Connecticut had taught me how to gently rock a car from tire-spinning stuckness to a semblance of traction, so I did manage to get to the store, and I did manage to walk my daughter’s luggage to the end of the long drive, and I did manage to get her to the airport, which is a journey of sadness for me as I hate to see her leave, but which is also necessary to her taking her place in the world as a competent and impressive young woman.
Mission accomplished, daughter safely delivered, I entered into the next stage of this complicated relationship with the elements. As I rocked the car from its parking spot, I became aware that as daylight had faded, softly puffed snow had turned to ice. I had been caught in an ice storm outside Portland last winter, terrified to find that I could not control the car and aware that I was not alone in careening across the highway . I slid to the first exit and spent the night at a motel, hoping for a melt in the morning. This region doesn’t deal with extremes easily; no crews plow or sand the roads. Last night, I drove slowly, noting the cars already abandoned off the edge of the highway, slightly skimming sideways on the last leg as I took our dark country road, tapping my brakes until I docked at the now dark end of the drive, under fanned pine boughs still heavy with snow.
As I walked toward the house, however, I left the trees and stood in the light of a first quarter moon. Moonshadow stretched from the trees, but the snow covering the orchard and the adjacent pasture was unbroken and glowing. Had the moon been full, that snowscape might have been more sharply gleaming, but in quarter light, I could appreciate Clement Moore’s figurative moon on the breast of new-fallen snow, not giving the lustre of midday to objects below, but softening fences, bushes, trees, the pasture shed.
Today the trees have shed much of their snow and are again green against a bright blue sky. Deep snow has now been pocked with dog play and the oddly straight tracks of deer walking head to tail, scrambled slightly on either side of fences as the deer spring, then straightened and precise as they resume their ordered march. Some small beast has made a home in the bramble at the south end of the larger pasture, having dug a path under that fence; the piled snow is matted now, so we can see where the skunk or woodchuck likes to sleep.
Tomorrow’s snow will be different; I won’t have a word for snow that has melted a bit, moved with the wind, refrozen, and ended up near a short tree. It won’t come into being until I see it after all, and I may be pleased to spend another day snowbound in our cozy house, or I may be cabin crazed and desperate to find more coffee at Trader Joe’s. Snow and I will meet again and we’ll figure things out.