Snowlight

Ingmar Bergman’s brooding film Winter Light may have given winter a bad name. Certainly the long darkness of the arctic north can weigh on the soul, and even residents of temperate climes can suffer from cabin fever when winter passes through "the tunnel months" of February and March when the season seems without end. But winter light has its own delights, at least when you can look on it contemplatively nestled in a windowseat or when pausing in the woods during a cross-country ski.

During a recent snowfall, as I worked at the kitchen sink, I watched a male cardinal alight on a holly bush, whose berries are a veritable larder for hardier species that overwinter in New England. The snow was falling in large flakes that spiraled down gently. The air was at once snow-filled and clear in a soft sort of light. Though it was cold–20 degrees–the scene outside was comfortable and re-assuring. There was a peacefulness in the snowy landscape that whispered with Julian of Norwich, "All things are well."

Later, perhaps mixed with sleet, snow pounded hard like rain and the light became flat, washing out distinctions. When I did downhill skiing these were conditions in which we would put on yellow-tinted goggles to better see the contours of the terrain. Later there was a different sort of flat I have sometimes noticed, with just a hint of pink in the dull winter air. At dusk, with heavy cloud cover overhead, the reflection of the snow brought out features the eye didn’t catch in full daylight. As we rode by after visiting my mother in the nursing home, my brother pointed out that in this special light you could spot the houses that needed a fresh coating of paint in a way full sunlight didn’t reveal.

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In the night, even without moon or starlight, the snow laced trees that during the day were a minor aesthetic pleasure became presences inviting one into a different world. No wonder the wintry world plays such a role in fairy tales. The snow covered woods are a natural fantasy of an evanescent world both beautiful and threatening.

Daylight brought evidence of action in the night. Deer trails had been tracked across the backyard between the woods and the farm field next door. Had I looked I would have found the deceptive three-footed tracks of rabbits–in hopping the back paws make what looks like a single print–chipmunk trails and other signs of the unnoticed life around us.

For a brief time the next morning, the sun shown and the snow gave off that dazzling light that comes close to reflecting the glory of God. It recalled January days, as a college freshman–Jesuits called it "poet year"–when I led my classmates in building a lean-to in a pine forest. We never finished building the lean-to, but the golden light that filtered through the trees as the sun began to set will forever be fixed in my memory as splendor itself.

With all these varieties of snow light, I wonder what different stories a moviemaker might tell.

Drew Christiansen, S.J.

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8 years 10 months ago
What a glorious word picture of the winter season! It brought back memories of growing up in Pennsylvania and awakening to mornings when the world was an endless sea of gleaming white and ice shimmered on bare tree limbs, and of nights when the moon washed across the snow and turned the world silver. Thanks for the nostalgia for simpler days gone by.

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