This predawn winter morning, icy patches of snow still cover the edges of the meadow near the woods. A waning crescent moon and bright stars are my only light as I walk. As my eyes adjust to the darkness, familiar constellations emerge and assure me that I will never be lost under their watch. For they have stood guard over the heavens for eons, guiding pilots and caravans, armies and lone travelers on journeys across oceans and deserts and time.
In this quiet meditation, I imagine Earth as a star would see it at night. Continental land masses are defined by the broken white outline of coastal lights. The outline a pattern of meandering dots. Each dot a city or town. Each city or town a million individual points of light. Each point of light a story of its own.
Looking down, sprawling cities pass below, revealing grids of urban streets and bridges against a background of black. Along the east coast, New York City jumps from the map in a brilliant blaze of light. A magical nightscape that never sleeps. Across the continent’s midsection, the stalwart green glow of halogen barn lights delineate the boundaries of rural America. I suddenly realize that from above, it may be possible to pinpoint the snowy field I’m standing in by following these lights, just as explorers over the centuries have navigated by the stars.
Bright white winter nights. Moonlit patches of snow reflecting heaven’s light. Nights so cold that they still the cat’s water dish on the porch and by morning it is a mirror. The daylight feeding activities of winter birds is replaced at night by hours of huddling and tucking in where they find shelter in groves of fat cedar trees.
In the dead of winter, people are no different. When winter bites, cruise catalogues fill mailboxes along the snowy rural backroads of the Midwest. Come January and February, pale landlocked populations close their eyes and dream of tropical islands surrounded by warm, aquamarine waters. Like wild geese and ducks huddled on a frozen pond, we let our minds drift to memories of warm breezes and distant places painted in shades of cool greens and blues. We yearn for a tropical sun to burn itself into our skin so that we won’t fade and disappear into winter’s cold white landscape.
As we dream of warm light, we begin to feel lighter ourselves. Floating free of the weight that keeps us housebound as the winter months grow longer. Shedding the layers of winter clothing for something white and gossamer light against warm, sun-browned skin. After months of furnace heat and winter hats, we long to feel moisture once again swell life back into our sad, static-filled hair and soften skin grown rough from exposure to the elements.
Like creatures of the feather, we too flock together. Build fires that draw us close for warmth. Share meals and hours of conversation on cold winter nights when spring seems impossibly distant. And though we bemoan winter’s long tenure, we ultimately must admit that there is beauty in winter light. In the starkness of winter white.
Looking beneath its cold surface, winter’s beauty cannot be denied. Animal tracks tell tales on freshly fallen snow. So singular is the delicate beauty of a crystalline snowflake that nature breaks each mold to guarantee its unique design can never be repeated. Over the coming winter months, the ageless miracle of rebirth will lie in dormant silence under a frozen landscape. Like me, it will be waiting for gardens to awaken, stretch and burst forth with color.
Then some distant day late in summer when the heat and humidity once again become heavy and the landscape is once again a canvas of Van Gogh yellows gone wild, I may take a predawn walk around the meadow, look up into a night sky, and dream of winter light. Winter white. And the feeling of ice and cold air against my skin.
Cathy Salter is a geographer and columnist who lives with her husband, Kit, in Southern Boone County at a place they call Boomerang Creek.