Friday, December 21, 2012

Phenology for 12/21/12: Nor'easter and Snow

The word "nor'easter" is not often used in the Blue Ridge Mountains, but once in a while we see the thing it means, and yesterday we had a classic one. Cold winds, mostly from the northeast, driving chilly gusts of rain that seemed as if they were about to stop every hour or two and then resumed with an even chillier, even heavier blast. Grim, grey clouds hanging down around the Clinch Mountain; darkness, without a glimpse of moon or stars, before 5 p.m.

I got home around 6 p.m. After turning off the paved road and walking up into a fold in the mountains, I looked down at the little branch creek that runs alongside the gravel road to the Cat Sanctuary...the loudness of a quiet twelve-or-fifteen-foot waterfall caught my attention. The creek was full, almost over its banks in places. By daylight it would have looked brown and murky, but in real night-darkness, away from the light pollution of towns and traffic, the water caught and magnified all of the scanty light left in the air. The creek became luminous, like a little river of pearl.

That unexpected beauty gave me something to think about last night. I'm not young. I'm not rich. I'm a widow. There's been a remarkable lack of good news in my life for the last seven years. Why am I not depressed? I think it's because I draw emotional energy from being alone in the beauty of nature. With that the Cat Sanctuary will always be abundantly supplied.

I've not always lived in beautiful places. The last time I lived in an ugly place was the winter I spent in Wheaton, Maryland, which was trying hard to be a nice suburban town, but had "developed" too many densely populated streets in between its green spaces. I was earning good money, doing interesting jobs, working among people who seemed like potential friends. I thought it wouldn't matter--much--that the place through which I walked from a nice, ugly furnished room to these nice, un-beautiful workplaces was dreary and overcrowded. (I was one of the people who'd left Takoma Park after the Big Storm of 1989. I understood that the other towns in Maryland can't be Takoma Park. Wheaton does in fact have nature parks and gardens--beautiful gardens--but when you walk through them you're almost always walking through crowds of people.)

But a funny thing happened when I was living in Wheaton. I didn't have allergies or even come down with flu that winter, but I had writer's block. And I caught myself positively disliking my perfectly nice neighbors, just because there were too many of them. And I caught myself spending a whole Saturday at the library looking at pictures of nature in books.

In January a drugged-out young man pulled a knife on me, in broad daylight, in the front yard-slash-parking-lot in between four "four-plex" buildings in the low-income housing project. It wasn't hard to take the knife away from him. It was hard to live with the awareness that although several residents of the project were at home, and two or three of them knew me personally, none of them had come out to help, called the police, or even watched from their windows. And then in March, as I was walking down a street of individual houses packed together on small yards, I saw fire engines hosing down a house that had caught fire, four houses away from the one where I was staying. Not one neighbor was outside or even at a window watching the fire. As long as their own houses weren't ablaze, they didn't care whether that neighbor's house burned down. And by that time I understood why they didn't care. Some part of them wanted there to be one less house in that neighborhood. And I realized that I had to get out of Wheaton before this form of insanity infected me too.

Since then I've not stayed in a place where I can't get out and expose myself to things too beautiful to be made by humans, every day. I don't actually go outdoors every day--sometimes I work overtime, sometimes I'm fighting the flu--but the possibility needs to be there. I understand that people who spend too much time around other people start, even if unconsciously, to hate other people. People who are not constantly crowded together are free to practice good will.

Anyway, around that time of evening, the rain turned to snow. I wasn't too surprised to wake up this morning and see that some of the snow had managed to stick on roofs and grass. The sky's still grey, the slopes of the Clinch Mountain are white. The roads are still clear, but wet, because the ground is still warm.

As I walked to the computer center this morning, the sun peeked out through the clouds while the snow continued to fall. According to local folklore, that means we can expect either rain, or more and heavier snow, tomorrow. Some people are hoping to be snowed in for Christmas, and this year their wish may come true.

And because most of us aren't living in overcrowded conditions, I suspect that nobody will mind very much if it does. Y'know...I'd like to get a head start on the bill reading marathon, but as long as my home has electricity, I understand...some people like snow.