Rhododendron’s Many Faces

The rhododendron buds for next year’s flowers appear almost as soon as petals drop from the bush like an early summer cascade of pink snowflakes.

In winter, I can tell how many layers I need to wear by looking out the window at the big rhodie in our yard. On temperate days, the oblong leaves lie almost flat. As colder weather comes our way, they begin to curl inward, as if hugging themselves to keep the chill off. On the coldest days, a toddler’s little finger wouldn’t fit inside a single one of those curls.

As the leaves hang pendulously in winter, the buds above point skyward, reaching for warmth. Individually, they look like homemade hankie days long gone. Clustered together, they remind me of a chorus of angels.

On days like today, the merest dusting of snow clings to the leaves, and I see a different kind of snow angel.

Not long after spring makes its debut, the buds are pregnant with new life almost ready to burst open with color and aroma as killing frosts threaten.

Yet, somehow, they survive.

Winter, Reconsidered

My emotional connection with winter has a long history. It has rocked back and forth sometimes depending on my geographic circumstances. For the last few years our alliance has been strained.

This year, I’ve been trying to redefine my relationship to the season of short days and long nights, relentlessly prolonged and wrapped in gray in my neck of the woods.

During the coldest months, the sun’s rays rarely make an appearance and not just because of the brief period of daylight. Overcast is a generous word for many of our wintry days. Of the first fourteen days of this new year, we had perhaps two sunny days. That was the beginning of a season-long trend.

Even those rare days are frequently unhelpful when it comes to getting a dose of Vitamin D. The frigid temperatures allow for only a couple of small skin slivers—between toboggan and eyebrows and between lower eyelids and muffler. Even eyes may be covered with sunglasses, particularly when sun and snow combine to create blinding brightness. And sometimes the snow—especially if it’s deep, icy, or drifts high and unevenly—makes the outdoors a dangerous proposition, particularly for those of us who are more susceptible to breakage because of age.

Nonetheless, I’m taking measures.

  • I treat all my senses: my most worn sweater that wraps me like a cocoon, thick, soft socks, and a plush comforter make me feel as if I’m burrowing into the neck of a friendly Old English Sheepdog.
  • I surround myself with the soft glow and herbal scent of candles. I play soothing music that lifts my spirit—mostly classical, folk, and Celtic.
  • I try to hold an intentional smile, if only as subtle as the Madonna’s. It brings comfort to those around me, and my spirits unconsciously lift.
  • I sip tea, slowly, and look at the outdoors. Really look at it, noticing all the nuances of winter’s offerings, playing with words to find the most descriptive—and life-affirming—ways to describe the scene before me.

The work is all-encompassing. But so far it has proven worth the effort. Winter will still be around for a while up here on the diagonal, so I’m still working at it.

Our society has a tendency to think of winter as a time of death. Green grass and summer wildflowers have ‘died;’ leaves have fallen and dried making deciduous trees look dead. I’ve challenged myself this year to look at nature differently.

Lawns may no longer be emerald, but they will regrow; the grass is not dead. We have a tendency to overlook the subtle tan shades of tall grasses, but they provide rustling interest on a winter day, even more when they wave gently in a breeze.

Winter isn’t a braggart. Its marvels are less noticeable than the lushness of spring and the vibrancy of summer. In those seasons, winter’s elusive wonders are hidden. But now—now they surround us. Now is the time to revel in them.

When I manage to get out of doors, whether for a walk in the woods or a scenic drive, I look again. I search for positive words, alternatives to bleak, dreary, and overcast. Words like contemplative, silver-tinged skies, reflective, pensive. Winter calls us to introspection. Is that why we resist it?

On one typically cold but unusually bright morning, the roofs of the houses we passed on our way to town were covered with the thinnest veneer of frost. As we rode by, sunlight played on the icy crystals, creating a glittery shimmer, as if the shingles were made of twinkling fairy lights.

The skeletal trees, bare of their green camouflage, fill the landscape with sculptural architecture. Their nakedness allows me to appreciate aspects hidden at other times of the year.

The branches of some reach upward, as if in praise of the sky. Some trees are encircled by draping branches, reminiscent of welcoming arms ready to enfold me and offer comfort. Some trees are so gnarled and craggy it’s easy to imagine they sit on the edge of an enchanted forest.

About now, with trees looking as bereft of life as they have for months, the sap begins rising, an event which will go entirely unnoticed except for syrup makers and those who happen to fell a tree at that crucial time, but pivotal to the reemergence of the verdant leaves we long for.

Subtle color variations and not-so-subtle textural differences in tree bark differentiate one species from another. Touch a sycamore or crape myrtle, with bark as smooth as the proverbial baby’s bottom.

Consider the trees with peeling bark—paper thin birches and rugged shagbark hickories, or the finely ribbed bark of the pin oak and the thick, deeply furrowed bark of the black locust. Bark with overlapping plates, like black birch, make me think of armadillos and scaly dinosaurs.

As I look more closely at trees, I see mosses as dark as midnight and lichens, some the palest green, eerily fluorescent in the dark. In the woods outside my kitchen window sits the tree stump. Over time, moss has begun to creep upwards, slowly covering its sides. Today, I saw for the first time that the entire stump is blanketed in moss as soft as down, hinting at a fairyland.

There are trees with burls and hidey holes. Who goes there?

A cyclops tree?

Winter serves a purpose. Plants store up their reserves, ready to explode with new life as warmer weather and more hours of sunlight appear. The flora does what it needs to do during winter. Animals know how to handle winter, too. Some, like plants, go dormant to preserve strength, feeding off stores of fat until nature is ready to provide its bounty.

What if we humans were to welcome winter in all its aspects and live with it, not against it, as the rest of nature seems to do so well? What if we turned off the electronics, indeed perhaps electric lights when the sun goes down. What if we did those quiet chores best done in front of a fire or by candlelight with a cup of hot chocolate or tea at our sides? What if, instead of staring at some screen, we talked to each other, played games together, put together a jigsaw puzzle, corresponded with relatives and other friends, read aloud or silently, wrote, contemplated? What if we used winter to restore ourselves, to create, to maintain?

Would our family and internal lives be richer? I think they might. Would we welcome winter as we welcome spring? Would we be better primed for what life brings in the next season? We might begin to treasure and even look forward to long winter evenings as a time of personal and family enrichment.

We can’t beat winter. Why not join it?

 

The Other Side of Snow

In eastern South Carolina where I grew up, about an hour’s drive from Myrtle Beach, a snowfall was a unexpected and exciting gift from Mother Nature. I remember one particularly bountiful snow—enough to build a snowman! That was a true rarity. My brothers and I went all out, rolling three balls of snow, each larger than the one before. We rolled and we rolled. How proud we were to be able to make a huge snow statement.

We rolled the huge bottom section where we wanted to build our snowperson. We rolled the next one over, but when we tried to lift it into place, it didn’t budge. That’s how little we knew about snow. Finally, Dad’s strength and ingenuity solved our conundrum.

Now I live in a place that gets snow most every winter, some years more than others. I enjoy the variation of the seasons, so I welcome snow. Sometimes.

In the right conditions, a snowfall can be breathtakingly beautiful. If the temperature hovers near the freezing mark, the snow is usually heavy and wet, turning every outdoor thing into a pearlescent sculptural wonder.

 

 

Snow paw and snow antlers

 

 

Snow fences

Stopping by woods on a snowy evening

The tiny, dry flakes created by brisker winter temperatures sparkle when the sun comes out as if billions of diamonds fell from the sky.

If the snow is preceded by hoar frost, feathery ice crystals that attach themselves to every outdoor surface, the whole world becomes white—every branch of every tree, every pine needle, every fence post and metal structure, everything. It almost makes my heart ache.

Clothespins on clothesline

Tree with hoar frost against blue sky

Abandoned bed springs

Garden fence

 

Pine branch

 

Even cobwebs are appealing when covered in hoar frost.

 

But snow has another side. The excitement grows old when winter comes early and refuses to leave center stage so colorful spring can make a long-awaited debut. And that’s not all.

When even a modest snow is accompanied by strong winds, as is so often the case on our mountainside, the snow piles into unplowable drifts. We’ve been known to pack snowshoes, a shovel in case we get stuck, and a plastic sled in our car and park at the bottom of our nearly half-mile gravel drive in anticipation of such an event. On more than a few occasions, we’ve slogged up that mountain road pulling a sled full of groceries, bags of pet food and birdseed, book bags, and more.

Sometimes we’ve been caught off guard. Without snowshoes or the shovel that spends most of the winter in the car, walking in can be a real trial, especially in a deep snow where each step means lifting one’s knees waist high or higher with every step. And climbing uphill, at that. Conversely, we’ve been completely snowed in for four or five days at a time. An adventure at first, but gnawing anxieties grow with each day as we begin considering the possibilities of being trapped in the event of an emergency.

And then there’s that dreaded word, ice. At just the right—or wrong—temperature, snow is preceded by rain which freezes on roads. Sometimes the reverse happens and rain or sleet falls after the snow. Walking and driving in either condition is treacherous. Add steep, curvy, and sometimes narrow mountain roads for a bigger thrill than any theme park ride.

 

 

Icicles can be fascinating, though, especially when the wind blows.

In normal times, we may only have one ‘good’ snow a year, and it doesn’t usually hang around long. A day or two later, the sun’s rays melt most of it away. We’ve had a few exceptional years, though. Real doozies.

In 1993, snow totaled more than three feet in just over two days. We were under curfew for forty-eight hours straight. Locals fondly remember it as the Blizzard of ’93 (and yes, it was an actual blizzard). At the time, it was called ‘the storm of the century.’ The National Weather Service named it a superstorm.

The 2009-10 winter brought us more than nine feet of snow—and since temps remained below freezing for the duration, none of it had a chance to melt. For more than three months, the only outdoor colors we saw were white and gray.

Once we could drive around our mountain road,  2010

Snow field

Fifty years earlier, way back in 1960 (well before we lived here), it only snowed seven feet, all of it falling in a just over a month. Every other day it snowed. Temperatures never rose. The winds were fierce. What snowplows cleared one day, howling winds turned into another drift the next. Children missed a month of school; helicopters dropped food, medicine, and cattle feed to isolated rural households.

Now, I know our snow totals are nothing compared to the country’s northernmost areas and tallest peaks. But, hey, I’m in the south. Most folks don’t typically associate such snow totals in the land they think of as all sunshine and beaches.

But don’t feel sorry for us. We mountaineers take a kind of perverse pleasure in our extreme weather. It’s like a badge of honor and we wear it (read: talk about it) all the time, as if we somehow deserve credit for weather’s natural occurrences. We proudly claim our snow.

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Among the trees

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Taking a bite out of snow

Bragging rights

Back in my high school days, when every snowflake sent us running to the windows in gobsmacked awe, we were naively oblivious to snow’s downsides. All we knew was that even a relatively deep snowfall would disappear within hours, the reason we wasted no time getting outside.

During spring break of my senior year, our high school chorus went on tour. We were headed to New York. We spent a night in New York City, the first time most of us had ever seen a skyscraper. Then we traveled upstate to perform. We were excited to see snow on the ground. But what were those humongous ugly mountains of grayish-black, sludgy-looking stuff at nearly every corner? Yeck! Why, I wondered, didn’t these northerners care enough to keep their snow clean and pristine? How could they let it sit around and get so dirty, so totally ruinous to the landscape of purest white?

Now I know.

 

 

Recent snow scene

Yes, It Snows In North Carolina

Yes, It Snows in North Carolina   

(On the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Blizzard of ’93)

When the Michigander I’d just met learned that our family lives in North Carolina, he said, “Well then, you don’t have to worry about snow.” It’s a comment I frequently hear from people who “aren’t from around here,” as if they think all Tar Heels live at the beach. Little do they know. In a state that stretches 600 miles inland, my home is on the same longitudinal plane as Cleveland, Ohio. The meridian actually skims Michigan’s mitten thumb and lines up with eastern Ontario. Pretty far inland.

At more than 4,000 feet in elevation, we’re also a bit higher than coastal areas. So, yes, we have some weather, and it’s not usually fit for swimsuits. Our thermometer has read as low as -32º. Our most wintry weather has a tendency to come after many folks have long since said goodbye to winter. During our first year here, we were surprised by several inches of snow on Memorial Day. Just a few years later, four-foot drifts covered our gravel road in the middle of April.

Snowfall near our house, 2010: everything is covered.

Then, there was that other time . . .

In mid-March, 1993, I had a business meeting a couple hours from here. I decided to add a quick overnight visit with my parents, who lived nearby. Snow was again in the forecast, but it wasn’t expected to begin falling until sometime the following day. I’d surely return home ahead of any significant precipitation.

Even so, I parked my little Geo Metro at the bottom of the mountain road that led to their home. Just in case. If the snow came earlier and/or heavier than expected, it would have been treacherous trying to drive out from my parents’ mountainside perch.

The next morning, we woke to a world of white outside and darkness indoors. The snow was deep and heavy. Power lines had snapped for miles around. Snow poured down for three days. Hundred-mile-an- hour winds created monstrous drifts. The governor issued a two-day long, twenty-four-hour curfew. Even wwhen the curfew was lifted, it was clear I wasn’t going anywhere.

Not only could I not retrieve my little car from the snowbank created by a snow plow—I couldn’t even see it under its huge snow mountain. My seventy-something-year-old father, who had suffered a massive heart attack several months prior, was in no shape to shovel snow. And I wasn’t willing to risk the same fate myself.

Back at home, the Gnome and our college-aged son who was getting ready to return to school after spring break were confronted by drifts up to four feet deep once the snow finally stopped falling. They were trapped, too. We usually hire someone to plow out our gravel road when it’s impassable, but no one could get up there. With school beckoning, they felt compelled to begin the daunting task of digging themselves out by hand.

Worried about not one but two potential heart attacks, I insisted on sworn promises that they’d take breaks a minimum of every two hours and call me on the nose at each break. I couldn’t get to them, but if I didn’t hear from them on time, I’d be calling 911 stat!

There was nothing more I could do except wait it out. My parents and I got by with a roaring fire in the fireplace and a lot of canned soups heated on a camp stove. We entertained ourselves with conversation and reading.

Enjoying my snow exile in a hammock

My mother had recently acquired a book published by the genealogical society of her home county. Residents had been invited to send in family stories and histories. Some were straightforward with lots of begats. Some people heaped praises on themselves—in the third person, clearly not realizing their own name would appear as author of their submission. Some were pious, some irreverent, some lavishly embellished.

Other entries were laugh-out-loud funny. Like the one about the grandpa who never cut his toenails and walked around his log cabin barefoot, his nails clicking loudly on the wood floor with each step. Or the one about the family whose children decided to outfit their mother with a football helmet and hang her upside down in a homemade traction device to cure her aching back. Or the story about the man who kept a skull in his closet. Then again, maybe we were just punch drunk. It was good medicine to read and share those stories while we were cooped up.

The book presented another opportunity, one to learn about my own family history. When I’d previously asked Mother how long her family had lived in her home county, she couldn’t tell me. She knew nothing about her family beyond her grandparents. Even then, the information was sometimes scanty.

Each article, it seemed, provided a clue about yet another previously unknown branch in my family tree, which in turn led me to still another and another. My paternal grandfather died years before my grandparents met. Mother knew hardly anything about him. With the help of the heritage book, I discovered that he had been in the Civil War, that my great-grandmother was thirty years his junior and was his second wife. I learned that my grandfather’s ancestors were some of the first European settlers in the area. My grandmother had deep local roots, too. I discovered that while most of my ancestors hailed from the British Isles, some came from Germany. It was fascinating stuff, even if not quite all of it was verifiable.

I was stuck in place for almost a week, much of it with my nose buried in the heritage book. By the time I finally left for home, I had a sheaf of papers summarizing family stories and diagramming potential genealogical connections for further research.

That week was the beginning of an enduring passion for family history, one that’s even led to a couple of books. All because of the Blizzard of ’93, otherwise known all along the East Coast as the Storm of the Century. On this occasion of the storm’s twenty-fifth anniversary, we’re in the midst of another great snowstorm. It’s not expected to be as big an event as the Blizzard of ’93, but then that one caught us off guard, too. 

Taking a bite out of snow

For a recap of the Blizzard of 1993, click here:   https://www.wataugademocrat.com/watauga/the-blizzard-of/article_13899f70-3c38-5153-8e92-10c2da17e884.html