When snow comes again after a few weeks’ absence, it makes no sound. The low-hanging clouds may darken a little and feel heavier. If you happen to be working in the woods with your head down concentrating on your job, you may miss the exact moment snow begins to fall. It starts as a few tiny flakes, phantoms on the edge of your vision. Did you really see them? The next time you look up there will be more until the air around you is blurred with silent precipitation. It falls relentlessly, pulled to earth by gravity to rest upon the surface of the snowpack. That is when I stop to give it my full attention. Instantly I am a little kid again, looking upward in mute wonder. There is something magical about this white stuff, something I don’t feel with rain or wind or fog. Snow makes the evergreen trees more beautiful, enhancing their tall conical shapes and covers the ground below to hide anything that may distract from the standing trees.
Like all things in this world, snow is transient. As soon as it lands it begins to change. The crystalline structure can bond to the existing surface. If the temperature is warm, snow will stick to itself. If cold, the texture is powdery. Over the course of the winter, snow changes within the layers that have accumulated. Then there comes a time when snow stops piling up and begins to recede.
This snowfall last week was the beginning of the end. We walked on snowshoes out of the woods while snow whirled. By the time we reached the valley, the snow had changed to rain. As the storm front passed, warm air from the tropical Pacific poured over the Cascades. It rained and rained and rained. The snowpack is tinged blue from holding so much water. The streams are over their banks with rain and snowmelt.
The signs are unmistakable. Cottonwood buds swell, alder catkins dangle and release pollen. The air is warmer, days longer.
Late winter or early spring? How do you know the difference?