You are here: Home » Reports by Year and Month » 2011 » ERTHAWARE Report #197 “Finding the Extraordinary in the Ordinary”
Feb 262011

Dear ERTHAWARE Travelers,

Behind our cottage we have a small barn that was built at the beginning of the 20th century. It is made of rough-sawn old growth lumber. The grandparents of the couple who built the first cabin here over a century ago (that became our cottage) lived in this uninsulated barn. Tough people. It now acts as our storage shed, pantry and wood-working shop. The picture below is of the eastern facade facing the back of our cottage.

Obviously, the picture was taken 2 days ago in the midst of a snow storm. Yes, in this relatively mild marine, rain-shadow climate we occasionally get a snow storm at the end of February — but not often. However, this is nothing like what our friends and family in the mid-Atlantic States and New England have been getting this winter. For us — 8 inches <(20 cm) fell in our yard with this storm. Even though we live as far north as the northern tip of Maine, this is big-time winter here on the Quimper Peninsula at sea level. It’s a different story for the lofty glaciated mountain peaks in our backyard that can easily get over a 100 feet (30 meters) a year.

On the side of the barn is a rickety stairway that leads to a loft where hay was once stored. After a few hours of snowing there was a thick cotton coating on the hand rail. I decided to take my camera and look at the flakes of snow landing on the rail.

There are fabulous picture books of photographed snow-flakes using sophisticated laboratory microscopes and special lighting techniques in a pristine chilled environment. Amazing stuff! I cannot duplicate that. This is one of the down sides of a very limited budget. How I envy that expanded possibility. But the up-side of limitation is the adventure of being creative and making do with what’s at hand. I have no way of flattening out a snow flake on a chilled slide under a microscope to get exact detail. So I go in situ, out into the storm, snow flying onto the lens, cascading down the back of my neck, my eye glasses fogging, shoes soaked, fingers numb. My high-tech lighting is a small AAA battery LED flashlight I purchased at Costco to use in our poorly lit furnace crawl space. I stop down the lens opening to f22 for depth of field. But at this close range, even that is limited. So, for what it’s worth, the picture below is of a couple of flakes on the hand-rail of the barn stairway.

Behind the barn we keep our black plastic transplanting buckets. I turned one over and on the minutely speckled black surface I waited to see what would land on it in the next minute. An exotic invasion. I wondered if the physical algorithm of the star shaped snowflakes had any concurrence to the development of a star fish or some jelly fish. Maybe it is a matter of mathematical fractals or the interesting logic of crystal formation. The imagination runs…. Or is this some distant place in outer space?

As I mentioned in our last REPORT, we are restoring our cottage to hopefully last the remainder of our lifetime. The carpenters left several saw horses in the backyard before the storm hit. It now has a pile of fluffy snow rimming the top. So I took a close look at that pile and back-lit a tiny section with my little flashlight. This way I could silhouette the fragile snow flakes. The flakes were piled like a bunch of clambering stiff legged insects with big air spaces trapped in-between. This is what makes snow such a great insulator, almost like the filling of a lofted down comforter. I’m not crazy. It’s true!

Years ago my late dad and I were trekking in waist deep snow in an ancient glacial valley of the Olympic Mountain wilderness. It is called post-holing. Exhausting and slow progress! My 5’8″ (173 cm) dad who is long waisted and short legged and has asthma was fighting valiantly on without complaint. (This was his nature — never to complain, never a victim, or defeatist or a self-referential martyr.) Light was fading fast in the magnificent old growth forest and from our labored struggle through the snow we were not even close to our destination. Furthermore the temperature was dropping rapidly and we could feel chill creeping into our bones. The tragedy was that we had no tent since we were counting on reaching a shelter. We must make a survival camp somehow.

I said to dad: “Let’s look for a big fallen tree that is somewhat suspended above the ground.” In about 15 minutes we discovered a large 5′ thick (1.52 meters) Douglas Fir lying prone, most likely 200’+(61+ meters) long. Fortunately it had fallen over another tree, so probably there was some empty space underneath. It was covered with 4-6 feet of snow on all sides. I dug through the side bank of snow, and, glory-be, underneath was a perfect cigar shaped air pocket just long enough for our bodies to recline feet to feet. We lined the bottom with fir boughs, stretched out our pads and down bags, sealed up the entrance with several blocks of snow — but leaving a breathing hole — made a shelf for two candles, and with our body heat filling the cavity, we stripped down and had a most comfortable night. This was our quickly made life saving snow cave. Meanwhile the temperature outside tumbled.

Snow, when understood and used to one’s advantage, can be a great insulator in severe weather, a life saver. Natives in the north countries know this survival wisdom. The great epic Soviet film “Dersu Uzala” has a scene where the supposedly uncivilized Siberian native guide Dersu saves a dandy, spit-polish military officer of high rank from Saint Petersburg during a raging blizzard. This officer suddenly realizes that “high class” and prejudiced pedigree counts for little in the real world. It is local knowledge, wisdom and loyalty that counts. The old Arctic hunter becomes the true hero in the officer’s eyes.

During the Nazi occupation of Norway, the Norwegian underground partisan, Jan Baalsrud, escaped detection in mid-winter by living in emergency snow caves. Certainly the native tribes of the Arctic know the value of igloos. When it is minus 60 degrees and windy outside, it is 90 degrees warmer without wind-chill in the igloo. Then add the body heat of family within the igloo and it is Tampa Bay all the way — at least for them.

It snowed two days ago, and Interstate Highway 5 north of Everett was snarled. I heard many complaints at the grocery store about this awful weather. The repeated wishes were for escape. But curiosity and wonder impels us to see — to see the extraordinary in the dissatisfying ordinary, the magnificence in the mundane, the beauty in the banalities of life. Otherwise we can become unthinking manipulated slaves of programmed dullness — yes, seeing what the habitual social expectations around us dictate us to see, but essentially blind. I must remind myself often to combat this mind and soul numbing disease, but rather, open to discovery and celebration — here — and now. And it doesn’t cost much! It is in such “at home” adventures that scientists and artists and mystics are born.

On the journey,

Hugs from Lynn and me

The L.E.A.R.N. Group: non-profit
2204 Chestnut St.
Port Townsend, WA. 98368 USA

this project of appreciating our little planet and its life systems through art and word is gratefully carried on through your donations


Hello. Welcome to the Blog version of Erthaware Report. I have been photographing nature for over 40 years and writing about it for almost that long as well. I hope you like the content of this site and come back often!

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.