The winter solstice arrived with a spangled snow shower today, with bright sun casting my shadow on the fresh snow even as it fell. The individual flakes were minted in flat, sparkling perfect forms, no two alike. Six-armed, four, flowers, crystals. They melted to softness within seconds. Like the velvet in a jeweler’s case, the black fleece of my glove showed them to perfection. Likewise the black wool of my coat.


My black fleece gloves were like a jeweler’s black velvet display case for today’s spangled snow shower. 

What a surprise gift, this snow. Our forecast this week is for unseasonable warmth, even rain. Indeed later today it warmed and misted; how glad I was that I let impulse guide me out the door, to see this beauty as it arrived. It was the snow that drew me out.

I began at the pasture. Our little herd of cows is dwindled to just two, the others taken to their home barn for the winter. It was quite the rodeo of recalcitrants, these two are the ones left as it became too dark to keep at it last Friday. I have been babying them all weekend with fragrant bales of fresh, green hay. How dear they looked, the two of them, back to back, sharing warmth in the upper pasture as the snow came on. John Wisnewski, head of the Harvard Forest Woods Crew, owns these cows and teases me that people give them attributes they don’t have. But really, don’t they look like cozy friends?


The last two cows of our little herd, keeping each other company during a solstice snow shower.

I went on into the woods to see what I might find on this winter solstice day, one of my favorites of the year. I have been watching the sun in its procession ever southward since the fall. It is now so far south that as I sit at the picnic table at the front meadow to write in my morning journal I must turn my head over my right shoulder to even find it. In the glassed-in porch, where I retreat on cold or wet days, it now fills the furthest south window, and its rays have a mellow light that comes with the lower slant of winter.

Why do we begrudge and rush this time! Everyone celebrates spring, summer and fall, but what of winter? The solstice brings such a gift of long dark nights, and the quiet of winter woods into which we can see so much further, into its secret places, with the leaves down. The animals seem more present. We can see their tracks now, and on the clear architecture of the trees’ bare branches, the birds show themselves.

This morning as I opened the door to get the newspaper, there was a barred owl on the lowest branch of the black walnut out front, scanning the thickety-thick of brush along the split rail fence bordering the pasture. Silently, the owl swooped to the sugar maples to the west, and perched, surveying its domain with an eerie head swivel. So quiet was the morning, with not a breeze stirring. This owl seemed conjured, a vision, gone nearly as soon as I saw it.

Deeper I went into the wood, finding that the beeches, still holding their leaves, became scoops for the falling snow. The pattern of autumn’s leaves on the forest floor was quilted with white.


Autumn leaves on the forest floor were quilted with white.


The last leaves on the beeches became scoops for falling snow that softly flocked the hemlocks behind them.

The limits of photography are interesting. Over and over I took pictures of the grace of the snow easing from the sky across the dark green hemlocks, and not a one renders the peace and beauty of that moment. Likewise the sparkle of the snow. I lay down to try to capture it face on, at its level on the ground, and while a bit of the sense of it comes through, it’s nothing like the glim of the feathery, evanescent sparkle of this snowfall. Some things you just have to experience.


The feathery evanescence of this snow shower was like a walk in a snow globe. I’m not sure any photo could capture its delight.

Likewise the peace of Hemlock Hollow, at the halfway point in my walk. At its vernal pool, the delicate line of newly formed ice was traced by the snow, and I had the conversation of a single chickadee for company.

At the end of my walk, I stopped by to visit my big oak and clean the snow off its camera. The trunk was dusted on the windward side with fresh snow, and the hollows in the bark filled with white where the tree flares to the ground. Snow sailed across the grey of its wizened trunk, and a few last leaves still clung to high branches, showing me the direction of the wind, blowing from the southeast. I remembered well the low sun of the fall equinox, which I also recorded at my tree, wondering then what the winter solstice would bring. And now I know: beauty, and peace.


The spare beauty of my big oak, at the winter solstice.

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