Walking at Night during Winter, part 1: Ground Illumination

Winter is my favorite season during which to look at the ground floor at night. With the snow out, there’s a layer of something light, a layer of contrast. I find the snow calming; and it provides contrasts to what is above it, trees and more.

When the moon is near full, there’s a fair amount of illumination. It is more delightful when snow is on branches, but there’s some luminosity to enjoy whenever there’s snow on the ground. A great opportunity to experience the winter glow. Or, to spend time looking out your window, not just into the normal dark, but now into contrasts you can watch all night.

While plenty of beauty exists during other seasons, it is hard to see that beauty at night, when there’s not enough light to help us see the leaves and other aspects of nature. But snow reflects light. So there is more we can see. And this brightness makes me feel warm emotionally… if not in terms of body temperature 😉


[Note: will I have pictures to help you see what I see? Well, one, but my camera can’t come up with any reasonable representation of the low-light views. I think to some extent, it remains not quite capable of capture on film. This is one of those winter experiences that – in a world relying more and more on watching video – you have to be a part of in order to really appreciate it.]



When I get outside, at first, I have a sense of moving into darkness. Being in a lit house or car means relying on bright artificial light; as one drives, natural areas just look like spots of darkness, because one’s eyes are adjusted to watch the brightly-lit areas. It takes a little while, but not long, to adjust, after one starts walking. Then I have a kind of moment of discovery – whoa, look how much I can see here! – and a kind of pride and appreciation for the light. Even in a forest at night, there’s more light than one would expect beforehand. With snow to help distinguish trees from the ground, one feels surprisingly comfortable finding a way. One can enjoy the sparkling of snow hit by moonlight, and more.


In a local nature center, there’s a cleared path, with some snow on it, and trees are cut back from the side of the path. So I can easily see where I’m to go, since there is a stretch of white openness to follow. (In fact, it may be easier to notice the path at night; the shades of forest blend to together into darkness, while the cleared area sticks out.) Particularly since my attention is drawn down, both to watch my footing on any icy path, and because that is where I can see. Looking straight out at eye level, there is darkness, since the presence of trees in the forest thickens into something one cannot see into. Looking down, one can see the forest floor extend for a certain distance – and nearby, there are bright spots.


In a field, I sit down. With my face close to the ground, I can see more tiny reflective sparkles. Around me, the snow does not glow – but I am clearly amidst a sweep of land that can be seen, surrounded by a darkness into which my vision cannot penetrate.

The border appears sharp from a distance, particularly because it feels as if everything I can see along a horizontal axis is white, while everything along the vertical axis is dark. But closer up, there is no easy border. On the snow, the shadows of trees reach out, to where I can walk over them. Looking up, the trees are hard-dark against a dark-grey sky, but the branch patterns are more easily visible in these shadows on the snow. On the other side, the forest floor sets itself apart in a way it normally doesn’t, as a pallid sheet.


Yes, when I walk in the dark, I feel anxious about who (not which animals) might be lurking in darkness. A kind of fear that is primal, with roots in prehistory and throughout human history. So if you’re thinking of going out – and there are plenty of park hours remember to be safe, and preferably go with


The brightness of snow at night has been used to good effect by pop culture – scenes of sleighs at night, George Bailey running through downtown Bedford Falls, the “Let it go” sequence in “Frozen,” and more.


I’m not quite sure how to best describe the reflectiveness of snow at night. It is not quite a glow, or luminescent, or glistening. (I’m still working on the best word to choose…) More a dull… presence of white, which doesn’t really extend beyond the snow itself. The light isn’t that powerful – but the contrasts it sets up are!

This is not the bright snow of the day, which has its own pleasures. Nor is it like a dim day, where the sky is grayish, and the snow feels that way too, and they blur together more. There is a sharpness to a clear night under a full moon. The trees lose the color they have during the day – beyond the nearby, they become shadows and dimness. There is little to see in distance in forest, or in air around you, or in sky. Amidst that, something sticks out: the snow may be dim, but it is starkly white. The shadows cast by the moon cut boldly across this. So the observable world becomes narrowed in focus – the shadows, and the dim white snow.

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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