Waiting on Winter

Sculpted snow drifts: not this winter, not yet.

For the past few years, a wintertime fancy has crept over me in fall. As the leaves of the scrub oak tan themselves to the color of unoiled leather, I begin to think of the looping rhythm of my days shortening along with the duration of the sun’s light, spiraling gradually toward interiority. I think about the coming retreat into the house, the retreat into my office, the retreat into books. The high-mountain winter will lower its curtain, and I will, along with many of the local fauna and most of the resident flora, settle into a state of outward stillness, a hibernatory suspension of all that is frenetic and busy.

This is, it should be said, a snowy fixation, which is where the problem lies—or does not lie—this year, because we have had so little snow. The 2.4 inches that fell a couple of weeks ago was our biggest snowfall of the winter to date. With the chance of further precipitation in the next few days virtually nil, December 2017 will clock out with a quarter inch—0.25”—of total moisture for our location. In the twelve years I’ve been recording precipitation as a weather station for the National Weather Service, only the drought years of 2010 and 2012 have been drier in the fourth quarter.

The dry weather is unnerving enough, but all of November and most of December were also freakishly warm. We’d get a snap of cold as the jet stream played Crack-the-Whip, throwing loops of Arctic air over the Colorado Rockies, but those episodes didn’t seem to last more than 24 hours. The daily average temperature for December this year will be almost six degrees warmer than 2016, and eight degrees warmer than 2015.

On a hike a few weeks ago, I nearly tripped over my own feet trying to stop short to see if I’d seen what I thought I saw underfoot: flowers among the silvery leaves of a mat of pussytoes. Antennaria species get their common name from their flower clusters, which resemble the pads on an upturned cat’s paw. I bent over to look more closely and there they were. The pale fuzzy nubs were kitten-sized and nestled tight down in the silvery rosette of the plant’s leaves rather than lifted up on stems, but they were flower clusters sure enough. In December. At an elevation in the neighborhood of 8400 feet. Flowers in December are not unwelcome, but I was disturbed to discover them as natives rooted outside rather than exotic potted imports on a sunny windowsill.

Pussytoes (Antennaria species), blooming on December 29, 2017.

The wind is also conspiring to confound my visions of wintry repose—although, to be fair, the wind always blows this time of year, and it always robs me of any sense of serenity when it does. When combined with the drone of news reporting late-season fires in California and South Dakota, however, the rumble of gusts battering the house shivers me like a premonition of doom.

In the days before Christmas, temperatures finally cooled to more seasonally appropriate levels. This helps, a bit, but my mood remains wary. I feel as if the buzz of anticipation that energizes the holiday season—so many events to prepare for, mark, and recover from—has acquired a doppelganger. After the good cheer of celebration has faded away, I’m still watchful, as if there’s an item I haven’t marked off the list, no matter that I’ve checked it twice.

The landscape persistently reminds me that something’s different from the oughtta-be. It oughtta look like winter outside, but the grass is tan, the ponderosas evergreen dark, the mountains on the horizon gnarly gray. Dirt puffs up from beneath the horses’ feet. A few pale dustings of snow have appeared on Pikes Peak, but they look no more wintry than the hail left behind from a passing summer thunderstorm—and they don’t stick around all that much longer. I know it’s December, but aside from the bare scrub oak and twiggy shrubs, it just as easily could be October or April

Sunset in the east, over a rocky Pikes Peak, December 29, 2017.

I could go out and chase winter. In the deep shade of dark timber on north-facing slopes, the ground is piebald with patches of desiccated snow, as grainy and gritty as sugar. Cold air lurks on low ground, trapped by long shadows and overshot by the oblique angle of the sun’s rays. Hidden in the deep folds of gulches or draws, I might find trickles of water clucking under panes of ice.

So, yes. I could find winter if I went looking. But the point of this time of year is that you don’t pursue it. Winter comes to you—stalks you, even, lying in wait as ice on the doorstep, reaching a cold finger under your coattail, stealing your breath and fogging the windows.

Winter can come for me. I’ve been waiting to be harassed into retreat for weeks. And out on the dry and wind-lashed hillsides, I imagine that the pale green starburst mats of the Antennaria are ready too, for the stillness that waits beneath cloaking damp.


Postscript: My apologies to those living in the eastern United States, for whom winter has come hard as I type these words, not merely pursuing but pinning down and biting.

Warm wishes to everyone for 2018.


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