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first snow

Before I even look out the window, I know that snow has accumulated during the night.  My bedroom is alive with a diffuse glow, much stronger than it should be at six in the morning.  Shadows are soft and unfocused, in no way resembling those from the precisely-etched morning moon of a week ago.

Outside, the surface of the ground is a harlequin: the bare earth is warm enough to melt snow on contact but any angle of repose that's elevated -- even a fraction of an inch -- above the ground is covered by a thick blanket of white.  Grass, leaves, stumps, branches: in the pre-dawn blackness the snow that envelopes them seems lit from within.

I take off through the woods.  By the steady dripping from the trees, I know that it continues to snow and that the temperature must be at or just a little above freezing.  The forest floor is virtually bare: almost all of the deciduous trees still retain their leaves so most of the snowfall has been intercepted here by the tree crowns.

As I hike, the strengthening daylight emphasizes the darkness: instead of the pure glow of new snow that I saw when I first stepped out of the house, the barely-lit world has become a study of contrast, of blackness versus white.  Every item exists in both positive and negative form: a branch is a line of black topped by a perfect doppelganger of reverse coloration.  I take off my wool mitten and run my hand along a pine limb, packing the snow into my fist.  I'm always amazed that snow seldom seems to feel cold against the bare skin of my palm.  The snow molds into a firm ball: it's wet but not sloppy.  The Eskimo language famously contains a myriad of words to define the different forms of snow: as I bite into the snow apple in my hand, I muse at how impoverished and generic our English vocabulary must seem to cultures more attuned to their environment.

By the time I arrive at the big field, I am able to discern the new day's colors.  Most of the oak leaves are still green, along with those of the honeysuckle and Russian olive.  The witch hazel are bright yellow, and each of the tiny, shriveled petals of their flowers balances a cap of white.  The snow is deeper here, only a hundred feet higher in elevation than our house: there's at least four inches on the flat tops of the fence posts.

Yesterday, before the snowfall, the big field was chest-high with brown goldenrod and milkweed plants.  The goldenrods have collapsed under the weight of the snow and now form a continuous tangle of vegetation but the milkweeds -- their stem fibers so strong that the natives used them to construct fishing nets -- stand straight and tall, leafless but topped with fat green pods that are stuffed with seeds and silk.  The weather hasn't been cold enough to trigger the rupture mechanism for milkweed seed dispersal: our first real frost occurred only a few days ago.

A flock of about seven wood ducks, cooing softly, flies overhead, bound for the pond at the south end of the field.  For the past month wood ducks have been congregating at this pond in incredible numbers -- seventy or eighty individuals each day.  When they first appeared, I assumed that the ducks were using the pond as a staging area to prepare for migration, but in past few weeks I've observed them feeding heavily on late fall insects in the open forest that surrounds the pond.  Groups of ducks fly to the pond at dawn -- three or four or ten at a time.  By midmorning, their numbers have swelled to nearly a hundred and the entire troop is marching among the low grass and scattered trees next to the pond.  Heads low, bills parallel to the ground, the mob of ducks resembles an army on maneuvers: not one individual deviates from the military precision of the formation.

While concentrating on the wood ducks flying overhead, I trip over a goldenrod plant that has maintained some of its structural integrity beneath the snow.  Confused -- or angered -- by my disruption of its roost, a junco flies out from the snow-cave of the goldenrod and straight into my thigh.  The sensation is like being hit with a whiffle ball: the bird's body is so light in weight that even a direct attack barely registers through my heavy pants.  The bird, perhaps stunned by the contact, does not flee but hovers next to me, rising with deft wing movements until it almost nestles into my open, mittened hand.  I'm probably more startled than the bird at this point: I snatch away my arm as if that half-ounce of gray feathers and breath somehow threatens me. Convinced of my identity -- or satisfied with its revenge -- the junco angles off toward the woods.

At the west edge of the field, almost in the trees, I find the impressions of two deer beds.  A thin layer of ice has formed at the edge of the depressions in the vegetation and snow that outline the deer's bodies: they must have bedded down here after the first snow had accumulated.  I am always amazed that in a storm deer will often choose to lie in the open, exposed to the elements, instead of seeking shelter among the trees: the ground under a hemlock is usually bone dry during a snow such as this.  I've noticed this tendency with elk too: it's as if the animals actually enjoy watching the snow fall.

Or maybe they appreciate the beauty of true daylight.  At home, I flick the switch to my kitchen light to no response.  The weight of the snow must have collapsed the outdoor electrical wires somewhere along the line.  I write this longhand, next to the window, as outside the snowflakes continue to fall.       

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Snow

A really beautiful scene. Thanks for sharing it.

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Thanks --

The snow ended up being as fleeting as it was beautiful --