Thoughts on a winter day in Portland

Snow in Portland, a strange and wondrous thing.

I have been two years in a city now after 25 in the deep, lightless country, and I have gotten used to it. There is much to be said for urban life, but much is lost, as well.

This odd and infrequent snow and the subsequent ice have been both a reminder and a revelation.

Silence takes many shapes. In the deep Minnesota north it was a noisy silence, alive with the great sweep of winds across great distances and the almost subaudible response of the forests as they moved in response. When snow came, all was muffled, and it became a soft silence, as it does everywhere, city or country, when heavy snow falls.

Portland is in the American northwest, a swath of rainforest in America’s upper left corner, and it is rich and verdant — a jungle in a minor key. In the winter here it is not distance that speaks, but closeness — tangles and varieties of foliage responding to the incessant patter and occasional wash of rain, closing down on you and turning you inward. You move inside yourself; you are not drawn outward. And it is a city, and in a city, except for those few moments when snow falls heavily, there is no silence.

But here something different has happened. The snow was followed by rain, and all has turned to glaze ice. Where we are, miles from major arteries where the traffic still attempts to flow, all is frozen into a sharp and brittle silence. Nothing is moving. You cannot drive; you can barely walk. The few vehicles that try to move slide off the road like a plate on a slippery, canted counter, and soon enough give up or lie helpless in a ditch. It is not prudence that has stopped the people; it is nature herself. This is an urban stillness like I have never heard.

The simple difference from the sharp edged silence of a northern winter day, or the deep, soft silence of the world in heavy snowfall, is enough to make this icebound world a source of fascination. But it is the quality of the silence, and its unlikely presence in an urban setting, that makes it so delicious and irresistible.

Snow in an urban setting muffles sound, but it does not stop all movement. The underlying urban hum still remains, hidden from our ears but present on a level far beneath hearing. This silence of the ice has frozen the city in place. There are no services to attack the immobility – plows, sanding trucks, snowblowers. The grim faced and insistent cannot defy the physical reality of this ice and drive off against all reason, cutting through the silence with a swath of sound. We, too, are frozen here, and we listen to a silence we seldom hear.

I am used to a world where winter brings a fine attention. This is a different world, where winter fosters inward meditation. To awake to a day where the city, and its very purpose for being, is defeated by the forces of nature and opens outward to a great and empty silence is a wondrous thing. It reminds me of why I live here and of what I have lost. Cities, by and large, are beehives of the human, filled with the richness of human creation, and this is one of the best I have known. But holy silence is a gift that cannot be measured, and one that we too quickly forget in an urban setting.

It is a good day to be alive.

10 comments

  1. R. Martin says:

    A few years ago I moved from CT to Asheville, NC and from a suburb to a city neighborhood. Neither were ever very silent and I now appreciate those winter days in CT when snow stopped the traffic and muffled all the noise. However, the best silence is when I am in the wilderness either backpacking or canoeing. But even nature is not silent because you can hear the wind blowing through the trees, the sound of loons chattering on the lake or even the sound of wings flapping as a bird travels overhead. I always make sure when I am out in the woods with my grandkids that just for a few moments they stop and listen to the silence. And the longer they listen the more they realize that even silence has a sound.

  2. Karyn says:

    From the Land of Fat Down Jackets and Frosty Mittens, your absence is noted.

  3. Shelley says:

    Yes, silence can be deafening, can’t it….and that is when most truths come out, if you take the time to listen…

    Thanks for reminding me why I read everything you write, Mr. Nerburn !!

  4. Diane says:

    Thank you for this positive note to start January, to start the week, to start the day. As always, I enjoy your writing full of exquisite description. I feel like I am there and for a moment I am experiencing the snow, rain and ice. I too love Portland… There is a richness there. Thank you for reminding me of the variation and power of silence. Thank you for sharing your writing talent. Your insight is a gift to us all

  5. Marc Allen says:

    Beautiful words, Kent! Somehow you manage to give me an experience of your winter that’s deeper than I’d have if I was right there in your world seeing it “frozen into a sharp and brittle silence.”

    Keep writing! Don’t you have a new book that’s due?

  6. As a Wisconsin boy living in CA, your brief essay reminded me of my youth when I first noticed the quietness brought on by a heavy snow. Thank you for the beautiful thoughts.

  7. knerburn says:

    January 31st, and not a day sooner.

  8. Krystyn Knights says:

    I lived in Portland for a few years before St. Helen’s blew, we left a few months before that. I remember those instances you spoke off, the snow would bring a sudden halt to all movement. It struck me as funny after being in MN most of my life, we would go on in it, there were plows, salters, and life continued! Now I am in TN and winters are much like Portland. It may snow, life will stop for however long it takes for nature to do her thing and melt the ice and snow. I love it!!!

  9. Bill says:

    A friend gave me your website address. Enjoyed your article very much. My wife and I moved from a very rural, cold-climate area to a much warmer, urban area. Thought we’d have difficulty adjusting but there are so many ways to be outside and back to nature.

    The new year is an opportunity to bury yesterday and birth tomorrow. If you’re anything like me, you can’t forget the past. But we can place memories that are making us prisoners of yesterday in a casket and put our hopes and dreams for tomorrow in a cradle. A powerful way to explore your past for things that are holding you back (Ugh!) and things that could move you forward (Yeah!) is to write a memoir. More at my website for those interested.

  10. Paige Knight says:

    Having lived in the Portland area for the last nearly 4 decades, I feel that “sudden hush, all over the world” when snow falls. During my years of teaching high school here, a snow day or ice day, or in one year a 3rd week of winter break, always felt like “free days”. You heard the silence upon waking and it was magic. A few years ago school was called off, I spent the morning in pajamas in leisure at breakfast, at the computer, when my son called out to me to come look at a peregrine falcon sitting in our cherry tree eating a dove. It can sound gross, but there was a simple beauty to the natural cycle of life.

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