Wildness of Snowfall Transforms Milwaukee

Part of why I cherish the opportunity to walk around during a snowstorm is how snowfall gives me the opportunity to see the city from quite a different perspective. Snowfall is a time when we are suddenly reminded that we live within nature, and that it retains the power to transform what we see and how we experience the world. Snowfall provides the most vivid examples I have of the ‘urban wilderness’ experience which photographer Eddee Daniel encourages us to find in our area.

The city, and the human order of it, seems to recede somewhat into the distance. Suddenly, the landscape has been reshaped! Flat surfaces are now covered with white. Branches, poles, street signs and other objects can be coated, too. We are used to humans exercising the ability (continually increasing) to shape our environments into the forms we desire – to humans having the last word. But for a short time, it appears that nature has the chance to put the final touches on what we see. Feb 2011 006

As an environmental historian, I spend a fair amount of time thinking about how humans interact with the rest of nature; how we change it, how it provides certain possibilities for us and shapes our lives, and how our interpretations of it shape how we act on it. That is part of the intellectual pleasure I find in snow. It provides a chance to make apparent what might not otherwise be so apparent, by disrupting the normal workings of things. It provides a chance to remember that even nature that seems untamed now bears the marks of how we have changed the world – on the level of local climate change as well as global climate change. And, it provides a chance to consider how we might interpret nature differently.

The blurriness provided by snow moving through the sky plays a notable role in this distancing. We cannot see our creations as sharply as we could before. Our buildings no longer seem so sturdy, no longer dominate the landscape quite so much. Now we must pay attention to – the air itself, where wind currents are now visible. When I walk in certain parks along the lake, the buildings downtown are no longer visible. It is as if I have been transported to a smaller city, as the usual distant city landmarks are no longer part of the vista.DSC06464

For me, there is nothing so wild in Milwaukee as to walk along the lakeshore during a strong snowstorm. The waves reach as high as they ever do, and as the lake churns, it seems as powerful as it ever does – a bit intimidating, even. Sound-wise, the noises of the city, including cars, are muffled, while the deep sounds of wind and lake, and the softer sounds of snow hitting my clothing, become more powerful. And evocative… I start to drift away into the moment and place, absorbed in those sounds. In terms of my sense of touch, my face is stung by snowflakes. Exposed skin feels cold, and if I stop walking long enough, the rest of the body will feel a bit cool as well. So many of my senses are made of aware of nature, nature expressing its power, in a way I normally am not. And this all takes place here in the city! Jan 2011 180

Snow drifts radically transform the ground into something unfamiliar. The shapes which blown snow takes feel unlike so much of what are used to seeing on the ground. These shapes draw only to a limited extent on the influence of growing plants, which normally cover much of the surface. The closest comparison is blown sand, but (particularly since we have limited beach space in Milwaukee) that is something unusual for our area as well. And the sand seems to take more varied and changing shapes than one would normally see sand take (except perhaps in the deep desert). The patterns can seem so strange; so unlike the patterns that living substances make. They can change significantly, day to day. Not only that, but the surface is… moving! We grow used to trying to fix the identity of nature into forms that serve our purposes, but now we must confront a surface that keeps changing, as wind resculpts the top later. All this helps transport me, and I might feel that I’m someplace different, someplace exotic… particularly when there are few footsteps on the snow, it is trackless, and one can see wind whipping grains of snow across the drifts.

Feb 2011 020

This is a time when winter (which, as Adam Gopnik suggests, can be seen as defined by area as well as by temperature) can feel, imaginatively, like winter further north. Looking across the wild lake, perhaps I am looking across a great northern sea, and who knows what chills will come across next… who knows what winter adventures I might dream of? And yet – it is not winter further north. This is OUR winter, which we can enjoy right here. And it is a winter that remains one of our location; it is winter in the city, with all that has to offer. These trees that provide so much visual delight are not a part of winter in the far north. In Milwaukee, everything is transformed, temporarily, in winter, but it also retains much of that which it possessed year-round.

As the sky grew darker yesterday, my eye was drawn to different things. Now, at times, I could see streetlights. But again, these were not coming through as crisply as they normally do. Instead, particularly for distant lights, it felt like… I was viewing little floating balls of light. What might these fairy lights in the distance, through the trees, lead me towards if I followed them?

At moments like this, I am tempted – perhaps unrealistically – to wonder if there is something in the cultural or biological memory of humans that remains mystified and unsettled by winter weather. Today, it can qualify as the pleasant sort of unsettling experience, given the comforts of warm clothing and shelter which I have available. But still, in the long dark, glowing lights, limited visibility… I can enjoy, in a small way, a sort of sublime experience of enjoying beauty mixed with something strange. I continually appreciate the mix of nature and technology that results when snowflakes fall through the light cast by streetlights… and occasionally, find it a bit eerie to see what appears to be darkness spiraling, when the wind stirs up just right…

The shadows of trees are never darker, never bolder, than they are over snow. If such shadows can look a bit creepy, stretching out, without soft edges from leaves, over the snow, lit at night by streetlights… imagine how they might have looked centuries ago, lit only by flickering fires or torches, or by lights in distant houses…

Well, those are some of the fables and visions that I like to conjure up – yours may vary, but I hope you find something to imagine!

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About MilwaukeeSnow

Dr. Jeffrey Filipiak, Milwaukee's Ambassador of Snow, loves winter, Milwaukee, and environmental history! He has taught college courses on topics including history, writing, environmental ethics, food studies, the Great Lakes, and sustainability. You can contact him at ambassadorofsnow@gmail.com.
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4 Responses to Wildness of Snowfall Transforms Milwaukee

  1. Nancy Aten says:

    I love reading from our Milwaukee Ambassador of Snow :). I like this column all about movement and blur and change and swirling. Today’s ultra clear sky prompts me to mention the other side of winter, which is how winter reveals things too. Once the snow has fallen (or melted, in today’s case), and the sky is clear… the shape of the land is revealed, even amongst city buildings, in a way it is not during the summer. And the sounds travel so far. Hearing one bird’s wing beat. A woodpecker beyond sight but within sound. Hear I am sitting on a bluff and I can clearly see the land falling away to the valley of the Milwaukee river. Quiet and revelation :).
    I look forward to your Snow Sermon next Friday.

    • Thanks! Yes, winter can be both the time when the most is concealed… and the most is revealed! Good point about following the shape of land – with all we do to cover it up, there is something reassuring and grounding to me about knowing the lay of the land.

      And as you note, it can be great time to look and listen for details of birds.

  2. Pingback: Loving my place, and the wildness that comes to it | milwaukeesnow

  3. Pingback: Favorite Milwaukee Winter activities? | milwaukeesnow

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