For most people, spring awakens them to the natural world with buds and bits of garden color. Yards come out of slumber, and Seattleites shake off the mildew of another winter sequestered in damp and rumpled dens. For me, however, winter has become the time when I become more acutely in touch with nature.
At the winter solstice, we ushered in the season with a rare blanket of snow. Seattle, which identifies with rain, has a strained relationship with snow. Looking at a map, it would seem we should be buried in it every year — we sit on the same latitude as Maine. And just north is Alaska, from which you can see the frozen wastes of Siberia from Governor Sarah Palin’s porch.
But by quirks of ocean currents, airflows, and geography, our winters are mild here. So Seattleites are flummoxed by the white stuff, whether it falls or not. We prepare to duck and cover at the first flake. As an Associated Press story reported in December: “Seattle paralyzed by chance of snow.” Seattle’s reactions amuse newcomers from harder climes who laugh that an inch of the stuff can shut down the city. We’re snow wimps, not used to getting around in it, foiled by our plenitude of steep hills, lack of salted or sanded streets, and the paucity of snowplows.
While Seattle’s snow silliness is amusing, it has advantages. In our global, wired, secular age, the world rarely comes to a stop anymore. Sundays are no longer days of rest, and holidays are a time for shopping, snowboarding, or jetting from one city to another. I yearn for the kind of silence a few days of snow paralysis can bring. Spring has its legions of fans: sunshine, flowers, chirping birds. But I like The Day the Earth Stands Still: a snow day. The streets are empty, machines silent, and the city offers a respite from mall mobs and 24/7 schedules. Snow days are wonderful, not despite their inconveniences but because of them, like a church with rituals that remind you that you’ve entered a different zone.
One of Seattle’s 19th-century park superintendents, Edward O. Schwagerl, echoed the ideas of landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted when he said that Seattle’s parks should be a place where all people can “inhale the unalloyed, God-given perfumes to body, mind, and soul.” Snow turns our parks into places that make me even more receptive to the “perfumes” of nature.
During one dusting of this winter’s snow I walked a wooded path at Seward Park. It was nearly deserted, and the old-growth remnant forest felt like a walk-in freezer. It was silent save for the occasional squeaking of tiny birds flitting through the branches. The tall Doug fir trunks made it seem as quiet as a cathedral. Enough snow had fallen through the tree canopy that it lined the branches of big, bare maples. In the middle of the woods, a tall madrona twisted upward toward the light. It was barely recognizable. Its orange bark was covered with deep green moss that sprouted a feathered boa of ferns crusted with frozen flakes.
On a tree trunk, I watched a tiny brown creeper work his way up, poking his beak into cracks to probe for insects and seeds. Down below, evergreen boughs held droplets of frozen dew like tiny ornaments. Occasionally, a slight breeze in the treetops would loosen some snow and it would fall like a storm beneath a single tree.
As a child, I used to run up and down this path like a one-boy barbarian horde. Now I hungered for the quiet, the stillness, the solitude. I felt myself pulled down the path by a kind of magnetic curiosity about what I would find around the next bend: a brief glimpse of the mountains, of coyotes, a pair of pileated woodpeckers chopping wood?
I find myself slow to let winter go. Spring’s challenge is to find a way to keep the snow’s silence with me so I can experience nature with sharpened senses when the world is back to its busy ways.
Note: this essay first appeared in Seattle Magazine.
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