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Where did all the snow go?

A leafless tree branch hangs over a rapidly running stream.
Ralph Gardner Jr.

If things had gone according to National Weather Service predictions – starting several days out and continuing until they changed at almost the last minute – I should currently be looking out upon a vista of pristine white snow.

Instead, my view consists of a lawn filled with a collage of last summer’s brown grass and dead leaves. There’s nothing that fills me with the anticipation of a brewing blizzard. On the other hand, nothing disappoints as much as a storm that fails to materialize.

That’s what happened this week. My weather apps glowed red with winter storm warnings until they didn’t. Our area in the Hudson Valley was promised somewhere between seven inches and a foot of snow. In the end with got nothing. Nada. Not a single flake. Apparently, the dividing line between winter magic and climate change moroseness fell a few miles south of us.

I’ve tried to articulate to myself what it is about snow that fills me with awe when it falls, and sadness when it doesn’t. By the way, I’m willing to stipulate that not everyone shares my affection for the medium. If you commute to work or work outdoors for a living you may consider it one of nature’s irritants.

But falling snow takes you out of yourself. It connects you to something larger and majestic. If you were asked to describe the phenomenon to someone who’d never seen it before and you explained that it consists of frozen crystals of water that fall from the sky by the trillions – each one perfect and intricate in its own right – you’d think that was pretty cool.

But what I’ve concluded lately – forgive me if I sound like a four-year-old, but part of snow’s charm is that it reacquaints you with your innocent childhood self – is that it also draws you inward. It’s meditation in meteorological form. It’s similar to one of those Magic Slate tablets, the size of a clipboard, that makes your drawing vanish simply by lifting the plastic sheet.

The world’s woes – and there seem to be an abundance of them these days – can be made briefly to vanish, or at least recede into insignificance, by witnessing the snow start to fall, gather steam, blow into a storm, transform the countryside and then quietly withdraw. Preferably, without causing prolonged power outages.

One of the most depressing radio programs I heard lately was public radio’s On Point. The episode was titled “What we lose if snow disappears.” “Snowpack is getting less reliable in American winters,” host Meghna Chakrabarti began, “And in many places, that’s not just an environmental problem, but an emotional one, too.”

Tell me about it! The show consulted journalists and climate scientists about why the snowpack has shrunk ten to twenty percent over the last four decades. The cause, of course, is global warming. It’s not as if snow is disappearing completely. It’s just becoming unreliable and when it does fall it might quickly turn to rain and get washed away.

But On Point also seeded the program with wistful reminisces from listeners about how the snow of their youth has been replaced by rain and mud.

It didn’t help that I was driving down from northern Vermont where we’d just picked up our new pup. I grew up skiing in Vermont. I went to college there. If there’s one place in my personal constellation that I associate with snow in winter it’s the Green Mountain State. The distant peaks were frosted. But the valleys we traveled through were utterly bereft. I even felt sad for our dog.

A self-respecting snowstorm has three stages. The first stage, the glorious anticipation, is possibly the sweetest. That’s when you go shopping for provisions, gather firewood since you may not be able to reach the shed later, back the car into the garage, and wait.

The next stage is the storm itself. You’ve done your planning. You’re prepared. There’s nothing left to do but marvel once it does start to fall, following the trajectory of the flakes to the ground. (Outdoor lights help at night.)

Then gathering around the fireplace or the wood-burning stove, if you have one. The blizzard doesn’t just draw you back to the past. It creates a connection to collective memory. The experience probably isn’t all that much different than what our ancestors experienced, though without indoor plumbing.

I enjoy shoveling at intervals during the storm. I try to restrain myself from lifting too much in a single shovelful. It’s an excuse to get outdoors and do something marginally productive.

And then there’s the aftermath. When the blanket of snow muffles the sound, hungry birds crowd the feeders, and you finally have an excuse to don cross-country skis; though it seems it might take decades to amortize a recent investment in new skis.

The only solace is the next storm. Then, sucker that I am, the anticipation will begin all over again.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found be found on Substack.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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