"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, December 24, 2012

In Praise Of Snow

I hate the cold. I hate the encumbering ritual of sweaters, hats, gloves, scraping the windshield, arguing about the thermostat setting, feeling icy winds sneak down the collar of my parka and up my sleeves, shoveling snow, skidding on unplowed streets, slipping on patchy sidewalks.  I hate all of it.  When others talk of the magic of snowflakes, the pristine beauty and serene silence of the hours after a snowfall, I only see my car under two feet of snow, the boxwoods snapping under the weight of the snow, and the unplowed street.  I wait for power outages, tree limbs coming down and blocking the street, and being trapped for days, cottage-bound by the snow.

I think only of warm weather in winter.  I dream of the palm trees, blue waters and soft breezes of the Caribbean.  I picture myself on a chaise longue in a grove of coconut palms, doing nothing but being warm.  It is lazy, languorous, sensuous, and a perfect stasis.  My body temperature and ambient temperature are almost perfectly balanced.  There is no shock of abrupt change. In one of the most pleasant winter vacations ever, I stayed on the Samaná Península, at the time a remote northern piece of the Dominican Republic.  There were only two ways to get there – driving over steep mountainous roads that climbed high above Puerta Plata then descended down to the isolated town of Las Terrenas; or flying in a single-engine Piper Cub from Santo Domingo.  Neither was a good option.  The roads over the mountains were badly-maintained, and the last leg down from the highest point to the beach was an unpaved, steep, and rutted track.  The convection currents rising from the hot land, caught between mountain peaks, swirled and gusted, and turned the short flight into a stomach-pitching, wrenching affair.

It was always worth it.  In the days before Samaná became a popular destination and multi-storied condos were built to accommodate vacationers who came over good roads and on comfortable twin-engine Cessnas, the resort at Las Terrenas was a simple affair – wooden cabanas, with slatted, screened windows and ceiling fans; prix-fixe stays with locally-caught lobster, pompano, corvina, and all the rum punches and piña coladas you could drink.  The water was warm, turquoise, and shimmering under the tropical sun. On either side of the white sand beach were stands of mangroves, and I would walk along them in the cool shade looking out at the expanse of the Caribbean.  There were few guests at the resort at the time, and these quiet, solitary walks were peaceful, untroubled, and completely relaxing.

The main thing was the climate.  I luxuriated in the perfect warmth and the humidity which caught and held the scent of tropical flowers and the sea, which smelled fresh and earthy in the morning when a light breeze blew down the mountains just before sunrise.  I was never cold, never even gave a thought to a sweater, and stayed happily in shorts, T-shirt, and sandals for the time we were there.

I grew up in New England in the days when winters were still brutal and snow fell before Thanksgiving.  I built igloos on the front lawn, tracked rabbits in the snowy woods behind our house, had snowball fights, and built elaborate tunnels around the house.  When I was older, I walked at night onto the golf course across the road, stood on the snow-covered green of the Fifth Hole in the bitter sub-zero cold and looked up at the perfectly clear, black, sky.  On those impossibly cold nights the sky was impossibly black but somehow luminescent with the wash of the milky way and the billion stars around it.

On sunny winter days, the temperatures still in single digits, I would again walk out to the golf course, and lie against the bank of a snowy sand trap.  The sun even in the depth of winter still had some warmth, and the contrast of the intense cold, the brilliant white snow, and the warmth of the sun radiating through my clothes was exciting and satisfying.

I will never forget my family’s first trip to Florida in the depth of winter.  It was the early Fifties, so we took the overnight sleeper train.  All through the night I kept waking up to look out the window to see if the snows had receded and if the sandy beaches had begun.  After many hours the train made a stop – not an official station-stop, but an improvised one in the middle of an orange grove.  As soon as the conductor opened the doors of the train car and lowered the steps, I smelled an sweet and unbelievable fragrant scent of orange blossoms. The sun was warm and everything was like summer, but no Northern summer, more a kind of a designed tropical climate, more imagination and fiction. We bought glasses of freshly-squeezed orange juice from vendors.  I had never tasted such sweetness, such fresh, pulpy, thick and fragrant juice.  I was hooked. 

I never looked back after that first seminal trip south.  Although I continued to take my freezing midnight walks and sojourns on the sunny fairway snow-dunes, I always wanted to get away from the cold and the layers of heavy clothes and to return to Florida.

For my entire professional career I worked in hot places – some brutally hot like Ouagadougou in the summer (120F), Bihar in May (125F), and Bombay just before the monsoons (95F, 90 percent humidity) – but rarely did I complain.  I was happy to be able to retreat to an air-conditioned room after a day’s field trips to scorched villages, banging over animal tracks and rock-hard mud ruts in an old Jeep; but I still luxuriated in the heat, and always sat outside in the evening when the temperature fell to just under 100F, the mosquitos had not yet come out, and the slightest hint of coolness blew in from the north.

My most fixed memories are those of tropical places – the remote, palm-lined beaches of southern Sri Lanka; Copacabana; the southern shore beaches of Port Salut and Jacmel in Haiti; and the Teranga Hotel in Dakar overlooking the Atlantic from the Corniche.  My favorite was the beaches outside of Banjul in the Gambia.  The high surf pounded under  under our cantilevered hotel and onto the long beaches nearby. I spent every weekend on the black sand beaches of El Salvador, eating ceviche prepared fresh by local women for lunch, and corvina, lobster, and grilled snapper at night.

Coming back to Washington in the winter after those tropical idylls made the reentry even more difficult.  My life as a consultant was a footloose and free one.  For four months of the year, under the cover of a well-paid contract, I enjoyed the freedom of travel, the independence, suspension of responsibility, and adventure.  Coming back to a cold, grey, and barren city was depressing.

I have always heard of Eskimos who have 100 words for snow just as the nomadic Arabs of The Empty Quarter have as many for sand and dunes; but I never suspected that they liked snow or saw any beauty in it; or preferred the Arctic cold to anything warmer.  I assumed that they, like many indigenous populations, simply did not have the resources to move to any more accommodating climes.  When I lived in Bolivia, I commiserated with the Indians of the altiplano who could never get warm.  Fuel was scarce so high above sea level (14,000 ft.) and burned fitfully in the thin air.  When it rained, the cold was even worse.  Everything was damp and wet, wool clothing was rank with animal oils and human sweat.  Why, I asked, didn’t these Quechua and Aymara Indians simply do down the mountain?

In an article in The Atlantic (12.24.12 reprinted from the January 1995 edition), author Cullen Murphy writes In Praise of Snow:

"If you're talking about snow crystals in the atmosphere," said Mark Williams, geographer at the University of Colorado and a specialist in the properties of snow, "well, then, there are scores of terms. There are needles and sheaths and columns. There are pyramids. Cups. Bullets. Plates. Scrolls. Branches. Dendritic crystals. Stellar crystals." And those are just some of the basic forms. Snow crystals also come in combinations. Stellar crystals with plates. Dendritic crystals with branches. Hollow bullets. Bullets with dendrites. Plates with scrolls. Plates with spatial dendrites. Rimed particles. Rimed needle crystals. Lump graupels.

Graupel-like snow with nonrimed extensions. Some of the names of snow crystals (branches, needles, bullets) are appropriately suggestive: in high wind, snow crystals can be as abrasive as sand.

After snow has fallen, the name for it picks up additional qualifiers as it begins to settle or drift, as heat and cold and wind and moisture and the snow's own weight begin to make their influence felt. Freshly fallen snow starts out as what Williams calls an "ice skeleton"—a loose scaffolding of crystals amid an enormous volume of air.

Snow for Murphy and for Williams is a universe in itself with unimaginable diversity, complexity, and beauty.  Although the luxury of such poetic appreciation is affordable only to the warm scientist and writer, both have explored and presented a world most of us have ignored.  Both are interested in snow, however, less for its aesthetics than for its practicality.  Snow is necessary for survival – not just for the Inuit and other Arctic tribes and the animals they hunt, but for ranchers in the West who rely on melting snowpack for the water to irrigate the farms and water their livestock.  On a recent trip to Colorado, I learned from a rancher friend that there was almost no snowpack last winter.  Without water, animals had no feed and had to be sold off at low prices.  The West was literally drying up.  Recent reports are that the Mississippi River is down almost below navigable limits; and while the river system is fed principally by rain, the lack of snow in the north has slowed runoff into the Missouri.

It is snow that powers the great rivers of the West—the Colorado, the Rio Grande, the Columbia, the Missouri—on their long journeys through sometimes parched or semi-arid terrain, ribbons of brown and silver that at times enverdure entire basins, at times support the merest Nilotic fringe of green. How much water does the West's winter snow turn into? The snowmelt that finds its way into the Columbia River alone in an average year comes to 26 trillion gallons, which is 81 million acre-feet—enough to cover all of Kansas in knee-deep water, or to raise Lake Michigan by almost six feet.

I had never appreciated the importance of water – and by extension, snow – to the West.  Land itself has no value except in relation to the water which nourishes it.  Water rights are complex and highly political.  Both government regulation and private community collaboration are necessary to marshal this essential resource.  For those of us living in the East where rainfall is abundant and snow is for skiing or shoveling, it is hard to understand the Western obsession with water.  In much of the West, rainfall is only a small fraction of Eastern levels, and crops, rangeland, and ranches can only survive from mountain snow.  If it disappears, so do they.

As I prepared to leave Santa Fe, the space shuttle Endeavour was high overhead, in the midst of a successful ten-day test of its new radar. I drove north out of town to the banks of the Rio Grande, which flows through a broad plain between the Jemez and the Sangre de Cristo mountains. The snow in the lower elevations had begun to melt, and the river, though it was still shallow and slow-moving, had begun to rise. According to the newspaper that morning, the Sangre de Cristo Water Company's reservoirs in the Santa Fe Canyon, which trap the spring snowmelt and were now nearly full, would be releasing water into the Rio Grande in a matter of weeks.

Looking up, I could see the alpine snowpack—still intact, and, on average, about ten feet deep, according to information I had received from the Soil Conservation Service. Or, as I might have put it at another time, "The snow 120." The cottonwoods along the Rio Grande displayed the haze of fuzzy lime-green they briefly exhibit every spring, reminding me that this was exactly the time of year that Horace had been writing about: "The snows have dispersed, now grass returns to the fields and leaves to the trees."

This was written in 1995 before the snowpack started to melt; and in this passage the author expresses his appreciation of the beauty of the system that waters the West.  The entire article is a paean to snow – its complexity, its beauty, and its fundamental role in natural ecology.  Even I who get a sinking feeling every time I see the first snowflake fall, come away impressed.  I doubt I will ever get over my Washingtonian’s fear of snow after so many years travelling in countries that are warm and tropical.  I may regain some of the childhood wonder I had of snow, and may someday venture north in winter; but I doubt it.  My mind, spirit, and ambitions are now all south.

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