An Eye for Winter: In Praise of Local Beauty

The landscape transformed. Trails of crisscrossing white, highlighting panoramas. Sweeps of snow to look over; patterns quickly formed by drifting. Moments when sun, snow, and the existing landscape meld to produce bright, full wonderlands that we can enjoy. In just about any locale in my home state of Wisconsin, and many other places in the Northern U.S., these are moments we can savor if we can take the time and effort to go out.

I love being in Wisconsin during the colder months. I love it so much that I started a social media campaign to promote winter appreciation. I grew tired of hearing people spend months of the year referring to the weather as ‘bad’ almost every day, of having almost all of the comments about local nature be negative ones. As I studied environmental history in graduate school, reading nature writers discuss their homes led to me conclude that I needed to get out regularly and appreciate the nature in Ann Arbor, where I lived. That meant that when the temperatures grew colder, I was motivated to keep visiting local parks. And I realized: plenty of beauty could be found within walking distance of my house. There was beauty in parks, on the river, and throughout the city’s streets; there was beauty when the snow hung on the trees, when it transformed the landscape. And I regretted that people were unable to connect with this splendor in their communities.

What would I recommend as sources of winter inspiration? There are plenty of pro-snow sites that focus on skiing and other leisure activities, most distinctly the I Am Pro Snow campaign—but I am content to mostly just walk in local parks and on local streets. The Winter Cities Institute consistently shares ideas about how to make metropolitan areas more winter-friendly. In Wisconsin, there are plenty of winter activities at nature centers near or in cities, as well as some creative events like a nine-mile walk across a frozen lake. There are not as many books on urban winter appreciation as I would like, but I recommend Winter: a Spiritual Biography of the Season as the best edited volume which provides different perspectives on winter; Adam Gopnik’s Winter as the best individual volume, focused on Canada, art and literature; and Bernard Mergen’s strong interpretation of the history of perspectives on snow in the U.S. In a recent roundup of favorite articles on winter, I particularly appreciated reflections on play and local pride, on making effective use of both nature and culture.

But perhaps the best way to motivate appreciation is to share glimpses of what I see, of the types of imagery I look for as I walk. All of these photos are from metropolitan areas in Wisconsin (except one from a rest area); you don’t need to travel far in order to find some of the magic that winter brings into our lives. Along with the photos, I’ll offer suggestions on methods that help me appreciate winter’s visuals.

A roadside snowy landscape (Filipiak, 2014)

The view of nature we get from our cars in winter is often aesthetically unappealing, as well as an impediment to our travel. So let’s move away from cars and roads…

Snow highlighting tree branches (Filipiak, 2014)

There is a starkness to the winter landscape. Forests, above the floor, are often stripped down to bark and snow, which creates an elegant assortment of sharp lines. When snow has recently fallen, look for the diagonals and verticals, and look for how snow highlights them.

Animal tracks in snow (Filipiak, 2014)

Snow provides an excellent medium for observing tracks. Animals might be hard to spot in this weather, but we can find evidence of their past travels, evidence that they are making use of the place. When travel writer Robert Macfarlane starts on the walk that kicks off his The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, he spends much of his time watching (and following) animal tracks through the snow near his house. Like Macfarlane—or Wisconsin naturalist Aldo Leopold—learning about our animal neighbors’ paths can be fun.

Patterns in the snow (Filipiak, 2014)

We can identify completely new patterns that winter creates. When much of the ground is covered in white, this is the time of year during which shadows leave the starkest contrasts; look for them on a sunny day! Some patterns exist just within the snow. Take a look at drifts in the open, drifts around objects… follow the rhythms, the swirls.

Patterns in the snow (Filipiak, 2014)

The shadows of trees in woodlands are particularly striking, but the contrasts make visible even tiny shadows cast by drifts, grass, and leaves.

Snow creating contrasts on bark (Filipiak, 2014)

Look closely at snow on tree bark, and notice how snow fills in cracks, creating contrasts where none exist in other seasons. Then look at the delicacy of flakes where snow hangs off of the bark.

Snowflakes, up close (Filipiak, 2014)

If you’re bold enough to go out on near-zero days, there’s a whole set of steamy, spiky, surreal forms one can see (safely from the shore, or bridges).

There is plenty to observe during winter. I focus on snow, ice, and trees. But there’s more to look for—animals, plants, and ways that snow can lead us to reinterpret the built landscape. Snow brings changes, uncertainty, powerful storms—it brings wildness—to the places in which we live.

A snowy scene (Filipiak, 2014)

Most of all, find the time to get out there. Snow is ephemeral; it constantly changes, and the moments that seem most magical (brilliant sunny days, the day after a snowstorm when snow still coats branches, or snowfall itself) don’t last long. But if you plan to have time available each week to get outside, if you are flexible and willing to work within local nature, if you commit to exploring and exercising regularly, you’ll be positioned to connect with the opportunities winter provides. Winter is part of who are in Wisconsin; don’t forget to appreciate the gifts that come during this season!

Jeff Filipiak teaches History at UW-Fox Valley, and Environmental Studies at UW-Oshkosh. For more on his winter appreciation project, please check out the project on his blog, Facebook, and Pinterest. He earned his BA at UW-Madison, and his PhD at the University of Michigan with a dissertation titled “Learning from the Land: Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson on Knowledge and Nature.” He also studies popular culture, sustainability, environmental ethics, and food issues. Contact.

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3 Comments

  1. J. Rockwell

    Excellent description of one of the things that I oddly miss most about WI. It will be in the 60s here all week which makes local snow fleeting. Of course the mountains have ample opportunity for winter activities, both commercial and otherwise, but I miss walking out my front door to school through the early morning frost and new snowfall. I especially liked the drifted snow pictures and the contrast of the snow-covered trees and the water. Well done.

  2. Thanks, J.! Each place has different kinds of views and pleasures that can be appreciated. I’m glad you feel I was effective at evoking some of what you remember as the charms of Wisconsin winters. (And if anyone out there has a piece on the charms of mountain winters, I’ll be happy to read that piece, too 😉 It is definitely nice when snow sticks around so you can watch it for a while – today, I entertained myself for a while by watching the wind blow snow across the surface.

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