Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A snow-free winter wonderland

“Winter wonderland” is one expression we haven’t heard much this season. Just as in the Christmas carol of that name, it usually seems more applicable to a snow-covered landscape with ice crystals and fluffy white drifts than the barren brown expanse that so far has typified winter of 2011/12 in New England.

But last week on the NPR show Science Friday, host Ira Flatow and his panel of guests – including an astronomer, a meteorologist and a naturalist – gave that very name to their discussion of winter, and devoted the hour to all the ways in which winter is indeed a wonderland even without snowmen, snowflakes and sledding.

And as I look around, I have to agree. True, there’s something unnerving about a relatively warm, snow-free winter, but absent the irrefutable romance of snow, I’m reminded of all the other wonders of winter. The full moon was unusually bright last weekend; an article in the Boston Globe explained that the moon looks brighter in the winter because the sun is so low, detracting less from the light of the moon. The experts on Science Friday discussed other aspects of astronomy and meteorology that make the nature of winter unique as well, even without snow.

I’ve been walking in the woods almost daily ever since Christmas. The frozen ground is easy to navigate; what were muddy puddles and damp earthen patches in the fall are now solid ruts that make for easy balance. The bare branches yield to long sight lines through the forest. Ice edges the brooks and ponds, making lacy scalloped patterns contrasted against the black water. In the morning, gray dusk seeps slowly down from the sky while I’m already well into breakfast preparations. The sun, still so low in the sky, slants against the tree trunks to create dramatic angular shadows late in the day.

Sometimes, on mild spring days or warm summer evenings, I wonder how it could possibly not be preferable to live someplace with a year-round warm climate. Once we are far from winter on the calendar, it’s sometimes hard for me to remember that this frozen season has its own merits.

But in the cold, still air of January, the earth feels quiet and invites contemplation. And so this is the time of year, with or without snow, that I remember just what about winter makes it a wonderland, year after year.

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