Monday, December 16, 2013

The Garden of Time: Snowing into the Long Ago



The thing about snowy landscapes: The darker it gets, the older everything looks.
            We got the first real snow of the season late Saturday afternoon. This time of year there is very little to 'afternoon,' so it always feels late.
            I am supposed to be going to an 'owl walk' around sundown in a place that takes about thirty-five minutes to get there, without snow (lots of traffic lights between me and there), and as the snow keeps coming down and the city of Quincy begins to send out its plows I give myself permission to bag it. Anne helps with that decision. So now we have time to go out for a snow walk in the local neighborhood just as the light begins to fade.
            We dress warmly. Though the temperature is well below freezing, the falling snow has an icy look to it, no soft dry flakes. Within minutes I'm sorry I didn't wear my super-warm boots instead of my ordinary warm-enough snow sneakers. Never mind.
            We walk though the near streets, cross a bigger road, already pre-salted chalk white, then head into a slightly different, more upscale group of streets that also climb gently in elevation. All of the streets we regularly walk through, all of these neighborhoods that shade into one another make up a 'city' of houses. It is a city, and an old one, because all of the neighborhoods are more densely developed than the newer suburbs. The houses are closer together, the lots smaller, the houses generally of the mid-century or early 20th century styles and sizes. Some bigger Victorian era houses scatter here and there; but owners sold off the land long ago, so even these more stately manses rub elbows with their neighbors.
            On the street we take, a gentle uphill gradient, toward the neighboring town of Milton, the houses are of a similar size, not big, not small, and have had decades, a half century or more to individuate themselves. So they never really look like each other -- this is the case throughout the city -- even on those rare occasions when the architecture is the same for two or three houses in a row. They have different colors, facades, additions, modifications, rooflines, porches (enclosed or open). They all have little front yards. All have shrubs, "foundation" plantings against the house, landscaping of some sort. Many (thank goodness!) have trees on their front yard or planted by the city between the sidewalk and the street. They have the standard little spot of lawn grass; some have more, keeping it neat, scrupulously trimmed in summer, lawn tennis style. They tend to have a few flowering plants. A few have gone over, mostly on smaller lots, to the no-grass approach, substituting groundcover plants, stones, shells, or various combinations including low (sometimes humorous) statuary.
            The houses we are passing this afternoon have grass lawns, some evergreen shrubs or a low hedge line, and trees, some of them modest-sized evergreens. Evergreens all look particularly good in the first snowflake frosting of a snowfall.
            So we walk, the snow begins to accumulate, we hear snowplows in the distance, the street winds uphill just as the road curves -- the look that makes painters want to take out their brushes. The sky is gray, overcast with snow clouds, and the twilight settles in early. We are suddenly back in some timeless time, the era of the way things used to look, always look, and still look when it snows. The combination of falling snow and early dark obliterates the decades, and even takes on the centuries.
            Modernity lets go. Nothing strikingly contemporary intrudes. No cars on the road. The parked cars begin to turn white, snow powder covering hoods and roofs, become shapes rather than late-model vehicles, sinking into the landscape rather than standing out from them.
            The houses are quiet. You can't hear anybody's TV, no one's walking down the street talking on the phone as if they were alone in the universe. We are alone in the universe; only not too alone, since we are part of everything. Nothing's moving. Only us, we are the agents of perception; the eyes of the painter. The world turns into a country village, an old town, from who knows when or where. The lower shrubs and hedges begin to wear thicker snowcaps.
            It's hard (well, impossible) to capture this effect in a simple point and shoot photo. Hard to photograph the semi-dark.The graying of the light. The pointillism.
            The sugar-candy look the trimmed and rounded shrubs take on in falling snow is heightened if people have already strung their colored Christmas lights on these bushes. The lights shine out, color muffled and diffused through the new translucent snow covering. They look like gumdrops.
            The darker it gets, the older everything looks in the snow. It also looks more beautiful.