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Frozen Assets 

Waxing poetic about the white stuff

Thursday, October 23. The first measurable snow of the fall collected in our field this morning. Always a signal day, the unofficial beginning of what seems to me the proper part of the year. I am aware that more people await the first crocus of spring, or the first robin on the lawn, but in fact at this latitude, spring and summer are the exception. There are only about four months a year when the leaves are green, and another few weeks when they're ablaze. Their natural state is gray, skeletal. And the ground is supposed to be white, crystalline. The soft months are just a fever dream.

Every year it's this way with me; sometime in late September the weather forecast will first include the "s" word, at high elevations, scattered, flurries. Maybe by mid-October the very tops of the High Peaks will be turning white across the lake: Mt. Marcy, its summit cone snowed in. And on the radio Killington will start advertising that its lifts are running -- but on snow from hoses, not the heavens. That doesn't do the cross-country skier much good. We need real snow, snow that covers everything, out in the woods, away from the small pockets of invested capital and concentrated energy that can force the season. We depend on winter actually arriving.

Depend on it for the sudden cessation of friction -- for the moment when, after months of sticking to the ground, suddenly you can slide across it. Admittedly, in your car it's no fun. But everywhere else it's amazing -- as if, say, gravity operated seasonally. Gangly and awkward suddenly becomes sleek and fast and graceful. That millimeter of meltwater between ski and snow turns you into a human hydrofoil. No more lurch, no more pound -- the human body evolved, haphazardly, for running, but a marathon leaves you sucking ibuprofen. Thirty miles on skis is just a long, sweet day -- this is what we were really built for.

Depend on it -- the snow -- for light. Here's a revealing statistic: Just as you would expect, the incidence of Seasonal Affective Disorder, the winter blues, increases linearly the further you get away from the equator, into early evenings and long nights and dark commutes. Increases linearly until you hit the snow line, whereupon the numbers fall sharply. Because sunlight bouncing off snow is twice as bright as sunlight bouncing off dry land (climbers on glaciers rub sunscreen inside their nostrils). Winter is the season for 360-degree sunbathing, for being surrounded by solarity. For me the blues come in the spring, when you're only lit from above.

Depend on snow for a whistling kind of clean. Lushness has its pleasures, but nothing to match the stinging purity of a day when the cold has dried the air -- dried it so much that the stars don't twinkle in the humidity but just hang there. When a long, quick uphill climb leaves you not sweating but at a kind of perfect equilibrium, warmed enough from inside to cope with the chill pushing in.

But you can't depend on winter, on snow, and there's the rub. We know now that winter is only a possibility -- that on a globally warming planet it becomes each year less likely. It's true that last time it was a humdinger, as long and taut and astringent as anyone could have dared hope for. But it's also true that the six years before that Lake Champlain didn't freeze from end to end -- the first stretch like that in a quarter-millennium of records. We know, from the computerized climate models running infinitely in a dozen university labs, that our funnel of carbon into the atmosphere means in the not-too-distant future there simply won't be winter here at some point. No season when precipitation falls as snow instead of cold rain, when liquid water somehow snaps into ice.

And so that makes the snow, when it does come -- when it did come this morning, fuzzing the rocks and the woodpile -- all the more precious. But it means that the delicious, confident wait for its appearance has a slightly worried taste now. It's like waiting for your girlfriend, not your mother. Your girlfriend doesn't have to show up.

Saturday, October 25. Temperature rises near to 60. Wait resumes.

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Bill McKibben

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