Available Light: A Series on the Photography of Place
I often tell a story that is mostly true.
When I was younger, I knew how to downhill ski. I was not great, but I was not an embarrassment either. I could turn and go fast. I could jump and do simple tricks in the air. I did not ski often, but when I did there was more fun than fear.
Fast-forward several years. My wife and I bought our first home, and the previous owners left two sets of fine wooden cross-country skis in the basement rafters. We called them to let them know about the forgotten, but they said no, keep them. They’re yours. I had never cross-country skied before, but that first afternoon on a North Dakota riverside trail taught me I’d been missing something wonderful and deep. Slow down, I thought. Pay attention. Perhaps it was my age, or perhaps it was just a new way to listen to a snow-covered forest, but I was taken.
And then fast-forward again, to the year there was a large and oddly shaped present under the Christmas tree. My wife had bought me a set of snowshoes. I’d only been on snowshoes once before, hiking though woods and across frozen lakes at a place called Wolf Ridge, an environmental learning center in northeastern Minnesota, but I knew again that my speed in winter was transformed. Every step was slower, more carefully placed, more intimate with the wind and winter around me.
I joke that my next step in the process of slowing down will be building small chairs in the lovely, dark, and deep, and inventing a sport called Snow Sitting. People laugh when I say that. But they grin too. Their faces tell me: that would be very cool.
I live on the border between Minnesota and North Dakota. Winters here are hard, cold, windy, and often lethal. We do not get the snow of the Michigan Upper Peninsula or Buffalo, New York, but we are exposed in ways that can frighten the soul. We have wind that can raise old snow into ground blizzards that make eyesight irrelevant. We have real temperatures, not wind-chill, that have passed 40 degrees below zero. While the definition of blizzard requires winds of 35 miles per hour, this is the Northern prairie. Winter storms have sustained winds of 60 miles an hour and no one is surprised. Straight-line winds in my town have hit 120.
Still, there is always that moment when snow begins to fall. There is always that moment when we look up, pause, and for some reason smile. This is not the smile that comes when summer rain makes shelf clouds, wall clouds, tornadoes, or gust fronts. This is not the smile of sturm und drang. And this is not the smile of some bright sunset, either. Instead, this is, I believe, very much like a moment of prayer.
Yes, snowfall means cancelled school, snowball fights, snowmen built in front yards and attempts at igloos in the backyard. But it’s much more than that. We use the word blanket as a verb when snow falls. Our sins are covered. Our hopes are covered too. It is perhaps a bit of a restart for everyone. It is, perhaps, a bit of peace.
635 million years ago, the whole planet was covered with snow and ice. Snowball Earth, it’s called. We’ve warmed since then. Yesterday, though, I was walking outside when the snow began to fall. I slowed my walk and then stopped. It was all very pretty, yes. There was snow in building lights and between trees. There was snow on branches and on the tip of a young girl’s hat. The sky was overcast and close, nearly fog, but the snow was bright.
More than anything, though, there was quiet. Of course there is science to explain this. Snow is porous and therefore does not reflect well. A couple inches of snow can absorb 60 percent of the ambient sound. If the air near the ground is warmer than the air above, then the air is “upward refracting” and sound stays close to the ground. There is something called bulk absorption, which takes out all the background noise from far away.
But there’s magic, too. An individual snowflake is smaller than the frequency of a sound wave. An individual snowflake has no effect on sound at all. Only all of them do.
Snowfall is a quieting moment. It’s completely church. It’s so utterly fleeting I feel compelled to witness whatever new shapes arrive.
Peace. In alleyway, forest, and on the now-closed interstate highway. Quiet in the woods and in the town I call home. This will all be gone soon enough.
Available Light | A Wish for Snow Gallery by W. Scott Olsen
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W. Scott Olsen is a professor of English at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, where is also edits the literary journal Ascent. His most recent book is A Moment with Strangers: Photographs and Essays at Home and Abroad (NDSU Press, 2016). A previous contributor to Terrain.org, his individual essays have appeared recently in journals such Kenyon Review Online, North Dakota Quarterly, Utne Reader, Lensculture.com, The Forum, Plane & Pilot, AOPA Pilot, and elsewhere.