A Season of Bronze

Record low temperatures and two whipping windy snowfalls brought autumn’s flaming colors down to the ground. Last week saw the peak of color in St. Louis. Then, on Monday, white snow came down to mingle with the falling leaves, and the flakes took the reds and the oranges down with them.

Even within autumn itself, there are four seasons. First comes the season of dusty green, September’s hint that summer has come to a close. Next comes the season of yellow, with the locust trees and the sycamores. Then come the oranges and reds of maples, ashes, and oaks. Last of all is the season of bronze.

It’s this last season that we are in right now. Only the deepest reds, the darkest yellows, and the rustiest browns hold onto their branches. Already, many look outside their windows and declare that fall is over and the color has passed.

But really, it’s just a different kind of color. Subtler, softer. Less loud. Earthy browns against a pale blue sky. Autumn is exhaling. It’s during this quiet time that winter will sneak in right under our noses. But anyone who would say that the fall color has gone for good need only look to see the copper-orange needles of a bald cypress backlit and flaming in the soft light of an early-setting sun.

Snowstorm in a City Somewhat Accustomed

First there are the whispers. The weatherman says snow, but we are doubtful. We’ve all got a boy-who-cried-wolf story about a St. Louis forecast. We poo-poo and pish-posh and ho-hum. Then we go about our week. Only the kids take it seriously because they know unless they believe with all their might, they won’t get their snow day.

Then comes the preparation. The shrugging-it-off gives way to MoDot trucks and landlords salting the sidewalks. Now begins the rush to the grocery store. Everybody’s got to get their soup, their snowmelt, their sleds and their scrapers. At a Kingshighway gas station on Friday afternoon, a man stood in line at the checkout, clutching one windshield scraper in each hand. “Lucky man,” said the cashier. “You got the last two!” The man in line behind him let out a gasp—he’d been waiting to ask the employee if they had any in stock. The first man took pity on him and gifted him one of his two new scrapers—“Well, I’d be evil not to!” he said.

The city-wide anticipation rises to a panic as even the most determined of the naysayers give in and run out on last-minute missions. So begins the fervor. Dad’s at Dierbergs calling mom to see if they’ve got flour in the pantry. The kids are hollering. Target sells out of sleds. Highways pack tight with people fleeing for the homestead. On the unplowed neighborhood backroads, little cars are pushed uphill by friendly neighbors. The bartenders and baristas pray that the owner will have the goodwill and decency to call up and set them free before their car gets buried. Some are luckier than others. Then the telltale blue banner goes up on the bottom of the screen on the local news: here they come, the closings. The students are giddy.

And here in the midst of the fever-pitch-frenzy comes the reveal: it has come. They were dead-on, right on the money. The snow is here, and here in huge mounds…it’s coming down and it’s stopping for nobody. The highway is jam-packed, come to a stop. For every living creature in town, this storm is the highlight of the day.

In St. Louis, we all know what to do when a big snow hits. We aren’t unaccustomed to snowstorms. We aren’t afraid. The panic that overtakes the city doesn’t come from fear—it comes from an insatiable urge to launch into those old snow day rituals we partake in every time. God forbid you get caught without cookie dough or hot chocolate! You won’t have another day like this for God-knows-how-long. So after you’ve made it through the treacherous traffic, the holiday commences. You shut the door behind you and split a six-pack with your significant other. You suit up to go sledding or shovel neighbors’ driveways. You swap horror stories about the traffic with everyone you see. When the whole city comes to a halt, anybody who’s able will gladly take their customary sabbatical. It’s tradition!

Whatever you do, don’t miss the most precious moment of these snows. Late at night, when everyone else is asleep, crack open your door and take a long look. The soft white glow lights the night sky almost lavender. And listen. The downy drifts soak up the noise of the city. Even the sounds you can hear seem distant, soft. There is the sense that nothing could go wrong on this night. All is peaceful. All is well. A summer night holds a buzzing energy, the heat of potential and possibility. But a snowy night holds you in its palm and whispers, “rest.” So close the door behind you, and, turning in for a snug winter sleep, surrender.

Unpredictable December

December is a month that reminds us that we can’t anticipate everything. This year it began with snow, ice, and a bitter cold that’s faded now into rain, fog, and a mild chill more reminiscent of fall than winter. Comforting as it is to enjoy the warmer days or stay cozied up inside, everybody’s bound to be caught by surprise sometime this winter. Early this month, a spit of unforecasted sleet caused a midday exodus from the Missouri Botanical Garden. A woman ran for her car with her child so stiffly bundled in a puffy pink coat that she bounced helplessly on her mother’s shoulders. A middle-aged man hunched headfirst into the wind. He plowed on forward, slow and steady, looking not surprised by the weather, but personally offended. A group of brightly-dressed third-graders marched in a long, trailing line behind their steadfast teacher. She walked with calm posture and her head held high, a quiet “don’t-you-dare” as she led them back towards the school nearby. The children, bouncing and laughing, seemed hardly to notice the spitting sleet.

Winters in St. Louis are like this: unpredictable. The average amount of snowfall in December is 4.4 inches, but that number doesn’t reflect the wide range of each year on record. It isn’t unusual to get less than an inch of snow in December, nor is it unusual to get close to eight inches. And the average low temperature doesn’t usually get too cold until January, but anyone who’s lived here awhile knows that there’s plenty chance of a plummet at any moment. Missouri’s climate is notorious for being all over the place, and so many things besides the cold can make for a fiercer winter: the bitter wind racing between the buildings downtown and creaking the old, tired trees; sharp little sleet pellets biting at the face; the dry winter air cracking the fingers and palms of a people so used to sauna-like summers. And yet, a week out, many of us are checking the forecast and crossing our fingers for a cold, snowy Christmas Eve.

Maybe that’s why the old, familiar traditions of the holidays feel so comforting and warm. In the face of the cold outside and the uncertainty of an upcoming new year, we treasure this holiday for which our oldest friends and closest family members will gather together and do those things which we have always done. That’s why a warm Christmas Day in St. Louis always feels unsavory even to those who hate the cold the most—even if it’s just for a day each year, we want to feel that there is a supernatural warmth that comes from sharing gifts and customs with the people we care about in spite of the harshness of the world outside. As for whether we’ll get a cold and snowy Christmas this year, there’s not much to do but wait and see.

Autumn Snow

November thirteenth in St. Louis and already it’s snowed twice and is predicted to snow again later this week. The Farmers’ Almanac says it’s gonna be a “teeth-chattering-cold” winter chock-full of snow, and seeing as the first snowfall in St. Louis doesn’t happen ’til mid-December during average winters, we are well on our way to prove the Almanac right.

The cold came early this year and came blowing in fierce. Just a week ago, the leaves were teetering over the peak of their fall colors. A few trees were still as green as they were in September. Then came the first snowflakes of the season on Thursday. But instead of waking up to a white winter wonderland, we awoke the next morning to a thick layer of leaves. Yellows, reds, and browns covered the ground with the same bulkiness of a blanket of snow, an absolute slathering. Many of the green leaves fell with them. The cold took them all at once. The leaf-drop was so sudden and so thorough that it seemed supernatural, and on Friday two girls walking home from Rosati-Kain looked up at the branches and spoke of a huge, lumbering creature in the trees cracking open a piñata.

The result of this mass falling is an unfamiliar musk hanging around the trees. We’re used to the crisp, bright, earthy smell that comes from crunchy, colored leaves. But walk through any tree-crowded area this week and you’ll notice a sort of damp sweetness kicking up, something like freshly mowed grass. That’s the smell of the leaves that were still green, dying now on the sidewalks instead of on their branches. That funk in the air and snow on the grass and legions of leaves on the ground, now graying-greens mixed with bright yellow, tells anyone who still dared to doubt otherwise that we’ve got an early winter on our hands.