First Snow

by Naira de Gracia

           It snows all day while I am at work, and I spy the shifting skies from my station next to the bakery’s wood oven. The long-awaited first snowfall of the year. The colors that pour in through the window change all day: grey, blue, yellow, white. It’s grey in the morning, when I build sandwiches for the case, green at noon as I chop deep orange sweet potatoes. At one, the sun beams into the bakery, and still, the snow falls. The light makes dramatic angled shadows of the balls of pumpkin cookie dough I am about to bake off. At two I light the wood in the oven, throwing in pieces of used parchment paper, the aroma of drying cedar wafting around me. I lean my arms on the mouth of the oven, waiting for the branches to catch, peering into the building flames, feeling the emanating heat on my skin like sunshine on a warm summer day. Cedar smoke spills from the narrow brick entryway and shoots up the chimney, out into the crisp air and gently falling flakes.

           As I wipe down the table, massage red cabbage into sauerkraut, wash dishes, I peer out the window, wondering at the snow. At four I head outside to take out some trash. Grey billowing clouds greet me and the chill washes over my arms— a welcome shock. I stand in shadow, but beams of light are just poking out and landing on the ridge, a thousand feet up, alighting on a wash of frosted trees over a white-grey ground. Down here in town, the snow has turned to rain, but up on the ridge, where I live, it is still falling. I stare at it, willing myself to be there as rain spits on my greasy kitchen apron.

            Up high we get the best of the weather, which has remained stubbornly warm well into November. We all know weather patterns are changing. There is not as much ice in the Arctic left to reflect the sun’s rays back into space. Instead, the ocean, dark and penetrable, takes all the energy into itself, warming. Large bodies of water cool slowly, and when temperatures plummet as the seasons change, they emit the heat languorously, reluctantly, and late. A wave of radiating heat from the ocean moved down from the Arctic to tick up the degrees in Alaska all autumn and into the winter. Folks at the bakery had been commenting on the snow all day: “We used to get the first snow right at the beginning of November, sometimes earlier.”

           “There were years when we’d be trick-or-treating in the snow.”

           “It’s been so freakishly warm. So much rain.”

           Finally, I wash out the sink at three minutes before five, draining the dishwasher and hitting the lights at one minute before five. I walk out the back of the bakery into the evening, already darkening to almost night, what little light there was now blue. I clamber into Matt’s truck, and as we drive up the hill, the spitting rain on the windshield becomes snow.  Small, round flakes, drifting down, and we move through them like stars.

           “Driving through falling snow always makes me think of Star Wars” Matt says.

           “Yeah…. like we went into light-speed or warp-speed or whatever they call it”

           As we lumber up the hill, in a green Tacoma he named Wilbur for its age and reluctance, the snow begins to accumulate. At the top of the hill, sky already inky blue, I can only see what the headlights sweep across, black spruce trees covered in snow, a dusting on the ground, dead fireweed that stood tall yesterday now buckled under the weight of it. Meadows that were impassable turned into a field of fallen soldiers. We drive into our little cabin driveway, half a mile long, and bump along on the dirt road. The trees begin to close in, each branch highlighted by the cover of white, black-and white shapes in the darkness.

           I don’t know snow like this. I’ve only known snow as it blew and built up on an island in the Antarctic peninsula, where Matt and I used to work, and where there were no trees. The textures of snowfall were rocks, hills, a windswept, barren place. Penguins slogged through it, seals slid down it, we stepped through the snow on snowshoes, bracing against the wind. It did not fall so much as hurl itself at anything in its way. There were no trees to hold it, no bushes to bow under it, no grass to smother. The bare earth took the snow like a throne its king, and rested beneath it, stark and luminescent. Here, the obstacles abounded: boughs, bushes, boulders, cars, the slanted roof of our cabin overlooking the bay. We turn off all the lights inside the cabin and turn on the two that shine out into the night, in front and in back. The snow whirls past our windows, dancing in sudden gusts and small tornadoes of white, catching the light from our bulbs and throwing it about.

           We go for a walk at seven, venturing into what feels like a deep, dark night. Everything is hushed: the snow tempers all sounds, save the crunch of our feet through fresh powder, and the errant clump falling from an overburdened spruce bough. The clouds have cleared and the snow reflects the pale blue light of a starry sky. Cassiopeia glimmers through the trees. It seems impossible that there should be so much light on a yet moonless night, but the whiteness emits its own glow, giving form to all the shapes it has smothered. A bank of hibernating bushes, before all twigs, now highlighted white and carrying delicate orbs of snow on twig-tips. I am astounded. I have never seen snow like this— a cloak on a forest, drawing its outlines so clearly in the night.

           We crunch along on a narrow trail, and I ask Matt if he’d been in touch with a friend of ours, whose husband had just asked her for a divorce. Unhappy here, she’d moved to a different city expecting her husband to follow her eventually, but he didn’t, and besides from selling her things she’d also found out there was another woman. I could not imagine her pain, but Matt could, having had his heart torn out like this before. When he tried to describe it to me, his eyes took on a pained, faraway expression. I have never loved hard enough to be broken like that. I was thinking about her today, about this thing she said: I feel like my life is over.

           The night is subdued, only the whisper of fresh powder breaks the stillness. I take spruce twigs into my mouth and the tree’s sharp aroma fills my nose as the snow melts on my tongue. I want to kiss the earth for giving me this. Breathing in the crisp forest air, I think about the kind of pain that makes you feel like this world, in all its beautiful snow and trees and stars, cannot not save you. The kind of pain that makes you feel like this life, with its crisp air and soft footsteps, was over. I wonder if someday, far in the future, or maybe not so far, the snow just won’t come. The oceans will be so warm that it will turn to rain before reaching us, and this new world I’ve just begun to discover will be an old love lost for everyone in this town. I wonder what that kind of heartbreak could do, when our love for the earth is so powerful that it could break us.

About the Author

Naira is a student living in New Zealand completing her Master’s in Conservation Biology. She grew up in 7 different countries, and after graduating High School in Cairo, Egypt, she moved to California for college. After her bachelor’s in biology she worked as a wildlife field technician for 5 years on remote islands. She is interested in the western relationship to the natural world and the cultural impacts of climate change.