An appreciation of patchy snow and intermittent cold

I admit I like to look out and see snow covering the ground, as you might imagine from someone calling themselves the Ambassador of Snow. But I believe we should not live our lives just waiting for peak moments. We should find the joy which each day, each type of weather, has to offer! And we should take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves. And I think even partial snow has two great contributions: first, it is something out of the ordinary, that makes our landscape look different; second, it provides striking visual contrast, setting off the darker objects in the landscape.

First, a suggestion: get off the road. There are many ways in which cars and snow do not mix well. This is one of them. It is too easy to think of snow as grey, dirty, slushy… when one primarily sees snow from one’s car, on edge of the road and piled up near it. The same thing can be said for sidewalks, to an extent, since they tend to be next to roads.

Instead, try a bike path or a trail. Or try a park. Or look out into your backyard. When the snow melts there, it may have leaves, bits of branches and etc in it, but it won’t have road waste. The snow will look more like snow, less like the road, less like a grey mess. There’s a larger point about how we transform the nature around us to be made… but for now, if you’re going to enjoy snow, it is probably not going to be the snow left piled up by plows, and melted down halfway. It is more likely to be snow that coats objects that are off the road.

Keep an eye out for the contrasts even some snow sets up. When we are having a mild winter without snow – most of what we’ve had this year – it is, like early spring and late fall, a time for keeping an eye for subtle signs and noting the subtle differences in browns. It is also a time that benefits from walking through – woody areas can look like ‘blur of brown’ from a distance, but when you walk up to them you see all the different levels, nuances in color, notice the sky more, notice what you can see through the trees.

Add even a little snow, and the difference is striking. Frosted branches make horizontals and diagonals jump out at you. One can notice flat areas, depressions, straight paths, and other areas which for one reason or another fill up with snow more easily, and/or melt less quickly; (including car tracks.) fields of grasses will have certain sections or lines that have a covering of snow. I think hillsides might be the most interesting area to watch; so much complexity of levels and layers and depths to look at, different trees entering view on different levels – and snow behind it making it all easier to process, making the trees stick out much more.

But there are other areas to keep an eye on the transformation, too. Any lawn with snow on it has some white spots which create a striking contrast with the dark brown of trees, the light brown and green of grasses, as well as buildings. Remember to stop and take a look – how different things look when that white is added! And this, like many aspects of winter, can change from day to day. Step outside at night, too. Snow glows and reflects in the night in a way that the ground normally does not; near streetlights, or when the moon is bright, the ground’s floor has a vibrant presence in the night it normally does not. That glow can transform some of the night’s mystery from a dark distancing into a mixture of light and dark that promises new combinations.

This has been a rough winter for planners of winter events. The Urban Ecology Center’s Winterfest, for instance, was unable to host the skiing, skating, and snowshoeing which it did last year. This reminds us how nature does not follow our schedules. TV documentaries might trick us into thinking nature is on display for us, when we schedule it in. But actually, winter, like other nature, is erratic. Sometimes, like the Groundhog Day blizzard last year, we get a ton of it at once. At other times, the weather is so mild that we can’t count on enjoying many winter-specific activities. (This is perhaps a good time to look to make use of someplace where you can check out skis and snowshoes, without buying them, so you don’t have to feel frustrated because you bought something that you could only use a few times each winter.)

So it helps to get out there and enjoy things when the moment occurs. This is easier for me, for certain reasons, I admit. But there is a larger point relevant for all of us: how many of our joys can be strictly scheduled? Be continually open to the possibility that something may occur to provide a pleasant break, something to look out at and wonder at. Something you may need to investigate. The cold may be intermittent, but when it does arrive, notice how different things feel. When the cold brings snow with it, go out after the snowfall and check out the snow, because the snow may not be there for long.

I hope you will stay excited about the prospect of winter weather, snowy fields, ice on the lakeshore. Keep the anticipation going at least through February (I hope that this will prove particularly easy during such a mild winter – winter has not done much yet to wear out its welcome here.) Each season has its place. Remember how to frame these events positively. Winter won’t be around that much longer, and since the coldest average month of the year is now ending, we are already slowly warming up. Our cold and snow have been patchy this year, but appreciate what these patches have to offer, and appreciate the things we would miss if we went a year without them.

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
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