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January 7, 2013

MIKE LUNSFORD: On the simple joys of watching it snow ...

TERRE HAUTE — It began to snow about 20 minutes ago, as I write this, light, wind-driven flakes that fall silently into my woods as I watch from a window. It wasn’t unexpected, for the weather man has been telling us for a few days that we should be looking for another inch or two by the New Year. He needn’t have bothered, for when I pulled on my boots this morning and headed out to our birdfeeder with a coffee can of sunflower seeds and an ear of shell corn in my hands, I could smell the newness of it coming in the air. All I had to do was be patient.

A few years ago, I wrote a story about the satisfaction I felt in having my walks and back deck clear of the frequent snows we had been getting all winter. It seemed as though every other day brought a solid promise of at least a dusting — or more — and I spent those mostly bleak, gray months scraping and heaving it away from our doors, and re-plowing a pathway to the barn.

But, since I needed the solitude and the exercise, I grumbled little, and even began to enjoy my daily waltz with a snow shovel.

It is just a feeling — call it “shoveler’s intuition,” if you will — that this winter is to be similar. An inch here, and two inches there, and I will find myself in late February finally saying, “I’ve had enough.” But, for now anyway, I am enjoying myself, as are the birds on my place, for they know I am much more diligent about slopping their hash a few more times a day when snow is in the forecast.

I should have guessed days ago that this year’s snow will be heavier than last year’s, but not because I diligently read the “Old Farmer’s Almanac” or delight in watching the wooliness of worms or the height of hornet’s nests. One hint came a few weeks ago as I walked to the house after a trip to the mailbox. Thumbing through the recycling that has become my mail, a huge snowflake fell on the back of my black-gloved hand. It was the most perfect flake I think I have ever seen, and within minutes of its demise in the warmth of the house, I was searching the Internet in hopes of finding just what its pattern was called.

That job didn’t prove too difficult, particularly since I found a fascinating webpage put together by Dr. Ken Libbrecht, the chairman of the physics department at the California Institute of Technology. According to the good doctor, who prefers to refer to a chart that identifies 35 basic types of snowflakes, there may be upward of 80 different kinds of snow crystals. My companion flake was a “stellar dendrite,” and Libbrecht says they are “clearly the most popular snow crystal type, seen in holiday decorations everywhere. You can see these crystals for yourself quite well with just a simple magnifier.” Libbrecht also says, “‘dendritic’ means ‘tree-like,’ so stellar dendrites are plate-like snow crystals that have branches and sidebranches. These are fairly large crystals, typically 2-4 mm [millimeters] in diameter, easily seen with the naked eye.”

In fact, I’m not sure that my snowflake wasn’t a “fernlike stellar dendrite,” formed when even more sidebranches develop. Libbrecht says, “These are the largest snow crystals, often falling to earth with diameters of 5 mm or more. In spite of their large size, these are single crystals of ice — the water molecules are lined up from one end to the other.”

I have always been interested in the science of nature; I reveled in a childhood of telescopes and microscopes and leaf collections. But I enjoyed the snowflake for more aesthetic reasons than the science of it; it is the same reason why I still search the night sky for meteors, why I watch sunlight play on the water of a lake, why I still pick up rocks and fossils and lug them home to sit on a window sill. I know, for instance, that snowflakes are given birth by clouds that cruise at high elevations, and that little bits of grit can even act as cores for the infant flakes. I know that snowflakes begin as tiny droplets of condensation, and that as more and more water vapor condenses onto their surface, they grow, perhaps, eventually into six-sided crystals that become so heavy that they fall out of the clouds. Dr. Libbrecht certainly knows that, too, but I was willing to wager that even he finds snowflakes more beautiful than merely something to study, so I wrote him to find out.

“I find that studying snowflakes has both a scientific side and an artistic side, and I enjoy both,” Libbrecht wrote in his response. “The scientific side is figuring out the molecular dynamics of how crystals grow, which is both fascinating and potentially useful. The artistic side arises just because the crystals are quite beautiful.”

In one passage Libbrecht includes on his webpage, he writes: “…it’s even a bit amazing, when you stop to ponder it — the whole complex, beautiful, symmetrical structure of a snow crystal simply arises spontaneously, quite literally out of thin air, as it tumbles through the clouds.”

Despite their science, I really care most that those flakes fall onto my gloved hands, and onto the branches of my trees. I enjoy watching them, driven along by a west wind as they accumulate on my eaves and fence posts and woven wire and cabin railing. They even cling to the whiskers of my old cat, Max, who despite having warmer quarters in the barn and its straw, illogically sleeps on the deck near a back corner of our house in a snowfall that will eventually render him a muted orange lump until he wakes himself.  

These observations remind me of a poem by Kate DiCamillo called “Snow, Aldo.” In it, the poet observes an old man who, while walking his dog in a park, laughs and holds his face upward toward the falling snow. “Snow, Aldo,” the old man says. “Snow,” he repeats, and the dog wags its tail. The poem is a reminder for me about the simple joys of watching it snow, of the shear wonder of it.

The snow is coming down harder now. It is slowly, but surely filling in the bootprints I made this morning as I brought an armload of fireplace wood to my backdoor. I left my snow shovel leaning against my cabin, and already a ridge of new snowfall has accumulated on its handle. It is growing colder, and the volume of the world’s sounds is being turned down as the big, fat flakes continue to fall.  

The weatherman says it may snow a bit again this weekend, although he’s not expecting much. I have my shovel ready, just in case.

Mike Lunsford can be reached by email at, or c/o the Tribune-Star at P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. You can learn more about his writing by going to his website at He is currently working on his fourth book, “A Windy Hill Almanac.”


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