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Higgins: The Snow Remembers

Winter in Vermont is life stripped to monochrome. It's breath smoke, frost thick on the windows, and sleek, wind-sculpted snowscapes. But there are times, more times than you’d think, when this deceptive minimalism blooms into fantasy: Sun dogs glow on the horizon line. Chickadees and blue jays puff themselves into ruffled balls against the cold. A red squirrel, after warming itself all morning on the deck, drags a piece of petrified bread into our barn. And elsewhere, across the state, snowy owls seemingly erupt from the chilled landscape itself, arctic emissaries, white haunting white.

Where I live, in Waterbury Center, a rare northern hawk owl has been playing to sold-out crowds along Route 100 for weeks. My family and I saw it one day when we were on our way to the grocery store. We pulled to the salted shoulder of the road just as it landed in a dead tree beside us. We were so busy gawking and cheering that we almost forgot to take a picture. But the owl obliged us, as if understanding of the fuss it caused, and perhaps even a bit impressed by it. After watching it strike pose after pose for maybe five minutes, my five-year-old son, Cashel, said, Wow, this owl really wants to be famous. Eventually, ready for new admirers, it took off, climbing over etched and grooved fields, and disappeared into the accelerating snowfall.

The thrill of that moment still hasn’t left me, weeks later, which is right for winter.  Whether it’s the chill in your bones or the ache in your back from shoveling, nothing leaves and nothing is lost. Each new storm carries with it recollections of the last, adding to an architecture of memory that begins in childhood, on those hopeful mornings when we wonder if school will be canceled, or those afternoons enveloped in storm where every sound in the world is muffled and buttoned-up. We come in from the cold and sit down with our hot chocolate. Worn-out, red-faced, we have no responsibility but to enjoy that welcoming moment, as the warmth of the house rises around us and the temperatures outside fall.

The snow itself remembers. Every deer track and vole path. It’s all there in crust and ice as hard as shale beneath the softer upper layers, and when the sun comes these old moments emerge — the walk I took last weekend, the fox’s nighttime dash through the field, the riverine tunnelings of hungry mice. It’s all still there. I know: another foot of snow or ten or twenty below zero is a steep price to pay for beauty. But I'll enjoy the freeze while I can. We’ll be scraping spring’s mud off our boots before long, and the owls will return home, retreating with the cold.