Loving my place, and the Wildness that comes to it

In his influential essay “The Trouble with Wilderness,” historian William Cronon worried that environmentalists thought too much about the idea of wilderness – which he felt directed their attention away from other places, and made it difficult for them to appreciate nature in other places. He proposed that environmentalists instead focus on an idea of home.

I think that appreciating snowstorms (and to some extent, snow in general) allows me to look at things from both the point of view of those who experience wilderness, and Cronon’s perspective. Much of my purpose here is to help people realize all that they can appreciate in their own communities. Part of what people can appreciate are ‘wild’ qualities – nature overturning constraints, remaking the landscape, showing its power through storms. One can find quiet moments, sublime moments, and strange experiences while enjoying snow.

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Snow provides a bit of the sublime – one could feel this in mountains or oceans, wild places, things beyond human scale. Think of the beauty one sees in places that can be dangerous, such as the film of “Life of Pi” strikingly depicted. Polar places can be dangerous – and so can anyplace where the temperatures drop well below freezing.

But even a city park, if one steps out into cold, supplies a bit of such distancing. One is conscious that it will take minutes, maybe 15 minutes or more, to safely cross a small area. Distance reasserts itself. No grass can be seen, so the only signs of life are trees at a distance. One will likely hear sounds of machines in distance, but might see no one moving.

Walking (or snowshoeing) so slowly can be disorienting in some ways. Particularly when one gets used to moving quickly. I’m spending 20 minutes just to move around a tiny park I can easily see around? That I could run across in 1 minute? But it gives one a chance to appreciate a small area intensely, to slow down to a pace where one can see what it has to offer. (Sometimes those I walk with have difficulty slowing down to my patient speed, I admit 😉

Snowstorms are particularly effective at bringing a wild experience into places close to home. For more on this wildness, see my essay at https://milwaukeesnow.com/2012/01/13/wildness-of-snowfall-transforms-milwaukee/ , where I wrote that “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.”

After the snowfall ends, one can enjoy calmer winter weather. This winter, I’ve gotten used to looking out my window and watching the shift as the sky grows dark: first daylight, all bright on the snow. Second, the sun gets lower in the sky, and plants cast striking sharp shadows across the snow. Third, twilight when bluish snow + reddish spots around lamps are mirrored by blue and red tints in the sky. These provide pleasant reminders of the beauty right outside my window.

My tracks in a local park are almost the only ones. Week after week. Does no one else want to come out and walk in the park? Do children, when they come, just stick near to the play area and parking lot? Are there no children in the apartments by me who feel the need to play in park?

Sometimes, the top layer gets swept by wind. A slow flow, not really like anything else I normally see, except for flows of snowfall. A wind picks up, the snow seems to slither across top of landscape. Then the flow slows and halts. A new pattern is left behind.

Blowing snow! Snaking its way across. I want to try to capture this in a picture, but doubt it would work. This is something to enjoy in the moment. Bursts. See the subtle shaping… watch as the flow starts, blows up… then winds down.

Paying such close attention can remind me of the fun of appreciating, on an individual human scale, these local wonders. If we get too caught up in the wonders of distant places, we might imagine that what we can find here are too small-scale. If I took pictures of blowing snow, or even video of it, you might not find it particularly dramatic. But in the moment, things are different! I might catch my breadth, enchanted by the subtle wisps. It is enough to be in such moments.

For me, my appreciation of one kind of landscape helps me appreciate the other. A careful eye for details developed around home helps me notice what is different when I visits a larger, wilder park, with larger-scale scenes to view. Conversely, getting swept up in expanses of forest in Northern Wisconsin, and noticing how the pieces of the ecosystems there fit together, inspires me to find examples closer to home. Closer to home, I can identify a particular tree to keep an eye on, week after week, or day after day, and watch how it changes throughout the year. I can keep returning to a lakeshore to see just how much it can transform from day to day.

At other times, the frozenness of the snow is striking. Snow in stuck in place, caught in patterns. (Somewhat like icicles, those striking images caught on way down.) This is a place without movement, and a warm moving body feels strikingly separate from it. Wave forms. Caught. Mysterious how overhangs develop through the course of time…  then get stuck in one position. (until wind, and especially melting, reshape them.) Perhaps this is like a desert’s sand; or a lake in a given moment, except that the lake will keep moving, where the snow does not. Footprints from a few days – or a week – ago might now have snow sifting over them in a variety of shapes.Image

I will pause, lean down, and look at the patterns from close up.  I am continually tempted to touch the patterns. As one might sift sand. Or as one might learn the feel of bark, rock, or leaf through feel. I keep rediscovering that… it all pretty much feels the same to me, I admit 😉 Gloves are too thick to let me feel the fineness of snow grain. Fingers melt snow on touch, and running fingers along top just leave trenches. And basically I feel… cold. (If you have recommendations for how to more sensitively explore snow-feel, let me know!)

I tend not to focus on distant places. I rarely travel far for parks; I prefer ones within a few miles of home, and ideally a short walk away. I find the nearby parks, and enjoy them. (To me, it seems logical for environmentalists to not want to drive much – but I am aware that environmentalists are often called hypocrites for excessive driving. Am I so unusual? I do not know. I also work with local groups to make life more sustainable in my communities.)

I celebrate my place. One goal of my project was to convince people to stay in town, rather than leave it in winter trips. Even the season least loved in my place, which makes people want to travel far away…  I will make it my mission to convince people to appreciate what it has to offer. That is part of my love for the place, a desire to share my affection for it. A desire to convince others to appreciate more, to make sure it receives the care it deserves. To make sure my community members, both human and natural, get the respect from others (and sometimes themselves) which they deserve.Image

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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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