Snow good enough to eat

A snow date sounds like a most delectable fruit: chewy at first, but quickly dissolving on the tongue. Fanciful? Perhaps, but don’t laugh. When I was a kid, my mother used to make snow ice cream.

Back then, a new snowfall could be wonderful in so many ways. First and foremost, it might let us stay home from school (not always a given in the bad old days before the fear of litigation overwhelmed common sense). It promised the highest and purest forms of outdoor adventure: sledding and tobogganing; snowmen and snow forts and snowball battles; and the elemental pleasure of walking spellbound through a transfigured forest. After a long day out in the snow, it gave one a good feeling to strip off wet boots, socks and pants and pile them to dry behind the woodstove. And sometimes, right before dinner, Mom would give one of us a bowl to fill with fresh, unmarked snow – “I’m making snow ice cream for dessert tonight!” Magic words!

These habits were formed in Maine in the late sixties, then transferred to central Pennsylvania where we moved in 1971, when I was five. For most of the 70s, snowy winters were the norm, back before global climate change really began to have a noticeable impact. Since then, it’s been hit-or-miss; 2001-2002 was the Year Without a Winter. But now that we’ve entered a strange new cycle of heavy precipitation, which began early last March, the snow is back with a vengeance. I feel some of the excitement of my childhood returning. This morning’s snowstorm lured me out for over an hour, wallowing along in snowshoes through the woods, my glasses fogging up repeatedly from the exertion.

When I drop down to the road and divest myself of snowshoes for the walk back up the hollow, it is absolutely quiet except for the faint trickling of the stream and the shhh of flakes against tree trunks and branches. I resign myself to walking without glasses – it is simply too much trouble to keep them clear. As soon as I take them off all detail is lost; I am myopic as an owl in daylight. I feel suddenly small and vulnerable. A hint of nameless panic rises in my chest for a second or two before I can shake it off. What if the winter never ends? How long would my perverse enjoyment of the season hold out?

The new snow – 8 or 9 inches already – has obscured all the spots along the road bank where the white-tailed deer have been pawing down through the snow in search of edible scraps of rhizomes and dried leaves. They’re starving. There was virtually no acorn crop, and their numbers are up as a result of poor hunting success: high winds and heavy snows conspired to keep hunters from connecting with their quarry on the biggest days of the regular deer season. Already we have eaten the last of this year’s venison steak. I fear for all the evergreen seedlings – white pine and pitch pine, hemlock and rhododendron -that have yet to make it above the browse line. A half-dozen years of good hunting had given them a respite, and I was beginning to nourish hopes of the woods someday recovering even a normal herbaceous layer.

Now those hopes are in jeopardy. In the course of my brief walk this morning I have already scared up five deer. As I watch them flounder through the ever-deepening snow, my emotions are a peculiar mix of pity and a cruel hope: not necessarily that they will starve to death, but at least that the coyotes will get quite a few of them before the winter’s out. All it would take, my father commented this morning, would be a good freezing rain on top of a couple feet of snow. Enough of a crust to give firm footing to the coyotes would mean death to as many deer as they had time and appetite to chase down. From what I read, the eastern coyote is already having a significant impact on populations of adult deer in the Adirondacks, where deep snows confine them to yarding areas every winter. This won’t make up for the eradication of the top predators, cougars and wolves, whose year-round predation would compel the deer to completely alter their feeding habits. But it might help a bit.

These kinds of mixed feelings are precisely what make us pine for the simplicity of childhood, I think. Back then, the only serpent in the garden was the far-off and easily ignored payment that would be exacted for our unscheduled holidays: I mean the real snow dates, those awful make-up days that could fill an extra week or two in early June. Climate change was barely a rumor in the 1970s. Children and adults alike were spared the angst of having to decide whether any given weather event was “natural” and a thing to be celebrated, or might in fact be the unnatural result of our mushrooming numbers and our collective over-consumption of fossil fuels. For me, I think the innocence began to fade around 1980, when the news about acid precipitation first hit it big. Here in the mountains of central Pennsylvania, downwind from the coal-fired power plants of the Ohio Valley, acid rain monitors have recorded some of the lowest pH readings in the country. Winter, we learned, could be the worst time of year for acid deposition, especially from the increasingly frequent ice storms and the ridge-hugging fogs that accompanied them.

With all the worries about air pollution, my mother stopped making snow ice cream. Right about the same time, our neighbors began clearcutting their sections of the forest, and fed with easy browse the deer numbers skyrocketed. From my father’s decade-long battle to preserve our access road and watershed from the worst effects of lumbering, I learned perhaps the most valuable and most scarring lesson that can mark one’s passage into adulthood: that you have to fight for what you love. No victories are permanent, and nothing should ever be taken for granted.

The woods are in some ways a little wilder now than in my childhood. Black bear were once so scarce that we could raise bees without any fencing. Now, our end of the mountain is part of the home range of a female bear who raises a new litter of cubs every two years. Ospreys and bald eagles are increasingly common along the larger streams in the vicinity. Fishers have repopulated the area following almost a century of absence. Most marvelous of all is the arrival of the eastern coyote – not an original inhabitant, but with enough wolf genes to qualify as an honorary native. And sightings of cougars in the East become every year more numerous and harder to dismiss.

Are we foolish to hope for comparable success with efforts to reverse global climate change? The unholy alliance of multinational corporate power and an increasingly imperial United States government certainly seems intractable. On the other hand, due in large part to the unremitting agitation of untold thousands of activists over the last couple decades, power plants are slowly cleaning up their act. If the northeastern states are successful in their efforts to strengthen the Clean Air Act and call the power industry to accounts, it’s just barely conceivable that someday snow will once again be good enough to eat.
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My mother says she doesn’t remember the recipe she used for snow ice cream. Here’s one I found on-line that’s probably pretty close. The author’s childhood memories mirror mine.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

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