Ram in snow

Yesterday we got a freshening of snow: just a few inches to brighten the ground as January ends. February in New England is always a trying time–the longest month–so it’s good to begin with a clean palette that will eventually turn February gray like everything else.

Morning commute / stuck in traffic

During yesterday’s morning commute, I saw a motorist accomplish an impressive (albeit inadvisable) feat. While steering with one hand, the driver next to me stuck one arm out his driver-side window and cleared his windshield with a snow-brush, all the while staying in his lane without swerving.

Drain

It’s not uncommon to see drivers hop out of their cars to clear snow while stopped at a light, but I’ve never seen a driver clear his car while moving. You know winter has overstayed its welcome when you’re so good at clearing snow, you can do it one handed while otherwise occupied.

Gray day

The latest issue of the New Yorker shows on its cover an Advent calendar for the month of January–the cruellest month, according to the cartoon’s title. The month is shown to offer an interminable onslaught of challenges: sleet and sickness and existential dread.

The white wall

As if on cue, last night I overheard several of my students wondering how long it was until Spring Break–this, the end of only the second week of the semester. If we’ve already started to count the days in January, what will we do during the long slog of FebruMarch?

I’ve lived in New England long enough–a quarter of a century–to learn this: you need to marshal your emotions against winter’s bleak demands. Yes, you should bundle your body against the cold, and step carefully to assure solid footing, and bolster your immune system with citrus fruits, herbal tea, and properly titrated cocktails.

Parking structure on gray day

But more important than these physical safeguards are the psychological ones. You must pace your days and not grow weary, feeding your spirit with timely doses of light, color, and sun-soaked daydreams. Even when you are sunk to your eyeballs in a busy semester, you need to remember this: winter is its own kind of austerity, a vow involuntarily taken. Whether you choose to embrace or try to distract yourself from winter’s gloom, you dare not fight it. The only way to survive another interminable Northeast winter is to outlast it, and this requires an unrelenting inner stockpile of good cheer.

Hibiscus

The other night J and I watched a home-shopping show selling enormous and eye-poppingly colorful hibiscuses, begonias, and day lilies. Neither one of us is a gardener: the only flowers in our yard are the ones planted by previous inhabitants that have survived an annual onslaught of hungry rabbits. But J and I happily watched a half-hour pitch for plants we’ll never buy because it’s February in New England, and we’ve lived here long enough to know that in February, you call upon your strongest coping strategies to get you through another long winter.

Hibiscus

This winter has been milder than most–before this week, we’d gotten more rain than snow–but that doesn’t matter. It’s still February–the year’s longest month–and this morning I called upon Winter Coping Strategy #2, which is to listen to uptempo dance music (preferably from somewhere warm) while doing morning chores. (This morning, it was salsa music; later in the month, when salsa grows stale and I need to call in the big guns, I’ll listen to bellydance.)

Hibiscus bud

In February, the days have begun to lengthen, but the ground is either covered in snow or salt-blanched and barren. In December and January , we were starved for light; in February, we’re starved for color. Long gone is the yellow light of summer: in February, even sunlight is gray and glaring. Soon enough, I’ll be browsing cute sandals online (Coping Strategy #3), planning a trip to the aquarium (Coping Strategy #4), or visiting a greenhouse and taking macro shots of flowers (Coping Strategy #5).

Purple

There are many ways to cope with long, cold winters. While other regions pin their seasonal hopes on prognosticating rodents, sports fans in New England look forward to Truck Day, when our thoughts and a truckload of baseball equipment head to Florida. While we wait for Red Sox pitchers and catchers to report to spring training tomorrow, I find myself once again lingering a bit too long by the supermarket florist, basking in the scent of cut flowers (Coping Strategy #6). If past years are indicative, it will be only a week or so until I’m snapping surreptitious photos in the produce aisle (Coping Strategy #7), craving a quick fix of color imported from Somewhere South, a place otherwise known as anywhere but here.

Today’s photos come from an October trip to Tower Hill Botanic Garden, which I’ve previously blogged. Winter Coping Strategy #1 is to take plenty of pictures during the golden days of summer and fall so you can look back upon (and blog) them when the days turn gray and grim.

Snowy patio

We got about a foot of snow from winter storm Niko: not exceptional by New England standards, but the biggest storm of the season so far. Today was sunny, as is typical after big snowstorms: a perfect day for digging out.

Miss Bling in a blanket

Before J got started with roof-raking and snow-blowing, I had two tasks: clear my car and shake snow from the trees. Clearing my car was easy enough: the trick is to use a push-broom to brush the bulk of the snow, start the car and leave it running with the heat on, and then clear the windows, windshield, and mirrors with an ice scraper. Once you’ve cleared most of the snow, the sun will take care of the rest.

The snow-shaking is a more involved task. Our house is fringed with rhododendrons and evergreens, and these get weighed down after every snowfall. Although I like the look of tree limbs laden with snow, it’s not good for trees and shrubs to be bent double, so after I cleared my car, I circled our yard with my push-broom, shaking the snow from bent boughs.

Snowy backyard

The shrubs alongside the garage and driveway are easy to reach, especially with a long-handled broom, but the rhododendrons on the far side of our house are less accessible, growing as they do in the narrow strip of yard between our house and the neighbors’ hedges. Wintertime is the only time I squeeze into this space between our rhodies and their hedge, a messy tangle that feels a lot wilder than its location right alongside our house would suggest.

Today, the rhododendron leaves were curled lengthwise and frozen, hanging like brittle green cigars that rattled woodenly as I knocked the snow from their branches. Sometimes, when a bough is bent low to the ground with snow, it springs up with a swish when you liberate it. Other times when you shake an overhead limb, the snow showers down in a diamond-glitter burst. I’ve learned to turn my face and close my eyes before knocking the largest overhead boughs, but sometimes out of the corner of my eye I’ll see a hint of rainbow as the snow turns to diamond-dust then dissolves in midair.

Gray day

When you live in New England, you become a connoisseur of light. Yesterday the light was gray, like pewter, the world cast in monochrome with scant shadows and slivers of trees snaking across the sky like veins.

Mixed precipitation

When I was a child in Ohio, winters were long, but so were the days. I’ve lived in New England for more than two decades, and I’m still surprised when the sun starts setting in the afternoon, long before dinner. In January, daylight is scarce and precious, so you make every attempt to save and savor it.

Yesterday was a gray-sleeting day, the ground carpeted in dense, sludgy snow: yesterday, I never saw the sun. Instead, daylight diffused through clouds and wind, the mist falling sideways beneath umbrellas, the damp seeping into pores and corners, and the light landing on shallow surfaces like silver.

Witch hazel

It’s been a strange winter, with the weather coming in fits and starts.  After last winter’s record-breaking snowfall, everyone seems relieved to navigate bare streets and sidewalks…but a winter almost entirely devoid of snow still seems eerily unnatural.

May Hall mobile

Last night we had a rainstorm with high winds and thunder, today the temperature soared into the 60s, and tomorrow will dip back toward freezing.  Even with a spare set of boots in my office and an extra pair of shoes in my car, I never know how to dress, the climate of “yesterday” never quite matching the weather of “today.”

This afternoon after my office hour, I took a stroll around campus, ostensibly to swap my too-warm boots for the shoes in my car.  On the way, I saw witch hazel blooming in its usual spot, but more than a week earlier than it has in the past.  In snowier seasons, the first sight of anything blooming comes as a revelation; this year, it only seems odd.  Last year was too snowy and this year too warm:  like Goldilocks, I feel disoriented and out-of-sorts on an ambling search for Just Right.

Blue sky after snowstorm

I’ve lived in New England long enough to notice that the day after a snowstorm is often sunny. Yesterday while the snow fell, the sky was dishrag gray, but this morning the sky was blue and cloudless: crystalline.

Backyard after snowstorm

These clear blue days after snowstorms always feel like a kind of consolation: Mother Nature’s way of apologizing. After you’ve hunkered down through the throes of a storm, you’ll be rewarded the morning after with perfect weather for digging out. Even if the day after a snowstorm is cold, the sun quickly gets down to the business of melting, so if you’re diligent about clearing most of the snow from your car, sidewalks, and other surfaces, the sun will take care of the rest.

Yesterday’s snow was wet and heavy, so today our neighborhood is dotted with downed branches and an occasional toppled tree. Wet and heavy snow is the most likely to take down power lines, but we weathered the storm without losing power. Today the trees around our house were particularly picturesque, with each twig highlighted with a bold stroke of white. Soon enough, the snow will fall from the trees and grow dirty underfoot, but today, our neighborhood looked like it had been slathered with a thick layer of white frosting.

Frosted

This winter has been remarkably mild, so it’s almost a relief to have a bit of snow on the ground to brighten an otherwise drab winter landscape. A fresh blanket of snow is like a fresh coat of paint that reflects and magnifies the sunlight so many of us crave. A bleak winter landscape without snow looks stark and naked, but a layer of snow brightens everything it touches.