The winter started out cold—fiercely so, in fact. Icy air preserved the scanty accumulation from small snowstorms for weeks, solidifying it to slick veneers anywhere it was packed down—on roads, on the pathway I follow to and from the barn. The thin snow cover lingered for weeks under the oblique winter angle of the sun. By January, even though we were enjoying those additional minutes of daylight each day, I was braced—for bitter winds, for more ice, for the drifts that would pile up as storms fueled by an El Niño weather pattern delivered us a winter to remember.
Instead, it got warmer. Since the first of the year, we’ve received exactly three snowstorms of four inches or more–and the biggest of those was less than seven inches. Over the weeks between each storm, mild temperatures and breezy winds whittled away the snow, leaving nothing other than a few shabby drifts and grayish rags at the feet of the evergreens on north-facing slopes. Rather than El Niño, we’ve gotten El Nothing-o.
Despite the near-absence of winter, I find myself ready for spring. The press of snow clearly isn’t what’s weighing me down, and it’s not that I’m craving balmy temperatures, either. The weather so far in March, has been, like all of February and most of January, freakishly warm. No, the object of my desire isn’t a thaw, but a break in the monotony of mild.
Winters up here are long, but they’re also dynamic. Snowstorms—even the little ones—remake the landscape. The canvas doesn’t stay blank for long; the snow records the passage of animals and is etched with sinuous patterns by the wind. The sun applies a deft hand on all but the very coldest of days, sketching dimension and contrast with a heat-based technique that selectively erases the gesso of snow.
Without snowstorms, the melt-paintings haven’t been on display lately, and as much as I love the sepia-tinted landscape of our winter grasslands, I’m ready for a change. My eyes have begun thrill-seeking, hunting for color. They lock on the vibrant flash of the mountain bluebirds that began showing up in late February, fluttering from fence wire to ground to pine bough to ground to fence post like scraps of wind-flown cerulean silk. Out in the pasture, rosettes of cinquefoil leaves unfold in puddles: tiny but assertively green. My heart gives a little lurch at the sight of the season’s first crocus ready to unfurl its purple-veined petals in the protected space of the garden. In another planting bed, the bright red capsule protecting a wadded leaf of rhubarb peeks from under last fall’s dead brown leaves.
Flutters. Glimpses. Peeks. Not entirely satisfying. The reticence, even in the face of so many weeks of unusually warm weather, is appropriate, however. That there isn’t a lot going on is exactly how it should be, since technically it’s still winter up here—and will be for weeks after the upcoming equinox.
Part of the problem, I think, is that I’m missing the bluster of March blizzards. The irony of spring up here is that it rides in on wintry weather: fast-moving storms that blow through with whiteout drama one day and eye-searing sunny brilliance the next. I’d be happy for the sloppy plop of spring snow slipping off the evergreen boughs. I wouldn’t mind heaving some heavy shovels-full off the front steps, splatting the slush onto the flowerbeds. My eyes are restless, but my nose is, too. With no snow to melt, there’s no mud to scent the air with the tantalizing promise of wet earth.