One morning, just two weeks ago, there were snow-flowers all over my yard, clinging to the trees and shrubs and scattering over the ground. These were soft, fluffy clusters of snowflakes that sparkled in the sun, their glitter the only hint that they were snow and not some gift of cotton from the sky.
Now these fluffy bits have all disappeared, gobbled up by the real snow that will stay for the winter. It is not as playful. There is a hard edge to it that says, “I mean business!” Its relationship with the sun is stronger, more of a partnership. The snow rejects the sun with vigour, not succumbing to the bright rays, but tossing them back to the sky with an arrogance born of the knowledge that it is now the stronger of the two.
But, oh . . .both are beautiful. And I am so glad to see the snow, to feel that hard edge of winter bite into the daylight, to see the brilliance of the weakened sun as it reflects off the snow. Now the trees loom larger against the sky as they sleep the deep sleep of dormancy, their idle limbs rimed with snow.
Under the snow, near the ground, small caverns are opening up. Crystals form and gather as they slightly melt from the heat of the earth, leaving little tunnels behind where small animals scurry about in the half twilight looking for food. Overwintering insects lie curled up in leaves and under debris here; juicy stems and half frozen leaves provide winter forage.
It is quite warm under the snow, hovering around or just above 0 degrees Centigrade as long as there is a decent covering of insulating snow – a foot or more keeps the temperature constant. Voles and mice and shrews find it quite liveable. They create air holes to let in oxygen and let out carbon dioxide. You can find the holes – they are about finger size – and foxes, owls and coyotes can too. They use the holes to hunt for winter food. Ermine and weasels will dive right in and chase the voles in their own tunnels. Larger mammals will wait to detect sound or movement, and then quickly make their strike.
The Inuit call this snow layer the pukak. It can extend up about 10 cm or four inches above the ground. It won’t form in well-mown, debris-deprived lawns. Nor does pukak do well in moist climates such as that of Newfoundland, but here in Manitoba, in a perfect winter, in years where snow falls thick and fast and stays until spring, the pukak teems with life.
The skies come alive now, too, the clouds showing pink and rose in the morning and evening light. When the daytime sun shines, it takes on a curious, pale lemon glow that paints the air with well being. The quality of sound is affected and a crystal silence falls on a winter’s day. At night the silence seems deeper, as if we could hear beyond the shelter of earth’s atmosphere into the universe itself.
Nov. 27, 2011