Northwest Indiana had well over a foot of snow this past weekend, turning the Calumet Region into a true winter wonderland. But that description has become cliché by now. Over the years, writers have found many other ways to describe the winter landscape. Here are a few examples.1
Henry David Thoreau
We start with one of the most famous naturalists, Henry David Thoreau. Both of the following passages come from Walden. The first is from a chapter titled “Former Inhabitants and Winter Visitors,” and the second comes from one called “The Pond in Winter.”
I weathered some merry snow-storms, and spent some cheerful winter evenings by my fireside, while the snow whirled wildly without, and even the hooting of the owl was hushed. For many weeks I met no one in my walks but those who came occasionally to cut wood and sled it to the village. The elements, however, abetted me in making a path through the deepest snow in the woods, for when I had once gone through the wind blew the oak leaves into my tracks, where they lodged, and by absorbing the rays of the sun melted the snow, and so not only made a bed for my feet, but in the night their dark line was my guide.
Then to my morning work. First I take an axe and pail and go in search of water, if that be not a dream. After a cold and snowy night it needed a divining-rod to find it. Every winter the liquid and trembling surface of the pond, which was so sensitive to every breath, and reflected every light and shadow, becomes solid to the depth of a foot or a foot and a half, so that it will support the heaviest teams, and perchance the snow covers it to an equal depth, and it is not to be distinguished from any level field. Like the marmots in the surrounding hills, it closes its eyelids and becomes dormant for three months or more. Standing on the snow-covered plain, as if in a pasture amid the hills, I cut my way first through a foot of snow, and then a foot of ice, and open a window under my feet, where, kneeling to drink, I look down into the quiet parlor of fishes, pervaded by a softened light as through a window of ground glass, with its bright sanded floor the same as in summer; there a perennial waveless serenity reigns as in the amber twilight sky, corresponding to the cool and even temperament of the inhabitants. Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.
William Hamilton Gibson
Here is a very different description from another naturalist. Gibson was also an author and illustrator, as you will discover from the words he chooses.
Silently, like thoughts that come and go, the snow-flakes fall, each one a gem. The whitened air conceals all earthly trace, and leaves to memory the space to fill. I look upon a blank, whereon my fancy paints, as could no hand of mine, the pictures and the poems of a boyhood life; and even as the undertone of a painting, be it warm or cool, shall modify or change the color laid upon it, so this cold and frosty background through the window transfigures all my thoughts, and forms them into winter memories legion like the snow. Oh that I could translate for other eyes the winter idyl painted there! I see a living past whose counterpart I well could wish might be a common fortune. I see in all its joyous phases the gladsome winter in New England, the snow-clad hills with bare and shivering trees, the homestead dear, the old gray barn hemmed in with peaked drifts. I see the skating-pond, and hear the ringing, intermingled shouts of the noisy, shuffling game, the black ice written full with testimony of the winter’s brisk hilarity. (From the section titled “Winter” in Pastoral Days or Memories of a New England Year by William Hamilton Gibson)
Thoreau and Gibson were describing winter in the U.S., but what about other countries? Here is German author Thomas Mann’s description of the Swiss Alps. The book is The Magic Mountain, and this particular translation is by John E. Woods.
Yet there was a momentary hint of blue sky, and even this bit of light was enough to release a flash of diamonds across the wide landscape, so oddly disfigured by its snowy adventure. Usually the snow stopped at that hour of the day, as if for a quick survey of what had been achieved thus far; the rare days of sunshine seemed to serve much the same purpose—the flurries died down and the sun’s direct glare attempted to melt the luscious, pure surface of drifted new snow. It was a fairy-tale world, child-like and funny. Boughs of trees adorned with thick pillows, so fluffy someone must have plumped them up; the ground a series of humps and mounds, beneath which slinking underbrush or outcrops of rock lay hidden; a landscape of crouching, cowering gnomes in droll disguises—it was comic to behold, straight out of a book of fairy tales. But if there was something roguish and fantastic about the immediate vicinity through which you laboriously made your way, the towering statues of snow-clad Alps, gazing down from the distance, awakened in you feelings of the sublime and holy.
Mann described the Alps as a fairy-tale world, but Lewis Carroll’s description appears in a real fairy tale. It also crosses the English Channel for its setting. This selection is found near the beginning of Through the Looking-Glass.
“Do you hear the snow against the window panes, Kitty? How nice and soft it sounds! Just as if someone was kissing the window all over outside. I wonder if the snow loves the trees and fields, as it kisses them so gently? And then it covers them up snug, you know, with a white quilt; and perhaps it says, ‘Go to sleep, darlings, till the summer comes again.’”
Now go out and create your own description.
1 This post is limited to prose. For poetry, read the IWC blog posts from December 13, 2017 (Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”) and December 20, 2017 (Emily Dickinson’s “It sifts from Leaden Sleeves”).
The photo at the head of this page is © 2011 by Kathryn Page Camp.