An extravagance of snowflakes

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Note: I wrote this a couple of weeks ago in mid-January. Since then the snow has melted, we indeed had a 60-degree day last weekend … and now everything is covered with ice and my dad has slipped and broken his ankle. Such is life in Kansas during the winter. The day after the great snow fell I drove out to a lovely huge park not far from our house and captured some of the magic of the woods with my camera.

“There is about us, if only we have eyes to see, a creation of such spectacular profusion, spendthrift richness, and absurd detail, as to make us catch our breath in astonished wonder.” – Michael Mayne

Winter doesn’t always bring snow to my neck of the Middle West. Sometimes we get freezing rain, sometimes we get 60-degree days in February, and sometimes we just have long stretches of frigid weather where the ground turns rock-hard and the faces of the limestone bluffs become encrusted with stalactites of ice.  But this season the snow has visited us again – three times before winter even officially started, and twice more since the new year.

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The first of these January snows started at around 2:30 on a Friday afternoon. Big, fluffy, sloppy flakes started silently pouring from the sky. They splatted on the street and on my windshield as I drove home, but my wipers easily squeegeed them away. By 3:30, when I looked out my window to the backyard and our forlorn garden, the tired brown grass had already given way to white. When I went to bed that night it was still snowing; when I woke up the next morning, every twig on the elm outside the window was frosted a good two inches deep with snow. And still it came.

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By the time it stopped on Saturday evening, the snow stood six inches deep in our yard. The yew bushes and pine boughs bowed to the ground under its weight. I looked out over the field behind our house to the lamppost on a neighboring street and thought I was in Lantern Waste, waiting for Mr. Tumnus to come along with Lucy. Everything anywhere I looked was white, white, white with snow, and I couldn’t absorb it all. Yet I couldn’t stop drinking in the beauty.

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We all know the saying that “no two snowflakes are alike – each one is unique.” Though over-used to the point of triteness, it’s nevertheless true – scientists do say it’s possible some underdeveloped flakes could have differences so infinitesimal as to be unnoticeable under a microscope, but the likelihood of finding and identifying those twin flakes is equally small.

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Have you ever tried counting snowflakes? Have you kept close watch at the window, cataloguing every one that rushed past the panes to join its brothers and sisters in the growing drifts? Have you stood outside, numbering every flake that starred your hair or freckled your cheeks? How long were you able to keep track? What was your tally for the day? As they fell on and around you, did you catch every particular, individual detail of every six-sided icy artwork?

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Neither did I.

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For the couple of days after the snow I was in perpetual awe. Everything was so beautiful! Even the scrubby, weedy brush patches and the chain-link fences were endowed with a magical grace. But then the work week started again, and as I chugged down gray-gritted streets and trudged through salty parking lots my response shifted to ugh, snow. When I caught myself complaining one day, I forced myself to think not of “snow” en masse, but of each individual snowflake. And I tried calculating the number of snowflakes that fell in my yard.

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According to a 2007 LiveScience interview with cloud physicist Jon Nelson, there are about a billion snowflakes in a cubic foot of snow. A billion – just in one cubic foot! But there was far more snow in our yard than that. After engaging in more mathematical calculations than I’ve willingly done since I-don’t-remember-when, I figured we were playing host to roughly 10 trillion, 890 billion snowflakes [10,890,000,000,000]. Jon Nelson, the cloud physicist, estimates that 1 million billion cubic feet of snow falls on the Earth each year. Just imagine how many snowflakes that is! No, I can’t fathom it either.

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Yet God knows each of these snowflakes individually. He hand-crafts them, knowing and marking each change in temperature, each shift in humidity, each direction of the wind that produces different patterns and crystal structures. God witnesses the flight path and the landing place of each tiny masterpiece, every winter, all over the world. He knows which ones will melt before they hit the ground, which ones will join avalanches, and which ones, over time, will form glaciers of icy blue. How can He keep doing it, 1 million billion times 1 billion snowflakes a year, every year, since the time He first created them?

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G.K. Chesterton, in his book “Orthodoxy,” addresses this idea of God’s tireless creativity. He writes:

“The sun rises every morning. I do not rise every morning; but the variation is due not to my activity, but to my inaction. Now, to put the matter in a popular phrase, it might be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush of life. The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, ‘Do it again’; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

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The snow is melting now; only a few white patches remain on the expanse of damp, squishy lawn. Who knows if the individual crystals have remained distinct, or whether the sun’s warmth has melded them together. But God still knows they existed, still remembers crafting them, still can trace each unrepeated shape down to the most minute of details.

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If God so extravagantly loves and remembers the ephemeral snowflakes, billions of which are never seen by any eyes but His own …

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how extravagantly does He not also love and remember you?

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