First Impressions

First Impressions

There’s something about the first real snowfall. We greet it with excitement, wonder, pleasure. By February, snow will more likely be met with grumbles and complaints. But in early December, when we haven’t made its acquaintance in awhile, the snow is a welcome guest.

This week’s began without fanfare—just a few stray flakes dotting Wednesday afternoon like flecks of ash from a campfire. It thickened as near-solstice darkness fell, visible mostly in cones of light: streetlights, headlights, porch lights. And, for the first time this season, it stuck.

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The cold morning dawned in contrasts: gem blue sky above, marble-dusted world below. In my neighborhood, the rising sun reflected iridescent pink off snow-streaked trees. Then I had to leave the house. I felt the first shake of icy wetness falling into my boots as I searched for a scraper to attack the rippled glaze and knobs of ice on my car windows and roof. Frozen wipers left smears of water on the windshield.

At work, a glimpse of the rooftop revealed the direction of the previous night’s wind. Snow clung to the northeast sides of duct vents and fan covers. High above, several loose formations of geese flew by. A moment later, one straggler mightily rowed to catch up. They steered north, toward the Sleeping Giant, who dozed under a woolly blanket.

What is it about snow that dazzles us, I wondered, even when we’ve seen it fall hundreds of times before? Artists in every genre have tried to capture the experience. Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Snowflakes” mimics the flit and fall of snow with flutes and strings and, sometimes, ballerinas. According to The New York Public Library, author Ezra Jack Keats’s book The Snowy Day (1962), in which a little boy named Peter has adventures in the snow, is “the most checked out book” in the library’s history. At the International Snow Sculpture Championships in Breckenridge, Colorado, 20-ton blocks of snow are the medium itself for creating an outdoor exhibition of whimsical, larger-than-life figures (“No power tools allowed!”), which in past years have included astronauts, sea creatures, a Viking and hippopotamus dancers.

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Not all the artistic expressions of snow are cheerful, of course. Andrew Wyeth’s painting First Snow (1959) shows a black-clothed figure leaning into a squall, suggesting a long winter ahead. In her novel How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents (1991), Julia Alvarez imagines a young girl from the Dominican Republic arriving in America in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis. When she sees her first snow from the window of her classroom, she mistakes it for the fallout from a mushroom cloud and cries out, “Bomb!” In James Russell Lowell’s poem “The First Snowfall,” the snow reminds a grieving father of the grave of his young daughter and the patience required after loss, “Flake by flake, healing and hiding / The scar of our deep-plunged woe.”

One of my own favorite snow moments happened more than a decade ago at Quinnipiac University, where I was teaching a first-year writing class. Ten minutes late, a student ran into the classroom. His cheeks were red, his hair was disheveled, and he was covered in snow. He’d come to Hamden from Florida, and he’d never experienced the fluffy stuff before. Standing in a puddle with a huge grin on his face, he announced to the rest of us what we had, that day, failed to fully appreciate: It had snowed! He assumed we could see the miracle of it, too—and for a moment, through his eyes, we did.

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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