Winter and Limits

It has been an interesting last week-plus in terms of encountering winter. I have experienced bitter cold, dangerous weather, weather we must be careful about adapting our ways to. Warm weather quickly melted much of the snow and ice that winter brought, a reminder that traditional winter weather may be growing more limited than it once was. And so I pondered some of the limits of winter…

How winter limits us

In our everyday life, rarely do most of us have to worry about the weather. We might plan a comfortable and appealing outfit to wear, but normally that has little to do with survival. But winter in Wisconsin is different.

When temperatures near zero, exposure can soon harm us. One needs to be bundled up properly in order to survive – even in our neighborhoods. For such reasons, I make sure to offer periodic reminders to be careful out there. The power of cold needs to be respected. Our bodies and our vehicles can lose control on ice, and we can receive hard landings as a result. Also, ice on lakes and rivers is always temporary here, and is often risky to step on.

As historian Bernard Mergen notes, the “public’s willingness to forgo mobility and tolerate disruption” is an important variable in considering how different places respond to snowstorms. To what extent are we willing to, even able to, set aside our plans? To what extent can we adapt, and take advantage of what winter weather has to offer when it comes?

How we limit winter

It has been exciting for me to serve as “Ambassador of Snow,” and to promote winter appreciation. But for a city which averages around 47 inches of snow a year, trying to launch my program during a year when we got only 30 inches – the least snowiest season in 20 years – was a challenge. (And a third of that snow came after mid-February, so it didn’t last long, and I was not prepared to try to fire people up about winter at a time when many had prepared to move on to Spring). I had expected to spend more time calling on people to head out in January to enjoy what a snowstorm might leave behind to enjoy, with weeks to enjoy what had fallen. But what I expected to be my main case for celebrating winter, snow, has proven rarer than I expected.

Indeed, snowy weather has come late both years – the two winters combined for less than 10 inches of snow through each first week of January. The overall trend from 1890 through spring 2010 was more erratic than anything else (, but I worry that Milwaukee may become less familiar with snow, as humans continue to warm the globe. What will future Milwaukee winters be like? How will we look back on our past if it turns out that such snow-light winters are the future for much of Wisconsin?

This has required me to adapt to the kinds of winter weather available to see. I have posted fewer pictures of snow than I hoped – and many more pictures of ice than I expected. I learned to find spots where ice would change its formations, to look closely at the patterns of ice on small scales, and to appreciate the diversity of such patterns. I found a new kind of beauty in our warmer, less snowy winters, although I still eagerly anticipate a chance to experience what I more easily get excited by.DSC03828

How Winter is naturally limited

Moments of snow are always rare around here. Milwaukee averages only 13 days a year where snowfall is more than an inch (and 3 of those days come in the warmer months of March-November, when snow is less likely to stick around). To go out and see the snow cascading down, to become familiar again with the patterns of snow in flight, to be a part of the blizzard’s fury – if we wish to soak in such experiences, we must head out when they are offered to us.

A friend of a friend commented that they had never seen a frozen lake – and I realized how much we can take that for granted here. A relative noted that her children found it difficult to believe that snow used to fall… and stick around for weeks or longer, rather than just melting within days. Milwaukee’s climate may be heading (although we cannot know for sure how patterns will transform) toward a status where snow is something we come to see as a friend who we once knew well, but have lost touch with, and are happy to become reacquainted with.

How our understanding of it is limited

I just finished looking over Bernard Mergen’s Snow in America, my single favorite book about snow. As Mergen surveys all the different ways in which Americans have studied and tried to depict snow, I was struck by the diversity of perspectives. But I think snow still remains something a bit distant from us. A number of the key literary perspectives Mergen cites see snow as a time of death, of nothingness, of a clean sweeping of a slate, or of nostalgia based in childhood… they see snow at a remove.

We can find beauty and opportunities in snow. But snow is not kind. Snow is not living (although I do try to convince friends to let me treat ‘Snowstorm’ as my symbolic animal 😉 and so it is difficult for us to relate to it. Our metaphors remain somewhat distanced, and we often see snow as a blank slate upon which to apply our feelings. I cannot claim to be any different, in the end, although I am fond of experiencing snow.

And we are also limited in what we can see by the challenges of the weather. Part of why I enjoy walking in a storm is because there is so much to experience within the air… and I can keep constantly moving and observing this. Snow and ice can be beautiful, and I have seen some magical crystals in the bitter cold. But I cannot stop and observe them for long, because then I start losing the heat I built up. What I can do is take pictures to remember spots I saw, even if only momentarily. I can take some pictures… but at times my hands, my body, and my camera get too cold to allow me to continue taking pictures, and so I keep hands in pockets and keep walking.

This winter, I have enjoyed the delightful calmness of snowshoeing through a snowscape that felt like a movie set, so carefully composed it remained. I have also watched falls from inside, and twirled around amidst a storm, with fast-paced hip-hop and K-pop songs running through my head – the complexity, the visibility of wind patterns, the energy I connect with. Our lives are full of limits, so gather ye rosebuds – or snowflakes – while ye may…

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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