Friday, February 17, 2017

The Thousand Faces of Winter

The woods were filled with light and shadows. Blinding white and midnight blue painted the ground, while the breeze blew fairy crystals of snow through rough, brown trunks. Although Lois Nestel (the Museum’s first naturalist) may not have fancied my mode of travel (fat bike), she certainly would have appreciated this scene on the beautiful Seeley Hills trails.

Lois had her own favorite ways of getting out to enjoy each winter, and she wrote about the snowy landscapes she cherished in her newspaper column, “Wayside Wanderings.” During the Museum’s 50th birthday year, I’m sharing some of her stories again. It’s a relief—a deep cleansing breath—to escape from our current, fast-paced news cycle into her gentle and reverent words.

“Winter has a thousand faces;” observed Lois, “each of us is free to see the face we choose. For example, the colors of winter are subtle and transient. Nothing is as it seems. The snow is white, it is true, but it is also endless hues and shades depending on the light, the type and quality of snow, and even more on the eye of the beholder.”

“Under leaden skies the snow appears dead white or pearly toned with shadows that are slate and steel. Sunrise can turn open spaces to rose and palest gold shadowed with lavender and violet; mid-day brings the clearer blues, and the evening sky may add a depth of tone to morning hues.”

“Frost flakes caught in morning sun outshine the jewel treasures of the world as prismatic reflections bedazzle the eyes with brilliant sapphire, topaz, emerald, and ruby that change with every movement and finally fade with advancing day, as do the rainbow-tinted sundogs that accompany a chill morning sun.”

“Moonlight on the snow brings shadows traced in indigo against the cold white flame of diamonds. The blue-black velvet of the night sky, studded with cold, blazing stars will often show the aurora borealis as wavering, tattered banners or as moving spotlights against the northern sky,” wrote Lois.

Recently, I caught my own breath at the shining magic of the near-full moon as it played peek-a-boo among the trees. Lois’s words floated through my consciousness. Letting my skis find their own way in the tracks, I swiveled my head as far as it would go to enjoy the moon’s glittering path. Later that night, the luminous glow—amplified by snow—fostered insomnia.

Lois summed up snow this way: “However you see snow, as a burden to be borne or as a base for winter sports, see in it also the incredible beauty beyond the power of man to duplicate or even to describe.”

In the Northwoods, trees are as much a part of the winter landscape as snow. They complement each other, and accentuate the other’s beauty. Lois appreciated each one in her own whimsical way.

“Had I been one of the druids of old,” she began, “I believe my worship would have been, not for the mighty oak, but surely for one of the evergreens. While other trees have dropped their ruffled gowns and stand in shivering nakedness, the evergreen reaches out with well-clothed arms to offer shelter from the cold. We would be bereft without this royal family of the northern climes.”

“Here stand the spruces, maids in waiting, dark, slender, dancers of the skyline; and here the balsams, reserved aristocrats, rich in their own perfume and decked with icicle and frost jewels. Here are the tough, gnarled jack pines, outcasts and black sheep of the family, fighters for their share of the earth. What they lack in grace they make up in sheer tenacity.”

“Here are the hemlocks, full of queenly grace and serenity from seedling to massive and dignified old age, replenishing the earth beneath them and pouring forth their largess in multitudes of cones to benefit the wildlife. Here too the sinewy cedars, crown princes of the swamplands and benevolent overseers of the delicate orchids.”

“And here, head and shoulders above the rest, stand my beloved white pines. Like lanky, callow youths in their early years, they develop the symmetry of handsome adulthood and in the fullness of their years are craggy, unconventional and full of character. There is strength in the clean lines of great limbs and tenderness in the soft-whispering blue-green plumes of needles. As I see them now, mantled with snow, it is as the cloak of ermine tossed carelessly across the shoulders of the king. Towering in stately dignity, no other tree adds such distinctive beauty to the sylvan scene.”

“If I were a druid, to this tree would I bow down. But as I am not, I can only gaze in awe and admiration and think, ‘What wonders God has wrought!’”

We are lucky to live where snow and trees surround us. Perhaps we should all take a cue from Lois and spend a few moments each day gazing with gratitude at our extraordinary world.

Special Note: Emily’s book, Natural Connections: Exploring Northwoods Nature through Science and Your Senses is here! Order your copy at

For 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new phenology exhibit: “Nature’s Calendar: Signs of the Seasons” is open through March 11.

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