When Snow Turns to Rain

Rain pours off the roof in silver strands, thicker than thread — the diameter of p-cord, the texture of snot — bringing down thin sheets of melting ice, lacy and silver, spooling off orderly as those old rolls of perforated printer paper, slicing at roof’s edge into perfect rectangles, six inches wide or twelve, rolling occasionally back toward the window, then dropping down to earth. Or check that. Not to earth. To the pile by the window that, sooner than later, we’ll have to shovel for light. Snow in the yard is a couple feet deep and saturating fast. We’ve shoveled out the steps from the road to the house, which, if you don’t step down gingerly, will turn to a slick sliding descent. We should fix those, we always say. Add some structure, switchback to grade. Do something. But we don’t. We’ve shoveled out the cars and the path to the generator and the satellite dish. We haven’t yet shoveled the woodshed. We’re hoping it will slide.

Wet snow gathers in cottonwoods, where the limbs meet the trunk, building up a dense white vee, and atop the neighbors skylights, draping over them like Tolstoy’s beard — less jolly than Santa’s — threatening to tear them out, steel roof and all. Snow grips the bark of twisted leaning maples, poufy as the decorated edge of a cake from the supermarket deli. Fir limbs droop heavy, dark as black against the grey, and dogwood leaves, rust-colored and translucent, dangle from barren twigs, the only color in sight, the only color in the world today, as far as I can tell.

There are books you love because you read them as a kid, books you love for the artistry or the surprise, books you love because your friends love them, too. Then there are the books you love even though no one else loves them like you. Top of that list, for me, is “Where the Sea Used to Be.” Rick Bass’ first novel was long anticipated and fast forgotten. The main character, a young woman, skis out alone often, tracking wolves, lighting pitch to warm her hands. There’s romance in the snowy woods and romance in the prose all silent and slow. I took the book down from the shelf this morning, thinking it’s time to read it again, to reset my metronome, to settle into another pace, another dimension. Then the rain began.

We used to have a land partner, Tony, who shoveled for us. No kidding. His winter sport, he called it, waving to us as we sat by the woodstove with coffee or set off on skis.

Remember, we like to say, when Tony used to shovel for us?

We say this with genuine nostalgia, it’s true, but also with shame that we just let it happen. We shirked our responsibility gleefully, giddily, without a thought. Then he moved away. Tony always shoveled before 8:30 a.m. That, he said, is the hour when the snow turns to rain. We tried to pretend he was wrong. But he wasn’t.

Truth is, we’re nowhere near Rick Bass country. We’re smack in the middle, right on the crest — check that, below it — between drizzle in Seattle and powder in the Rockies. The temperature hovers, for weeks, between 31 and 33. We’re always on edge wondering what will come next. Winter seems less like a sweet slow metronome; than a ticking clock. As, perhaps, it should.

The title of that lovely book sitting on my bedstand looks, from here, outmoded, static, maybe even wrong-headed. The seas aren’t receded; they’re encroaching. In puddles and potholes, in the slush that forms in the post-holed boot print, in the raised garden beds, in the shoveled out space around the pickup, and in the big world too. The state department of ecology predicts that average temperatures in Washington will be almost two degrees higher in the 2020s and three degrees in the 2040s. Milder winters on deck. More rain, less snow. We can try to pretend they’re wrong. But they’re not.

Remember, we’ll say someday, when we used to shovel snow.