Thursday, December 25, 2008

`A Certain Dim Religious Light'

Being outdoors on Christmas Eve felt like being indoors, only colder. The sky was a dim gray ceiling. Fat flakes fell and heaped on the branches of the Alaska cedar. The aggregate weight compacted the tree into an isosceles triangle. The boys built a crenellated wall of ice and snow along the driveway. Furious shopping raged a mile from our neighborhood, I’m certain, but snow absorbed the din. My favorite sentence about snow comes from the notebook Gerard Manley Hopkins was keeping on Dec. 12, 1872:

“Ground sheeted with taut tattered streaks of crisp gritty snow.”

Who else would modify “snow” with “taut tattered?” Wednesday’s snow was moist, not crisp, ideal for packing. I remember the animal joy we took in hiding beneath a bridge along Pearl Road with a pile of hard snowballs, waiting for trucks to pass. The goal was to hit the side of the trailers hard enough to produce a satisfying thwock! and then dive out of sight below the bridge. In his journal for Dec. 17, 1851, Thoreau described this sort of snow:

“The pitch pine woods on the right of the Corner road. A piercing cold afternoon, wading in the snow. R. Rice was going to Sudbury to put his bees in the cellar for fear they would freeze. He had a small hive; not enough to keep each other warm. The pitch pines hold the snow well. It lies now in balls on their plumes and in streaks on their branches, their low branches rising at a small angle and meeting each other. A certain dim religious light comes through this roof of pine leaves and snow. It is a somber twilight, yet in some places the sun streams in, producing the strongest contrasts of light and shade.”

Thoreau turns outdoors into indoors with “A certain dim religious light.” A pitch pine woods is the sort of church he might attend.

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