Since winter officially began last week, the weather has been decidedly, and appropriately, wintry. For at least a couple of years, white Christmas devotees and school kids have been disappointed by the lack of frozen precipitation covering the landscape and slickening roads. So, it seems newsworthy that winter seems to be taking itself seriously this year.
Some cultures use as many as fifty different words for snow. Without lapsing into a lecture of language development, as I am wont to do, let us just accept that many words in any language evolve from daily needs. People in countries where snow substantially accumulates need to describe the type of snow affecting their lives at any given moment. For clear, concise communication, there are separate and distinct words to differentiate between a softly-falling snow and a crystalline powder resembling salt, as well as everything in between.
Around here, about as far as we need to go is to determine a snowfall’s effects on ski slopes or to point out that it is only “spitting” snow. School transportation supervisors have simply to determine if the white stuff is likely to run buses off one of the impossibly-narrow backroads threading their way through any of our school districts. Meanwhile, I imagine that residents of Erie, Pennsylvania are creating their own new words with each additional foot of precip descending upon them.
My inspiration for today’s column grew from an afternoon’s observation through my window at the rehab center of the season’s first snowfall. It was the perfect kind of weather event to reacquaint us with the precipitation potential of the year’s coldest season. I ignored the television that day more than I watched, what with my attention drawn again and again to the snow show being staged by Mother Nature, a performance of wonder and grace.
The falling white fluff appeared in all shapes and sizes, of course. All school children know that every flake is unique, every flurry a creation unto itself; that day’s steady down-float proved just that point. In the course of that one afternoon, I watched tiny flakes and their much larger cousins descend from a pearl-hued sky. Most flurries fell individually, although there were also periods when crystals seemed to join forces as they journeyed to the earth.
There were exquisite lattices dancing on any available wind current as they cavorted their way downward, but just as often a goal-oriented fervency occurred as icy pellets headed straight for the ground in a most business-like fashion. Fortunately, there was no life-and-limb-threatening iciness, just a fanciful whisper to remind us all that a snowfall is surely as pure and simple as a children’s playground game.
The flakes that December afternoon gathered enough to produce a dusting before eventually defining landscape and architectural contours. No mounding drifts formed; gentle breezes created no snow rollers; the season was too young to lapse into unsightly brown slush. No, I witnessed the forces of nature creating a veritable Christmas card scene a few feet from my toasty warm vantage point.
Charmed as I was by the heavenly precipitation wafting through the atmosphere, I could not forget that its apparent delicacy belies a simultaneous frozen strength. Sure, a single snowflake can survive a couple of minutes on a coat sleeve or mitten, but the warmth of an extended tongue immediately dooms that same flake’s very existence.
Author Verna M. Kelly brings us back to our snowbound senses: Snowflakes are one of nature’s most fragile things, but just look what they can do when they stick together. To be sure, we have experienced this fact of white life during the history-making blizzards of 1950 and 1978 – and undoubtedly during scores of less dire but just as memorable snow events of the past. I have developed equal respect for the beauty of a dainty flake as well as its collective power when infinitely multiplied.
We mere mortals occasionally attempt to duplicate nature’s snow creations by cutting intricate designs into folded paper, all the while failing to simulate even one flake of the season’s highly-anticipated first snow. Adding a sprinkle or even a coating of silver glitter can only suggest the sparkle of a Christmas Day snow. And one of my favorite cross stitch pieces – the word PEACE surrounded by snowflakes in shades of pastel blue and purple – could never be more peaceful than a morning walk in the silence of a late April snow shower.
It may be possible to trace the eras of our lives by our reactions to this fluffy precipitation. As children, we longed for snow to support Frosty-men and snow angels. As teens, we hoped to trade a substantial accumulation for a day free of school obligations. As adults, we dreaded the inconvenience and occasional danger blowing and drifting snow represented. As retirees, we may more often choose to watch the snow fall without venturing out.
A while back I saw a poster covered with snowflakes arranged over this inscription: The Butterflies of Winter. So, here we are, having reveled in lush summer grass between bare toes and crunchy russet leaves under hiking boots. Even as we long for carpets of spring wildflowers, perhaps we should appreciate those gentle flakes – singularly or in the plural – while they float and spin as the wispy, gossamer butterflies they seem to be emulating during all our winter days.
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.
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