Certain places seem to exist mainly because someone has written about them. . .a place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his image.
Inspired by this quote from Joan Didion sent to me by a friend, I’ve been writing more intentionally about Madison as a scenic place. Becuase writing about what Madison looks like is writing about the kind of place Madison is. I’ve covered the streets, the windows, the stacks and the river valley so far. Today, the snow.
At the beginning of December, I was afraid we’d be facing another winter-less winter here in southern Indiana. The winter of 2011-2012 was strikingly mild, with hardly any snow and very few days of truly cold weather. It felt like fall just extended itself well into January, and it was a disheartening thing to have missed one of the seasons for someone who prefers having all four.
But thankfully, after a warm start this winter eventually became a real winter. For those of you celebrating Christmas on December 25th, it wasn’t a white Christmas. But if, like my family, you had to opt for the day after, Christmas came complete with snowflakes, which is a pretty rare thing for this part of the world. Then several days after Christmas came one of those real and beautiful snows, the kind that completely transforms the landscape.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that snow is one life’s often under-appreciated miracles. What else is there that so gently makes the world around us suddenly unrecognizable in its beauty? Mother Nature has many ways to turn our world upside down, but there’s often violence and destruction involved–floods, tornadoes, and hurricanes. Snow makes the world anew, but by laying a gentle blanket over the earth, rather than by tearing it up.
Looking at a landscape in the snow leads you to imagine someone standing in front of a large canvas depicting the gray branches of trees and the brown grass of December. You can almost see this person picking up a paint brush, tilting their head in contemplation, and then dipping the brush into their titanium white to gently outline all the features laid out before them.
This is to say that a snowy landscape speaks of intention. It speaks of a purpose, a transcendental aesthetic somewhere with a highly developed appreciation for the way everything looks covered in white. It’s a wise aesthetic, as you can realize by imagining if snow were blue or red or orange instead of white. It’s not surprising that we sometimes attribute the winter beauty to an actual person–Jack Frost wandering around like a mischievous artist. The landscape in winter is quite simply a work of art.
I remember as a child bundling up to head out into the woods after a heavy snowfall. The world looked different, but it also felt different. Sounds were hushed, as if the snow were demonstrating its indifference to the noises of the normal world. All the smells were burned clean by the cold. Visually, things were both hidden and revealed by the snow. Large objects buried became unidentifiable; was that mound of white a pile of leaves left over from the fall or something more mysterious? Bright red cardinals and blue jays which might have gone unnoticed against a different background suddenly glowed against the uniform whiteness of the snow.
Living in Madison, you discover that snow has the same effect in a more urban landscape. When snow is falling, the sounds of cars and voices fade away. Your attention is drawn up into the heavens to watch the snowflakes coming down in the narrow valley formed by the buildings on either side of the street. It takes a great deal of snow to make the buildings in Madison disappear, but sometimes the place where the sidewalk ends and the street become fuzzy. And always, there is the beautiful view of the river valley covered in snow.
I find it hard to imagine living someplace where there’s snow on the ground for months out of the year, largely because that probably comes with a whole lot more cold weather than I find personally palpable. I am content with two or three satisfying snowfalls before I’m ready to move on to spring. But I would mourn greatly if we lost the snow altogether in this part of the world, because it is just an undeniably magical thing.