On Nostalgia and Giant Snowflakes

Late fall and early winter can be harsh times in Vermont. The beautiful transient fall foliage has gone away, but a deep snowpack usually hasn’t formed. Alternating bouts of rain and snow lead to ice and mud, and dusk comes at 4 PM. I spent much of the second half of November on my first time deer hunting… a story in and of itself. When early December came, the dustings of perfect deer-tracking snow gave way to wintry mix and wet cold. It is a bit of a lonely time, and lonely times tend to cause a bit of sentimental backwards-gazing.

It’s funny to be nostalgic about a time I KNOW I was so much less happy, but the feelings are there nonetheless. I think back to a past love – but not a person… a place. I hear stories of rain finally drenching the parched canyons of coastal California. I imagine the indescribable sound of a boulder rolling in a canyon during a flash flood. I can nearly smell the purple and black sage waking up with the first raindrops. I envision the way mosses and clubmoss awaken and turn green seemingly minutes after the first rains, the way wild cucumber sends out its eerie odd tendrils to feel around for dry shrubs to ramble up upon and sprout its pufferfish pods. I think of the vibrant exuberance that follows a wet year. One sizable storm has already hit, and an even bigger one is roaring down the coast as I type with another likely behind it. It may not end the drought, but to the California sunflower and the bigpod ceanothus, these storms will be enough. The hills will burst forth with yellow and white, a strange inverse vibrancy to the fall foliage of red maple and birch of mid-autumn in Vermont. Seeds will fall and new plants will sprout. All while Vermont is buried in frozen mud awaiting more substantial snow.

Of course, as is sometimes the case with lost love, I don’t limit myself to thoughts. During the cold dark nights, when sleety rain is pelting the window, I’m watching over my past canyons. As part of my long-standing obsession with iNaturalist.org , I spend hours identifying plants posted by others. I even dig through some very old photos and added a few observations of my own. I keep refreshing the Weather West blog, hearing stories of lowering clouds and rising winds. I imagine the renewal of the first heavy rains on a fire scar, as they rip through the soil like a scab, exposing long-dormant seeds below and removing debris to rush downhill into someone’s swimming pool.

I imagine I will always hold a sort of deep, confused love for California’s canyons… but it comes like a flash flood and is gone again just as fast. Vermont’s moods are varied and sometimes challenging, but it doesn’t take long for a new Vermont wonder to emerge. This week we were pelted by a bizarre wrong-way Nor’easter that came from the southeast instead of moving up the coast from the southwest. It had pulled in warm air, and we were getting the same frustrating rain, sleet, and wet sodden snow… until suddenly everything changed. I looked outside to see what appeared to be soap suds blowing around our porchlight. Massive – absolutely massive blobs of snowflakes. Some of them were at least three inches across, and they fell so slowly they seemed suspended in air. We ran outside to the sound of plopping snowballs and dripping meltwater from the rooftops. Looking up into the falling snow globs was dizzying, catching one in your mouth would literally fill it full of snow. This must be what it is like for a three year old to witness a hard wet snow… and when I was three I had never seen snow fall. As the snow squall moved away there was even a flash of lightning. Thundersnow!

I don’t know why the snowflake blobs were so enormous, but I know people saw them elsewhere – in Rutland, in Calais, in Burlington. The atmosphere was very near freezing for a long way up, so perhaps the snow globs had a long time to gravitate towards each other as they wavered a few tenths of a degree from freezing on their long descent. Or perhaps they hovered in an updraft like hail, slowly growing until they reached immense size. Either way, a memory came into my head… snowflakes big as golf balls.. a song, from long ago, from a part of my life that felt like a whole other world, like I was a whole different person.

Piebald: Part II: The Nor’Easter.

…another chapter is written
I think we’re going on twenty six
it took a nor’easter to break the silence
that night snowflakes fell as big as golfballs
foreshadow the mood for my journey…

The word ‘home’ still feels like an oversized clammy wet cobble when I say it. it’s only slowly sinking in that I finally know what that word means.

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