winter

Posted by Ellen

This has been an El Nino winter in California, meaning that the Pacific breezes have functioned as a conveyor belt bringing storm after storm into the state. Sheets of cold rain blow through the coastal cities and into the Central Valley, where the storms bump up against the Sierra Nevada mountains, try to crawl up over them, and get stuck. A single storm can last four or five days in the Sierras and dump 50 or 60 inches of snow or more at higher elevations. This year, the Sierras are by far the snowiest part of the country.

The cabin in these pictures is near Mammoth, California, a ski area where all the snow is properly appreciated. The snow in the doorway represents one night's accumulation.

Here in Maine, we've had our share of snow, followed by a January thaw last week--tons of rain that left things looking almost springlike till the cold came back. And in Maryland, it's snowing even as I type. But I hear tell that soon it will be February.

Posted by Ellen

The old Eastland Hotel in downtown Portland has a lot of windows and a lot of bricks.

Posted by Ellen

Carol and Sandy Fuchs spent a week in  northern Sweden recently, including New Year's at the Ice Hotel near Kiruna, about 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle. The sun never rose above the horizon the whole time they were up there, though the dark of night faded into a sort of twilight for a few hours in the middle of each day.

They tried dogsledding and snowmobiling and visited with reindeer herders. The town of Kiruna is a thriving iron-mining center, where the hundred-year-old mine is nowhere near played out; it is currently expanding closer and closer to the town, which is gradually being relocated to escape the blasting and other mine activity.

The basic structure of the Ice Hotel is made of snow; in November each year, snowguns spray artifical snow over arched metal forms, which are removed after a couple of days, leaving igloo-like tunnels. Interior walls are made of two-ton ice blocks cut from the Torne River and returned to the river when the place starts to melt in April or May. The ice is cut in March and stored for the next winter's construction.

Beds are platforms of ice and snow covered with reindeer hides. Guests sleep in sleeping bags. There are ice sculptures and specially carved ice chairs and tables in the rooms, but according to Carol guests don't usually spend much time lolling about in chairs made of ice. Although she slept well, she reports that Sandy hardly slept at all; he was worried that if he relaxed and closed his eyes, he'd freeze to death and never wake up. The room temperature was about minus 5 Celsius, or 23 degrees Fahrenheit.

The hotel has an ice bar, where drinks are served in glasses made of ice. There's also a restaurant, which serves hot food on regular dishes, in front of a blazing fire.

I'm thinking that part of the rationale for a winter vacation in Arctic Sweden is that it must feel pretty good when you leave; wherever you spend the rest of your winter, even if it's in what you normally consider a fairly wintry sort of place, must seem bright and sunny and maybe even toasty by comparison.

Posted by Ellen

Shoveling snow with Buddha
by Billy Collins

In the usual iconography of the temple or the local Wok
you would never see him doing such a thing,
tossing the dry snow over the mountain
of his bare, round shoulder,
his hair tied in a knot,
a model of concentration.

Sitting is more his speed, if that is the word
for what he does, or does not do.

Even the season is wrong for him.
In all his manifestations, is it not warm and slightly humid?
Is this not implied by his serene expression,
that smile so wide it wraps itself around the waist of the universe?

But here we are, working our way down the driveway,
one shovelful at a time.
We toss the light powder into the clear air.
We feel the cold mist on our faces.
And with every heave we disappear
and become lost to each other
in these sudden clouds of our own making,
these fountain-bursts of snow.

This is so much better than a sermon in church,
I say out loud, but Buddha keeps on shoveling,
This is the true religion, the religion of snow,
and sunlight and winter geese barking in the sky,
I say, but he is too busy to hear me.

He has thrown himself into shoveling snow
as if it were the purpose of existence,
as if the sign of a perfect life were a clear driveway
you could back the car down easily
and drive off into the vanities of the world
with a broken heater fan and a song on the radio.

All morning long we work side by side,
me with my commentary
and he inside the generous pocket of his silence,
until the hour is nearly noon
and the snow is piled high all around us;
then, I hear him speak.

After this, he asks,
can we go inside and play cards?

Certainly, I reply, and I will heat some milk
and bring cups of hot chocolate to the table
while you shuffle the deck,
and our boots stand dripping by the door.

Aaah, says the Buddha, lifting his eyes
and leaning for a moment on his shovel
before he drives the thin blade again
deep into the glittering white snow.

Posted by Ellen

Paris in the wintertime can be chilly, especially if, like Addie Coslett, you've spent the past year in the tropics. Big mittens can help a lot.

Addie has been working for a bank in Bangalore that finances microloans in impoverished Indian villages. She bought the mittens while hiking in Kashmir. They made a big hit in Paris, where she stopped off on her way to the states for a holiday visit; strangers stopped her and asked if they could take a picture.

Posted by Ellen

Skiing in the dark in Japan.

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Posted by Ellen

To be more precise: at least one mitten came off late in the afternoon of Christmas day when Hank and Al had at it on the bluff above Kettle Cove, on the nearly snowless southern coast of Maine. It wasn't a real fight, just a little sibling rasslery.

Posted by Ellen

Jack Delano's 1940 photo of Pittsburgh has a cinematic feel to it, as the lady on the staircase descends into a dark and cold and spectacular kind of hell. That particular hell--with sulfurous fumes belching from roaring steel mills--went south a generation ago, abandoning western Pennsylvania to rust and poverty. Somewhat remarkably, the city has stirred from its decline and reinvented itself as a clean and shiny, almost high-tech sort of place. But all along, the sons and daughters of Pittsburgh have been growing up into American image-makers, people who have shown us what we look like, or would like to look like, or hope to God we never ever look like. Fred Rogers, with his sweater and sneakers and perfectly detailed little world of children's TV--wasn't Pittsburgh's first or last cultural chronicler.

Early on, there was Stephen Foster, of Swannee River and Camptown Races fame, and then the painter Mary Cassatt, the modernist Gertrude Stein, and the Tarzan, Johnny Weissmuller. Some of the Pittsburghers have worked right up to the cultural edge--Andy Warhol--and some have walked us up to the brink, where we could glimpse a frightening future--Rachel Carson.

Most notable, perhaps, were all the guys who played football, generation upon generation of Pittsburghers who were big and tough and fast and focused: Johnny Unitas, Joe Namath, Mike Ditka, Larry Brown, Nick Saban, and way too many others

Then there were those who worked the cultural currents of the times: e.g., Bobby Vinton, Lou Christie, Charles Bronson. And the ones who have risen above their times, soaring elegantly: Gene Kelly.

But who took the neighborhood in this picture and warped it into a dark corner of the American consciousness? Back in the early days of television, Fred Rogers hired an imaginative young assistant who moved on to Hollywood and directorial fame and fortune--guy by the name of George Romero--whose first big hit opened a seam of movie-dom that has been dug ever deeper to this day: Night of the Living Dead.

And for what it's worth, Pittsburgh still has more than 700 staircases officially registered as city streets.

Posted by Ellen

Last winter, up in Ottawa County, Michigan, John Dykstra saw dozens and dozens of wild turkeys--he estimates 50 or 60 on most days--flocking in a field at the back of his woods. He couldn't get close enough to them to take good pictures, so he moved an old metal shed building out there, cut a hole in the wall facing the field frequented by the birds, and sat and waited with his camera. The turkeys came back.

But Dykstra's wild turkeys don't look at all like the wild turkeys I've seen in Alabama and New England, which are much leaner-looking and not so fluffy. These have a thick body type similar to the huge-breasted domesticated birds. When I tried to do a little wild turkey research, however, I learned that there are several varieties, and that the ones I have seen before, even in Vermont and Maine, most closely resemble a variety said to be native to the Rio Grande region of west Texas and New Mexico. Go figure. Apparently, my understanding of all things wild turkey is all full of holes.

They say wild turkeys are making a comeback these days in many parts of the country, including Plymouth, Massachusetts, where they first pricked our cultural consciousness. Ben Franklin thought this bird ought to be recognized as our national animal, and he was onto something.

Drive carefully, y'all.