It’s a badge of honor to get through a Chicago-area winter. The three worst years came in succession, 1976-77, 1977-78, and the worst ever, 1978-79. If you endured those as I did, you probably feel you can get through just about anything — although the climate is capable of throwing even worse at us now. Just ask the good people of Texas.
But the bright side of a severe winter is that it intensifies the spring euphoria when it finally arrives. And that is worth waiting for.
Last winter, we got off lightly, and this year looked to be even lighter — until the last week of January. In past years, we hardly had any snow cover at all and when we did, it didn’t last long. Kids had to settle for sledding on brown snow or solid ice. The thermometer yo-yo’d and the poor park district kept trying to put up ice rinks in the parks, but the temps wouldn’t dip below freezing more than a few days at a time.
This year was headed for the warmest winter ever — and then it started snowing. And snowing. And snowing. Three weeks later, over 40 inches has fallen, covering everything. Kids probably couldn’t believe their good sledding fortune. Cross-country skiing is popular again.
It settled a bit, but none of it melted because we never got above freezing till this past Sunday.
It has been as beautiful as it is brutally frigid, but not as many people are commuting these days and most of us are staying close to home because of the pandemic. Life is slower, giving us a chance to appreciate this amazing snowscape, albeit with plenty of shoveling to give us some exercise.
A terrible beauty is born, as Yeats put it, though not referring to the snow but to the recurring catastrophe of the Irish independence movement.
For us, this terrible beauty is borne — endured, that is, managed, and even, to my surprise, enjoyed. I visited Morton Arboretum on Saturday, where the snow is not in conflict with an urban environment. It was as serene as the romantics always paint it.
The temperatures are predicted to rise this week so maybe we’re turning a corner on this suddenly snowy winter. Or maybe not. We’ll see. But before we leave behind this wonderland, here’s my observational report on the Winter of 2021:
Where beauty borders the grotesque,
The polar opposite of flow,
Upside down, petrified flames,
Stalactites in the open air,
Melting against the warm bricks,
Seeping past mortar,
And into my kitchen,
The torture of endless drips from window frames,
Caught in buckets, drumming and thrumming,
An avalanche of plaster from a closet ceiling,
Exposing the dark, ancient recesses of breached shelter,
The cold invasive fingers of winter working its insidious mischief.
Frozen cascades of savage teeth,
From gutters and eaves almost touch the ground
Like entries in some Deathcicle Competition,
A waterfall snapshot, snap-shutting the view from house windows.
And the smothering snow,
The snow, the snow
Burying every vestige of other seasons
Beneath a brilliant, blazing-white comforter that muffles comfort,
A settling that unsettles,
Light dusting upon light dusting
Until it totals tons
And giant dump trucks cart off mountains of it,
To some accommodating vacant lot.
Snowblowers carve pathways with curving precision,
Excavations that unveil sedimentary layers of snowfall from the previous month.
Snowplows leave graded hillsides like burial mounds of ancient cultures along the streets.
And here we are, wintering with all this,
Consoled that at least we aren’t in Texas,
Cleaving close to home,
Sheltered yet vulnerable,
The outside elements beautifully grotesque,
Or grotesquely beautiful,
Battling our way out of this burial ground,
Unable to decide if this is the worst of times
Or the best,
Soft savagery or savage softness,
Seduced by undulating curves in undisturbed fields
Or betrayed by walled-in, semi-passable narrows
That once were roadways,
Now a graveyard for piled-on cars,
Dug out by Arctic archaeologists,
Pitying the package delivery drivers their appointed rounds
While cursing their trucks for snarling our bottleneck blocks.
Winter’s blast of ambivalence,
Deer feeding on greens and grains left by well-wishers
Along the roadway to Thatcher Pavilion,
Skiers gliding across the meadow and weaving through the woods,
Dogs bounding through drifts, tethered to snow-shoed companions,
A tough trudge,
A sluggish slog,
But at least there is slick sledding.
Life in a snow globe that someone keeps shaking,
How many flakes fell to amass all this?
Deep snow, deep nights, deep dreams,
Deep in the heart of winter.