The first snow day of the winter and in its wake the dreary, endless days of the Dutch fall are forgotten. Day after day of leaden skies, like a dirty, heavy, sodden blanket thrown over the country, dripping constantly, suffocating and claustrophobic. The woods, my usual haven, have been quagmires of tar–like mud, black and sticky, the water table only an inch or two below the surface of the ground. Horses in the fields have drooped their heads in weariness and resignation, sheep huddled into corners protecting each other from the ceaseless weeping from an unforgiving sky.
All that changed yesterday afternoon. We’d felt the delicate shift in the wind, hurtling down across Europe from the wastes of Siberia and the northern lands. A sharpness and smell that whispers, ‘winter is coming’. Not the date marked on our calendars, but the natural winter of bitter winds singing of desolate places far from here.
It is strange to sit in our warm, cosy homes surrounded by air from arctic places where few of us will ever venture. Its smell is distinct – the scent of clean, dried-outdoors laundry brought in from the cold. The purest air we’ll breathe unless we are lucky enough to stand at its source.
The first flurries started as I drove out of The Hague, the dark band of snow following me home, and fell in heavy, deep flakes through the afternoon. We slept with the drapes open last night, to watch the flakes dancing and pirouetting against the spotlights of the street lamps, illuminating their performance as they fell earthward.
This morning, in the dark dregs of the night, before the tinge of daybreak gloomed over the horizon and with snow banked up on the window frames, we watched as the first traffic began to move cautiously and hesitantly in this new world. Opening the window, an icy ridge of snow fell inward, a blast of scented air hurtled behind it scouring the room, and the muted world outside was quiet under its bedding.
The snow continued to fall and in the greyness of dawning light the monochrome beauty of winter was on display, sky and earth merged into a snowy mass. And the light, oh the light, reflected upward, illuminating dark corners not seen since the end days of the summer.
The snow has stopped now, the sky covered with a different grey from those of the past months. A broad shade of mid-grey, heavy with snow still to fall, a delicate duvet filled with feathers, ready to rip itself open and cover us with beauty.
I’ve been feeling the child-like anticipation build all night, recalling of a line from James Joyce (The Dubliners) ‘ …and snow was general all over Ireland’ thrilled by the layers of meaning within it, its depth and weight soft like snow.
It is not a regular occurrence in our lives to experience snow and its memories are rare and precious.
At age three trapped by an icy slope in the back garden, the feeling of panic as I slid downhill backwards and away from the safety of the backdoor; aged seven, ice-skating on the lake by the local university, during a winter whose date is cited as one of the worst.
As an adult learning to drive on snow and ice on a deserted lane in the grounds of a country house; the glory of the Yorkshire moors and driving through extreme snow and weather in labour with my daughter; snow on Christmas Day 2005 in New Orleans (a harbinger of momentous times to come as it turned out) – moments captured in my snow globe of memories.
The reality, of course is very different from these magical expectations. As cars and trucks struggled on ungritted/ unsalted roads today, my spouse took an hour to reach the A12 in The Hague, normally a 10 minute drive. Two hours later the A12 ahead of him en route to Rotterdam was closed and he reported in from Zoetermeer, to the east.
He was, however, incredibly cheerful and enjoying himself immensely, safe from the calamity he would undoubtedly have encountered in his own road-hugging vehicle – he was warm and snug in mine, our default disaster vehicle, big high and all-wheel drive.
Here at base camp I discovered a pair of Harry’s outgrown snowboarding pants from 10th grade when he was, for a moment, around the same height as me, which – incredibly – fit (okay, so I had to breathe in a bit and the legs were too long) and a Finnish snow jacket discarded by our eldest some years ago. Donned with those, several scarves, a hat and heavy duty walking boats, the Archster and I ventured out.
The day didn’t disappoint.
Snow deeper than expected (24cm/ 9 inches of pure, dry, powdery snow – I measured it) its fleecy blanket muting all sound. In the quiet of the woods, with unmarked banks of snow huddled around trees and draped over fallen logs, the appearance of a wardrobe wouldn’t have been out of place.
As the belt of snow passed through, the winter sky was exposed, an unobscured view upwards for miles, the early morning sky washed with a watery hue the colour of fresh apricots – no rosy pinks and tinges of soft violet in these wintery months. And the light was extraordinary, as it always is with snow, awakening the senses, kick-starting the brain
I know tomorrow the snow will have turned a greasy grey, dropping from trees in wet dollops, unable to soak away into the already saturated ground. The daylight will be turned in on itself, back to the normal winter gloom, which is why I am so grateful for today.
We need days of unexpected delights, to feel a child-like enchantment in the simple and pure, to feel joy, if only for a moment, in the glorious display of nature, often lost in urban lives.
Today will be added to my snow globe, put back on its shelf, ready to be turned and shaken on other days, in future times. I shall sit within it, amongst the memories, watch the snow fall and catch snowflakes on my tongue, in places far from here.
For the record, these are all colour photos, not black and white!