A Winter Flashback 4 Mar 2015

This past Wednesday, February 25th, snow moved into east Texas and left many places with 4-6 inches of the white stuff. Here in Nacogdoches we only received about an inch of wet flakes. But watching them fall was beautiful and reminded me of many winters when we lived in cold country, including Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Maine.

In December of 1990, we moved to Texas and it was quickly obvious that I had forgotten some things about the Lone Star State. Shortly after our arrival, a light powdered-sugar-dusting of snow fell. Church was canceled that weekend. We snickered. The following weekend the snow was gone but there was a thin, barely perceptible glaze of ice on tree branches and shrubs. Church was canceled again. We laughed out loud. However, since then I’ve realized the decision was wise. Most people here simply don’t have the experience to drive well on frozen precipitation.

During the recent snowfall, police responded to many storm-related accidents in northeast Texas. But don’t take that as an insult. When the first snows of winter fall in colder climates people who ought to know better also spin wildly, slipping, sliding, and crashing into each other. Auto body shops see an immediate uptick in their income.

Even walking can be hazardous in winter conditions. While living in Maine, my feet suddenly went out from under me while I was trying to open our garage door. I cracked a couple of ribs and smacked my head so hard on the ice-covered driveway that my wife heard the crack in the house! Knocked myself silly. It took several weeks for my ribs to get back to normal, and some would say my head never recovered, thus explaining my several quirks. Can’t say I received a whole lot of sympathy. Just smart comments about my less than graceful ice dancing performance.

So what good is snow? Snow that remains on the ground is good insulation. The interlocking crystals trap billions of tiny air pockets and help keep the ground from freezing. Ground-dwelling mammals enjoy warmer conditions in their burrows, and owls can see their prey more easily against the snow. But many other birds and mammals find it harder to locate food.

For generations, Inuits in the far north have made igloos out of snow. Snow, not ice. They cut large blocks of snow to create their classic winter shelters. Ice blocks aren’t used in igloo construction because they contain no insulating trapped air pockets. Even a pile of snow can be hollowed out to make a survival shelter called a quinzee.

For me, snow storms and snowy landscapes are simply beautiful. The rough edges of everything are smoothed and muted. A great silence descends over the land. The insulating qualities of snow allow it to absorb sound. I enjoy walking through the snow. Extremely cold snow squeaks underfoot and crunches when it’s warmer. Clear nights after a snowstorm are special experiences. Stars stud the black skies like shattered diamonds on velvet. A full moon on the snow is truly magic. Snow crystals glitter and the night becomes so bright you can read a book without artificial light.

Years ago I cross-country skied with a bunch of crazy Canadians at 2 o’clock in the morning in northern Manitoba. The moon was full. It was about 30 below zero and you could hear trees popping like muted rifle shots as moisture in them froze, causing them to burst. Jubilant and carefree, we slid over the hissing, squeaking snow, howling like wolves – and real wolves howled back. Sent chills down my back. The air was so cold I could feel ice forming on my nasal hairs when I inhaled. We were all younger then, and probably a little nuts in those days, but what an experience that was! I’d do it over again in a heartbeat.

Yes, I still like snow, but in limited amounts and for short duration. Yesterday’s snow here melted within a couple of hours. While it fell, we sat in front of our warm fireplace and watched it out the windows.

Brief glimpses of winter in the forests of Deep East Texas this February are plenty for me now. But in case you’ve forgotten March 2010, we had 4-6 inches of snow here, and it was magnificent. The picture will remind you of that rare treasured winter experience in the fields and forests of East Texas.

Dr. Risk is a professor emeritus in the College of Forestry and Agriculture at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. Content © Paul H. Risk, Ph.D. All rights reserved, except where otherwise noted. Click paulrisk2@gmail.com to send questions, comments, or request permission for use.