I stand perfectly still.
The sky falls all around me.
Or perhaps I am rising, weightless to heaven.
Wrapped in silence, I have left the muddy brown world behind to drift into this enchantment. Fluffy frozen crystals fall all about — awe made manifest.
They melt on my cheek as fast as they fall — chilled tears, too pure for salt.
I hold my breath in the profound silence.
That is why I rush out into the first snowfall of the season. I cannot hold that silence in my mind. It slips away in the rustling din of my life — distant traffic, clacking computer keys, clicking clocks, humming heaters, fussing fridges.
But here in the falling snow when the wind has died I can find the only perfect silence of my haphazard life.
I have not imagined this: It is one of the singular qualities of snow.
A snowflake contains 100,000,000,000,000,000,000 water molecules, but it’s mostly air. A falling flake has a density about 8 percent of water’s. Even after months on the ground, the compressed snow has 30 percent of water’s density. The intricate lattice of ice crystals traps air molecules and those air molecules trap the vibrations of sound, muffling every whisper. Even an inch of snow changes the sound of everything, the way a nun hushes giggling children in the nave of a cathedral.
So I rush into the storm to stand in the silence.
Strange stuff, this crystalline incarnation of water — evidence, I think, of the Creator’s care.
Almost all other liquids condense as they freeze. But not water: It expands. That’s why ice floats. Good thing, else the oceans would have long since frozen solid, killing life in its cradle. Without the force of that expansion in uncounted cracks and fissures, rocks would last nearly forever and we’d have no soil for our roots.
Moreover, ice can transition directly into vapor, without melting first. This neat physics trick accounts for many of the properties of snow.
Snowflakes form in the super chilled interiors of wet storm clouds. Pure water won’t crystallize until its temperature falls to 31 degrees below zero. But floating particles of dust, clay, even bacteria can form a tiny nucleus on which the ice crystal can form. Once started, the ice crystals grow into snowflakes — their shape and size determined by the conditions inside the cloud and the air through which they fall. Snow itself shapes landscapes — and life.
The blinding white snow reflects sunlight so effectively that snow cover affects the climate of the whole planet. Many climate scientists now are struggling to understand all the feedback effects of snow cover. Pollution and dust storms darken pristine snow, which can change the heat balance of the planet.
But even though snow reflects energy back into space, it also insulates the ground — thanks to all that trapped air within each crystal. This shroud of snow holds the temperature of the ground near zero — but doesn’t let it get much colder than that. As a result, life survives beneath the snow. Trees and bushes buried in snow actually suffer less freezing and dehydration than plants not covered in this crystalline survival blanket. So the forest sleeps, but survives to wake in the spring.
Moreover, snow stores precious moisture through the storms of winter — then releases it gradually into the promise of spring. This delayed release of life-giving water patterns the cycles of all living things — from Los Angeles commuters to migrating elk.
Please note, studies show that the Rocky Mountain snow pack that feeds the Colorado, the Columbia and the Missouri rivers has dwindled alarmingly in the past 30 years — threatening grave consequences for the 70 million people who depend on that glad rush of water each spring.
But standing now in this crystalline drift of astonishment, those bustling suburbs, whirling turbines and distant deserts seem abstract and unreal. The snow has already softened the footprints that marked my passage and the chill has seeped past my skin. Yet I cannot tear myself away from the fall of the snow.
Only the snow exists — the snow and the silence, which seems alive and alert.
The flakes fall, my spirit rises.
I make a small cloud with each reverent exhalation. So I return my borrowed substance to the storm, a prayer to the Creator of the snow and the air and my redemptive sense of wonder.
My breath returns to the sky, to the world. It swirls up to fall again, bound into a snowflake that shall surely fall on some other, upturned cheek.
Will she feel my breath on her cheek, turned to ice and crystal?