Patterns in the Snow

By Juliana Glassco Sunlight, shadows, and wind on the snow at Willowbank Sunlight, shadows, and wind on the snow at Willowbank Here at Willowbank, in the Niagara region of southern Ontario, we have had a very snowy winter. I can imagine few places more beautiful for a walk after a fresh snowfall, and so I have taken quite a few. The world is different in the wintertime. Even as we scurry with tunnel vision from our cars to our houses to hibernate in front of our fireplaces and televisions, the landscape opens itself up to us. The Niagara River never sparkles as brilliantly as when it flashes by the barren trees on the escarpment above. The contours of the ravine on the north edge of the Willowbank grounds, which was a portage route for thousands of years before it became a railroad bed and was finally reclaimed by the forest, are never as apparent as when they are reduced to the stark backdrop of dark and light created by a fresh snowfall. Design details that might otherwise go unnoticed, like the evenly spaced through-stones of a dry stone wall and the geometric shapes of a garden bed, are highlighted by dots and dashes of fluffy white. And we are never as aware of the patterns of movement around us as we are when the evidence is imprinted on the wintertime canvas that we all share. Energy is captured in the snow – people, critters, cars, sunlight, the wind – everything leaves its mark and is thrown into relief in the reflecting light and shadows. Trails in the snow reveal who shares our pathways. There is comfort and gratitude in a well-travelled route, where the snow has been packed down or shoveled aside; those who have travelled before us have eased our way. Likewise, there is exhilaration in the solitude of forging a new path, to know that you are the first creature to venture across a particular patch of fresh snow. And there is powerful serenity in the etchings of the sun and the wind as they move across the landscape. Wind on Nun's Hill, Willowbank Wind on Nun's Hill, Willowbank A walk around the neighborhood reveals the multitude of shortcuts that students take across the Willowbank grounds, where the best tobogganing hill is, and who has left their house or driven their car since the last snowfall. In the snow, a road through the trees reveals itself as a superhighway, with intersections abounding and on- and off-ramps scampered out at every tree and shrub. The surreptitious antics of the rabbit family under the juniper bush are no longer as concealed as they might wish, and a feline footprint placed carefully inside the chipmunk’s tracks belies his nefarious intentions. The rabbit's hideout. The rabbit's hideout. Of course there also is the unavoidable grimy slushy heaps plowed by our cars, almost everywhere, it seems. But the gray snow shows us how we use our roads. In fact, people study and blog about those areas of slush that remain after our tires have pummeled the rest of the snow into the asphalt – they call them “sneckdowns,” and they can show where to calm traffic or install bike lines in warmer weather. These observations of road use patterns can be the basis for adaptations that will enhance our roads according to how we already use them. Pathways up Nun's Hill, Willowbank Pathways up Nun's Hill, Willowbank

In the midst of the cold, still isolation of winter, we are presented with abundant visual confirmation that our landscape is a communal one and that we collectively create patterns through the motions of our daily lives. So, in the last days before the thaw, I encourage you to put on an extra layer and take a walk around your neighborhood. Look at it through winter’s lens. What can you learn?

The gardens of Versailles - when Louis Le Vau designed them, did he think about what they would look like under snow? Photo credit: France d'Art et de Lumière Facebook Page The gardens of Versailles - when Louis Le Vau designed them, did he think about what they would look like under snow? Photo credit: France d'Art et de Lumière Facebook Page