My thoughts on winter 2014; snow that stays around

As we exit the three coldest-average-months of the year (or ‘meteorological winter’), I will begin to wind down my promotion of winter appreciation for the season. Now seems like a good time to reflect back on what I have observed during this winter, and what this winter has meant to me.

I launched my project in December 2011, so it was rough to have so little snow during the first year of my project! Remember that in 2012, Milwaukee set a record for its longest stretch of days *without* snow cover, so our current streak of almost 3 months with snow cover has not quite balanced that out. The last two winters have been ones with more to offer a snow-lover; it had been a while since I’d seen a winter where as much snow was left around as last year’s, and the colder temps this year have limited melting even more.

For me, it has been nice again to have snow stick around! I’d gotten used to snow coming… and then much of it going soon, melting away. I prefer the rhythms of a winter where snow sticks for weeks. (And I think many others share this sense – if you’re going to have to deal with driving in the snow, plowing, shoveling, etc, why not have more of a payoff a week later than some greyish piles on the side of the road?)

Despite the winter drama, this doesn’t feel to me like a winter where we get big blizzards; or if we’ve had them, I haven’t been able to get out during most of them. Instead, we’ve had smaller storms, but on a regular basis. And more notably, the snow has only melted a little, so that it stays in place – indeed, it keeps building.

Piles we push up grow; and we can watch the snowline slowly rise on trees. I have few places at present with which I have the kind of intimate familiarity that I truly can tell how high it is rising, so for me it has mostly looked roughly the same. A soccer goal in a nearby park looks shorter and shorter; the snow rises higher along the walls of my workplace. Benches get more buried. But overall, I’ve found depth a hard thing to gauge visually. Perhaps what is more noticeable are certain absences; certain rolls in the landscape get buried, replaced by patterns of snowdrift – and unless we know the land intimately, it is hard to remember what is covered. On the other hand, when I try to walk in it, I definitely can fall further as the season goes on 😉

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So it is nice to have horizontals, especially fallen trees, so can get sense of how much snow has fallen. I can see how much snow has piled up on a log lying sideways, and then remember how much snow lies over the rest of the ground.

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I have realized this year that my impressions about winter were shaped by winters with snow-and-melt cycles; and I need to recalibrate some of my perspectives. For instance, I had assigned snowstorms a larger role in ‘where snow appears’ than makes sense in colder winters. I get excited to see snow layered on branches, which might be particularly memorable for a day or so after a dozen snowfalls or so. But that’s only a relatively small part of what snow is during a colder winter. When the snow doesn’t melt soon afterwards, it means that a larger % of snow-as-experienced is snow that sits on fields and in piles, week after week, fairly similar.

Since the places it sits are fields and piles, persistent snow tends to be mostly fairly close to the ground. Landscapes without architecture tend to feel like cream-layered places on the ground and near it; snow piles up on low-to-ground on objects, it sticks around longer on broader, low branches. (I can see why might be a season more appreciated by children; since they are lower to the ground, they are more likely to feel surrounded by snow.) Meanwhile, dark trees dominate one’s view above a few feet (often with a backdrop of snow in the distance). Trees can blur into darkness; or, on sunny days, stick out as dramatic contrast to the snow, in this season of chiaroscuro.

Also, in warm winters I had gotten used to seeing more change day to day, either from snowfall or melt (including how snowfields grow pitted). These changes happen more subtly when deep freeze seems to lock more snow in place. Some of them are harder for us to observe this year; when water off the shore of Lake Michigan stays frozen for dozens of yards into the lake, we can’t observe the daily changes on the shore I saw in past years. Nuanced changes in snow patterns can be hard to see, particularly on sunny days when the glare off the snow is bright. New snowfall isn’t as distinctive when it falls on top of a good layer of snow; it mostly just reinforces the existing view.

Instead, I’m taking time to reflect on what it means to me to have, day after day, snow out my window to observe. To go to bed, leaving my window open so I can see that glow of white on the ground. To wake up and have bright sun and snow shining for me. A presence of unbroken snow in a nearby park to soothe me; a snowy field that gets periodically re-swept by new snow and by breezy days. And I knew that it would not melt, that I could return to it for consolation and good cheer day after day.

I try to think of how to describe it. I think of the ‘warmth’ it provides to an otherwise darker landscape. It does that visually, but snow is cold, so that doesn’t sound quite right. I’ll keep working on my metaphors.

The darkness is a gift of winter; while we rely so much on sight, being reminded of what we cannot see (see physically, and intellectually as well) is also important. A season when we use the dark is helpful for the mind’s palate, and can remind us to look up in the sky and ponder our place in the universe. In Wisconsin, this darkness sometimes comes paired with another gift; snow on the floor to match the dark in the woods and sky. Darkness, yes – but also striking contrasts, a hazy hopeful light that remains on the landscape’s floor at night, and more.

It has been a while since I’ve had a winter like this. I’d forgotten what it was like. I have enjoyed the chance to see what it has to offer! And I will look forward to seeing what the other seasons have to offer, each in their turn.

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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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One Response to My thoughts on winter 2014; snow that stays around

  1. Took a trip up near Michigan Tech last month. The idea of snow that sticks around is something they have down. It was interesting to see a town buzzing (it was some winter carnival event on campus) and people living life as I drove another hour or so north and watched massive machines cutting into 12 ft snow banks because removal is the only option (always thought of that as a big city problem). I think I will opt for a future near mountains. Snow is near, but to sit in the foothills and reap a regular sunny 30-40 degree day to enjoy the white stuff seems more of an efficient winter enjoyment 🙂 Nice post sir!

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