Friday, March 18, 2011

The archaeology of snow

When the land has been covered by deep snow for one-third of the year, you start to forget what lies underneath. Reminders emerge during this transition season, when winter begins decaying under the strong sun that holds temperatures above freezing for a few hours, then a few days, finally evaporating the snowpack an inch -- or a foot -- at a time.

And so the discoveries begin. Oh my, there's the pile of lumber we ripped out of the house during remodeling, and didn't have time to de-nail and stack under cover before the snow came! And there's the jumbled stack of pine boughs, hastily picked up during a blowdown between big snow dumps #1 and #2.

Why, there's the corner of a big planter I shoved clear of the anticipated plow path, now protruding from the pushed pile that just days ago was impenetrable to shovels and ice picks, and long since immovable by the plow.

Oh wow, that lump is actually a parked car! And here's the layer of turds that accumulated when the turkey flock came through a month ago, along with a layer of saturated niger seed below the finch feeder. Over there, summer tires we didn't get stowed in time after rushing to mount snow tires on the cars.

Around the countryside, white depressions are turning milky blue as softening ice defines ponds, and runoff channels are carving through to the snow surface, churning and brown and filling the air with damp noise.

Now, and for days or weeks onward, snow-and-ice underfoot changes to ice-and-mud and back again, making for challenging walking and sometimes driving. The infamous "mud season" turns frost-heaved roads into quagmires that, instead of busting vehicle suspensions, suck vehicles down to their belly pans to the point they can't move.

Spring may be sloppy, but the excitement of rediscovery cancels out the hassle. We're all crossing our fingers against the chance of a late-season blizzard -- the biggest snow we've ever experienced occurred the last week of March some years ago, burying us in 5+ feet (on top of 3+ already on the ground) in 10 days.

And yet: When it finally went, it happened in less than a week. Through melting, sublimation, rain, and fog, winter's snow gives way in a wondrous hurry when Nature signals "It's time." Already, the bird population is changing, and I can almost hear bulbs stirring below ground. A week from now, the landscape is certain to look completely different. Will it be buried beneath a fresh white blanket? Or be a green-and-brown mess with shoots poking through?

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