One of the advantages of the mostly snowless winters in western North Carolina is the…
Brown Winter Woods and Diamond Dust in the Smokies
I miss snow.
As someone who grew up in northern New England, where snowbanks can be shoulder high at this time of year, I sometimes miss the white stuff. Okay, I often miss the white stuff. Our recent single-digit cold snap notwithstanding, it’s usually too warm for snow to stick around long, even when we do get some. Here in the North Carolina Smokies the winter is usually decidedly brown. Unable to cross-country ski or delight in the sun sparkling on deep drifts of fresh powder, I used to think it was boring to look at.
In winter, praise the cold. Don’t walk fast. Delight in the ordinary. A mountain path has a life of its own. Darting here and there, it has discovered through time the perfect route across a given landscape. Your feet will find their way over worn ground.”
But in the nearly 40 years I’ve lived here I have come to appreciate the winters in the Southern Appalachians, particularly when it comes to walking in the woods. Without the close green foliage of summer, bare trees and bushes leave the forest more defined. With little to no snow, traveling the trail requires just sturdy shoes and layered outerwear. Even when there’s a dusting of snow, the path is more easily seen in the winter, and often it can be seen for a long distance. Views are more plentiful. The air is typically cold enough to be crisp, but not cold enough not to freeze gloved hands. Crags and waterfalls may have icicles, but the cold creek water flows freely.
In his essay, Go Alone!, our friend the poet, historian, and naturalist George Ellison has this encouragement about walking in our Southern woods in winter: “In winter, praise the cold. Don’t walk fast. Delight in the ordinary. A mountain path has a life of its own. Darting here and there, it has discovered through time the perfect route across a given landscape. Your feet will find their way over worn ground.”
This cold January hasn’t left us any snow to speak of so far—we had more of that back in December—but there are days when each oak leaf on the forest floor is edged with icy spangles set off by the earliest slanting sunlight. One morning a few weeks ago when the sun rose to temperatures in the teens, the air glittered with sparkling flakes—not snow falling from the sky, but tiny supercooled water droplets in the air turning to ice and reflecting the bright rays like a pixilated prism. It turns out this phenomenon has a name: it’s known as diamond dust, and while it’s more common in colder climes, it’s all the more spectacular against a brown backdrop.
So while blankets of white obscure footpaths in the frozen north, here in the Southern mountains we can see where we’re walking and get there a little bit more easily. We may not have much snow, but there is plenty to experience in the “barren” brown woods. Sometimes less can mean more. No reason to be bored.