Tag Archives: snow


Here are some notes from my journals, Decembers 1990-2016. Some of them appeared  in the “Field Notes” section of The Windward Shore:

FIRST SNOW, barely an inch deep, and suddenly the world is pristine again. Climbed the hill out back and looked down on the land rolling beneath its new white coat and could see what lay beneath it. Like seeing muscles under the pelt of an animal. Could see the bones too, and the tendons and sinews.


Storm watch for tonight. First one of the season. About three inches on the ground already and heavy flakes falling. The monochromatic world seems ripe for storm. I’m ripe for it too.


It’s only December 6, but full winter already: bitter cold, a wind so strong it burrows through the walls. The furnace runs nonstop and the house won’t warm beyond 64 degrees, and my office so cold I’m working in a winter coat and wool hat – already a bitter black-and-white world. Shocked by all I’ve relearned so quickly: the penetrating cold, the burning touch of driven snow, the animal sounds of the wind.


Glenn says his house was so cold last night that he felt like he was being prepped for an organ transplant.


Last night I walked in the field in the moonlight (waxing, two days till full) and was surprised to see that every weed standing above the snow cast a shadow. I felt exposed and vulnerable, prey for owls.


This is the opposite of spring rain: winter drizzle, a degree or two short of freezing, the small drops driven on the wind and stinging my face. The road sheens dangerously. Glitter of sleet on the gravel shoulders; trees dark with wet limbs; sky the color of nothing. Should be a perfect day for discouragement, but my spirit soars.


Saw a sharp-shinned hawk in the front yard standing on a mouse it had just caught. It flew off to the woods across the road with the mouse limp in its talons, dangling like a pouch of tobacco. I didn’t think until later—too late—after fresh snow had fallen, that I should have looked for plunge marks in the snow.


Tonight the stars are close and bright and bonfires blaze on the hilltops. Cherry trees, bulldozed into piles as big as houses, doused with fuel oil, and ignited. I can see two of them from the front window. They blaze with the intensity of a furnace and trail streamers of sparks downwind. Even here, inside the house, I can smell the sweet smoke.


The harsh, deep, hopeless cold of full winter. The wind—dry, incessant, merciless, from the north—pries around the door and claws its way inside. Two electric heaters burn full time, and still my office is cold in every corner.


Twenty degrees this morning and another six inches of snow. Wraiths of sea-smoke on the bay.


All night awake. Trying with some long fingernail of the will to scratch some deep itch of the spirit.


Walking in moonlight. The snow is so deep now that Toby could make almost no headway. He bounded, rested with his belly deep in the snow, then bounded again. Finally he was so exhausted that the sat in the track of my snowshoes and watched as I went on without him. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen him quit.

I could have walked for miles, but I didn’t want to leave the dog behind, so I decided to go only as far as the shadowline made by the hill. Once I stepped past the boundary between shadow and light the moonlight lay so bright around my legs that my shadow strode along beside me.

When I returned to him Toby ran in circles of gratitude in the snow. The rest of the way home he followed so closely in my tracks that he kept stepping on the backs of my snowshoes.


Cold is the default condition of the universe.


When I’m out there it doesn’t feel like “out there.”


Wallace Stevens, in “The Snow Man,” writes that a “mind of winter” is required before one can see the snow and frost and “the junipers shagged with ice” and not project a correlation with human misery and other human things. Only a cold, rational intellect knows that he is a nothing who perceives the winter landscape and sees the “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”

When we know that we are nothing and that nothing permeates everything, our humanity kicks in. From loneliness, awe, and perplexity comes compassion.


We need more time outside. Five minutes walking in winter air—the air cold and clean as mountain water—and our faces are bright with joy. We look like children again.


Twenty degrees this morning and another six inches of snow. Wraiths of sea-smoke on the bay.


A white Christmas after all. Five inches, light and fluffy. Very cold. This morning a sun pillar shot up ahead of the rising sun and lit the hill behind Carolus’s in pink alpenglow. As I watched, it crept downhill until everything around me was brilliant with pink then golden light.




Sometimes the world slips through the window and joins us where we live. And, of course, the more fully we live, the more often it joins us.

In December 1991, in the final sprint to finish my first big book, I found myself becoming more alert than usual. It was my first experience with the white-hot stage of sustained composition and the state of heightened attention that makes the world outside and the world of the imagination come together in strange and magical ways. Similar conjunctions have occurred with every book I’ve written, but this was the most vivid of them.

FrogsFishNewIt was a book about wonders of the sky, and to see those wonders all I had to do was step outside and look up. Writing about sunsets and meteor showers and snowflakes and birds in flight made me unusually aware of them. I’ve been chasing that level of awareness ever since.

The first complete draft of It’s Raining Frogs and Fishes: Four Seasons of Natural Phenomena and Oddities of the Sky was nearing completion and I could finally see my way through to the end. For months I had been faxing rough drafts to artist Glenn Wolff, who would then sketch ideas for illustrations and fax them back and call to discuss them. Now he was finishing many of the 80-plus illustrations that would later appear in the book and would inspire reams of praise from critics and readers.

All that year our work seemed like a magnet for wonders. When we were working on the chapter about sunrises and sunsets, we saw night after night for a week the most brilliant sunsets we’d ever witnessed, the result of a volcanic eruption in the Philippines that cast vast clouds of dust into the upper atmosphere and tinted the setting sun shades of vivid scarlet and purple. I saw one sunset so astonishing — not only brilliant with colors, but expanding across most of the sky — that it made traffic on a busy highway I was driving along come to a virtual halt. Late one night Glenn stepped outside his studio after working on the illustration for the aurora chapter, and looked up to see the Northern Lights of a lifetime. He called me and said, “Go outside, right now, and look up.” I stepped out the door, then hurried back inside and woke my sons and wrapped them in blankets and took them outside to the yard. The aurora filled the sky, beams of light radiating from a central spot almost straight overhead, pulsating in curtains of red, pink, and green. I have never seen a more brilliant display.

Frogs-and-Fishes-AuroraNightsBy December Glenn and I were working twelve or more hours a day, seven days a week to meet our publisher’s deadline. Much of the month I was working virtually around the clock, sleeping and writing in the same room, taking catnaps when necessary, often losing track of  time or even whether it was day or night. When I took breaks, it was to read in bed or go for walks outside.

My days turned even crazier when Gail and I sold our house on Eleventh Street and had to vacate it the last week of November, nearly a month before our house on Old Mission Peninsula would be ready for us. My parents came to the rescue and invited us to move in with them in their house on Long Lake — the house where I had lived for much of my childhood and adolescence, and about which I had begun writing the essays that would appear a couple years later in A Place on the Water. For Aaron and Nick, who were 12 and 4 that December, it was a grand adventure — a month of slumber parties with Grandma and Grandpa — and they couldn’t have been happier. It turned out to be a grand adventure for all of us.

Below is an excerpt from the journal I kept during those years. I will always look back upon that winter of wonders as one of the richest and most rewarding periods of my life.

12/1/91 — Walked to Bullhead Lake with Gail and the kids. Day clear and sunny and very cold. The lake freshly frozen, the ice clear and a quarter-inch thick, etched on the top with crystal patterns, like it had been spread with a broad plaster knife. Thousands of tiny snow fleas (Boreus hyemalis?) hopped methodically, three inches at a leap, away from shore on the ice. Each, when it landed, adjusted for direction before leaping again in a surprisingly straight course out from shore. Where were they headed? Through the ice, as visible as if seen through glass, were water boatmen and other aquatic organisms moving around among the decomposing leaves on bottom. The woods are snow-free after the fohn-like winds of last week, but the leaves are frozen into crunching mats, and the temperature now is cold enough to burn your face and ears.  Glove weather. Aaron and Nick are always enervated by a walk in the woods.

Frogs-and-Fishes-NatureBaroqueHard to get back into the book after the three days off to move. Worn out the first day or two; simply lazy now. Would prefer to nap and read novels and daydream. Language lacks importance. Strange to be in the house of my childhood. I’ve commandeered a bedroom for my office, and sleep alone in it. Best that way, I think, since I expect to re-catch the fever soon and be working late nights again.

12/2 — Another very cold day. Gray stratus has us locked into a colorless and dreary world. The lake this morning was partially frozen, especially on this lee shore between here and the island. Some of the new ice was coated with a fine dusting of snow crystals, the kind that materializes out of clear sky. Had to dust off the car this morning, and scrape the frost. Wind came up by mid-morning and the ice Frogs-and-Fishes-NaturesTantrumsdisappeared. Another night or two as cold as last night and the entire lake will skim over, then the wind won’t be able to slip beneath the ice to break it up.  Now I’m alone in the house and still can’t get my passion back for the book. Worked some on tornadoes and hurricanes, but can’t seem to get fired up in spite of dangerously near deadline. Need to back into it slowly and surprise myself. Work on something that seems easy. Do busy work until I can dig in and compose again.

12/3 — Woke to a white world. Snow made fine by the cold; drifts to three or four feet. School closed. The lake unfrozen, no doubt because of the strong winds all night — open water looks peculiar when surrounded by snowy landscapes. Excitement of the unusual, unexpected. The day the color of a black-and-white print in excellent focus.

12/9 — Crazy salad days. Blitzing on the book now; not far from having all the first drafts finished. The rest will be relatively easy. Worked nearly 17 hours Saturday and finished two chapters. Working long days and nights, sleeping late (when I can), piling words upon words upon words.

The weather has been bizarre, though I’ve had little time to be out in it. The view from the picture window here has been interesting: Last week the lake froze entirely, then snow covered it with enough weight to streak it with cracks that soaked through and looked like snowmobile tracks. Everyone thought it was here to stay, and that, like most years, we would have heavy snow cover before the ice had a chance to firm up solid. Then, the sixth, thaw: overnight the snow on the lake puddled to a continuous layer of water over the clear ice (we could see through it to bottom even from the house). Then, the seventh, rain and warm wind. By the eighth the lake broke open again, all the ice except some shore piles melted, most of the snow gone. Today it’s clear and sunny, 40 degrees, breeze from the west, and the driveway is damp gravel and the yard has patches of open areas. If this holds until we move on the 18th I’ll be a grateful guy.

I love this stage of a book. I’m so engaged in composition that I experience a psychological equivalent of continental drift: subterranean plates are shifting, grinding one another, and something that lies beneath, something vaguely sensed, threatens to come visible. I’m in a continuous state of mild excitement, with moments of intense excitement and lucidity. Everything seems possible; no project is beyond my abilities. It seems now it would be the easiest thing in the world to sit down and compose fiction — and a relief, not having to worry about getting the facts right. If this confidence lasts beyond the completion of the book I want to begin work in January on a series of new stories. And a series of nature essays. And a novel…

12/13/91 — Stealing a few minutes from 2:20 AM. Buried to the eyebrows. Don’t know if I will finish the book on deadline or not — don’t know anything. Paul Bowles notes the difference between a diary (things that happened) and a journal (what I think about the things that happened), but I don’t know whether it applies to real life. Watched three otters this morning diving and swimming out front. They came to shore finally, swimming underwater even in the very shallow water, then climbed up on the bank and nosed around for awhile. Very sociable with one another, always close, frequently touching and rubbing. They took turns rubbing their backs and sides on patches of snow; if there had been more on the bank perhaps they would have slid. They seem extremely confident creatures — superb at what they do best — so efficient in the business of getting around and getting enough to eat that they have leisure to do it beautifully and leisure to be inquisitive. Hard to tell from our vantage in the house (Gail and Mom watched too, and we were all sorry that the kids weren’t here), but they may not have been quite full-grown. All were similar is size (though one may have been slightly larger than the other two — they did not stay still long enough to give much opportunity for comparison) which made me suspect they are siblings. They took their time getting back in the water, then porpoised away to the drop-off. At one spot between Johnson’s and Menzel’s, maybe 30 feet out from the drop-off, they dove repeatedly for perhaps 10 minutes, often coming up and making chewing motions. I’m sure they were feeding, but could not see on what, even with binoculars. Not fish. That’s what happened. I don’t know what I think about it.  Yes I do: I think the otters traveled up the creek from Lake Dubbonnet and only visit Long Lake in late fall because Long Lake in the summer is full of power boats and is an unhealthy place for otters. And I think it is mighty intelligent of them to know it.

Weather continues strangely mild. Steady rain much of today. Forecast is for freezing rain tonight and snow tomorrow, then cold and snow forever. The lake is so anxious to freeze it produces thin plates of ice in spite of the mild temperatures, then the wind breaks them into slivers that gather in odd loose slush-like aggregations for 10 or 20 feet out from the windward shore. The waves are sharply ruffled until they reach the layer of slush, then are soothed, like a blanket laid over a troubled child. The wind has blown from several directions this week, which I suspect means we’re in for stormy weather. It was from the southeast this morning, then from the west this afternoon. We’re in for it.

Frogs-and-Fishes-IceBird12/14 — Woke up to snow on the ground and it has been snowing continuously and in increasingly heavy amounts all day. Now, late afternoon, we’re in mild blizzard conditions, with visibility reduced enough to obscure the far shore of the lake, and the island at times, and accumulations of six inches or so on the ground. The wind, gusting from the north, has kept the lake from freezing, and the lake looks like it doesn’t like the idea one bit. It looks like winter is thumping its heavy way in for good. Just in time for moving day Wednesday. After two weeks of non-stop work on the book I had to take a break yesterday afternoon and found myself incapable of doing much but watching television basketball. Recovered the juice about 1:30 AM, worked for an hour, then went to sleep and woke up refreshed and ready to hit it today. Clubbing away….

12/16 — Fighting the flu or something. Could sleep and sleep and sleep. The lake froze over last night, during a fairly heavy snow, so that today it is white and slushy already, with continental outlines of black where it has cracked. Still a wide area of open water to the northeast of the island, but everywhere else it is frozen. At leave 12 inches of snow on the ground. Went out long enough today to catch snow crystals on my jacket sleeve, then had to return to bed. Picking away at random paragraphs on the book. Too weak to care about deadlines. Mixed in with the lethargy of illness come moments of elation, even spurts of creativity. Might have written a poem yesterday, the first in months. Instead of sleeping at night I’m reading all the 1987 issues of Antaeus and Paris Review. In the midst of a lot of intellectual weight-lifting and pompous posing, some brilliant essays and stories, notably by William Kittridge and Donald Hall. Otherwise, much self-important wheezing. Donald Hall says reading should be done with the tongue and mouth, and that most critics read only with their eyes.

Saw a pair of pileated woodpeckers flying overhead one afternoon last week. They seemed too heavy for flight, as if their bones were solid. Between each wing stroke they plummeted, rose when they beat, then plummeted — if they had missed a stroke they would have fallen to the ground like hatchets.Frogs-and-Fishes-ToughBirds

Up against the usual dualities. I want to dedicate my life to literature, but after two or three days of hard work I long to be with the kids outside, free of language; outside I soon long for the intimacy of my desk, a pool of yellow lamplight, and a stack of notebooks. Can neither be satisfied just living nor just reacting to living. Want both, somehow, simultaneously. In the act of writing I feel most alive, but it’s not enough. I want to carry the intensity of creation to the ordinary moments of existence. I want meaning to adhere to experience, but don’t want to intellectualize experience. The solution perhaps is to cultivate a moderate level of mania: one in which my judgment is not distorted, and from which the fall to the ground is not crippling. Can I sustain such a level for a solid month?