Posted by: justawriter | October 21, 2009

Far Afield – Snow is a premonition of Indian Summer

“Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather.”
– John Ruskin
I wouldn’t go as far as Mr. Ruskin when it comes to the beneficence of the weather. As he lived in England in the 19th century, I doubt he ever experienced anything akin to a North Dakota blizzard or watched the landscape wither under a scorching sun during an epochal drought.
But in another sense he was very right. A permanently benevolent climate would eventually bore us to tears. You can say a lot of things about North Dakota’s weather, but it isn’t boring.
The light dusting of white stuff last week got me to thinking about all the different weather I’ve seen over the last half century or so. I wasn’t surprised to see a little snow by Columbus Day. I’ve sort of kept track over the years and I can only remember two or three years where we didn’t see snow before Halloween, and one of those years it snowed on the first of November. Of course, most of those years I spent in the northeastern part of the state, not down here in the banana belt.
October snows hardly ever last. After firing a warning shot across our bows to remind us to check our winter gear, snowblowers and antifreeze, Mother Nature relents and gives us a few more weeks to enjoy ourselves. Occasionally we will even see the mercury touch the upper 70s, giving us a reminder of the summer days that flew by too quickly.
It is amazing to me how much warmer a 60 degree day feels after the first snow of the year. Even when the thermometer reaches summer temperatures again it isn’t the same. For one thing, fall has a smell all its own. Part dead leaves and part wood smoke, it is an odor that carries me back to my youth. It reminds me of how, back before there were many late season crops in the state, that smell meant harvest was complete and if it was a good year, the grain bins were full of prosperity.
The light is different as well. As the sun dips lower to the southern horizon, its colors get warmer with tints of red and orange creeping into the spectrum. Photographers love this warm light since it makes their pictures look more alive and vibrant. The light should be even better during the winter, but the snow acts like a million mirrored crystals, reflecting and magnifying the light until it is almost blinding.
The shame of fall is that we don’t get to enjoy that lovely warm light nearly as much as we should. As if practicing for a long winter, long banks of low stratus clouds dawdle as they pass over the state. It’s almost as if they had their own work week, with five days of clouds for every two days of sunshine. It always seems like those few sunny days are scheduled for times when we won’t be able to get out and enjoy them.
It’s also a good time for star watching, at least when the clouds part long enough to get a good glimpse of the sky. I don’t know if there something about the weather that just makes the sky look darker and the stars stand out more crisply. It might just be a matter of having more opportunities to be outside after dark before it gets cold enough to force me inside. It is the time of year when some of my old stellar friends return to the sky
One of my favorite friends in the sky is Orion, the hunter in Greek mythology. If you have sharp eyes you can see the Orion Nebula as part of the sword hanging from his belt. With binoculars you can see wispy patches of light that make up the Orion Nebula, great clouds of diffuse gas that are collapsing to create new stars. One shoulder is the blood red star Betelgeuse, which, just like the movie, is pronounced beetle-juice. His left foot is called Rigel, a blue supergiant star and one of the brightest in the sky.
Both stars are approaching the end of their lives. The end is a relative term in dealing with something like stars. Both are likely to keep shining longer than human civilization has existed. But when they do finally explode into supernovae, they will be bright enough to be seen during the day.
Even in the end, they will continue to exist. The explosions will scatter debris that will become the seeds of new stars and planets just as the earth and sun condensed out of some long gone star. Each of us, and everything around us from the leaves that have fallen from the trees and the snow that will soon blanket the ground are, as Carl Sagen said, made of star stuff. So if you get a chance on a clear fall night, look up, breathe deeply and enjoy the glory that is all around us.


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