The curious case of the unmentioned rainbow snow sparkles

This morning I rose during first light and was in my chair with a cup of Earl Grey when sunlight brushed the eastern edge of the hill across the canyon above Thor’s. Once the sun cleared the ridge and so began streaming across the front yard – which is practically an extension of my living room, thanks to six large windows – I picked up the binoculars to take an Enhanced Vision look at the sparkling snow.

Snow sparklesCROP

And spent the next fifteen minutes lost-found-exploring-endazzled in a bejeweled beauty. Sprinkled along  my line of sight, in an area about ten feet around between the bird feeders and piñon trees (with a second patch further out the same line past the trees), were hundreds of tiny gemstones, vividly alight in all the colors of the rainbow, along with a few fancy colors for good measure (deep teal, bright carnelian).  One little foot-wide hummock of sun-splashed snow sported dozens of just-visible specks of color, a dense scattering of tiny pixie-dust flackes; while beyond across a wider expanse of several feet, larger electric-bright confetti chips glared in brilliant red, vivid blue, warm orange, and piercing green, while just occasionally, a gramma-grass head shone with a spot of attention-grabbing violet, seemingly the rarest of the ice-prism’s children in this dance of color. (The most evocative of very few pictures online, shown here courtesy of AstroBob’s astronomy blog, is less than half the density and intensity of color that I was seeing, and seems to lack the larger pieces.)

I’m puzzled as to why this dazzlingly magical yet really rather common wintry delight isn’t more widely celebrated, commented on, or just plain noticed. Maybe there’s an unspoken pact in the Natural Wonder Society to not speak of this and other similarly subtle-yet-revelatory cracks between the worlds; are some small openings such as this more powerful when they come as a total surprise?

I surely remember the soul-shaking delight I felt on that December morning at El Morro when Jack and I crawled from our tent into a frost-enrobed landscape sparkling briliiant white in the low sun, and walked slowly around the edge of the campground, laughing inside at the raw amazingness of the way the grasses, rocks, and trees all pulsed in a dance of light, individual flakes of ice and snow blinking on and off as we wandered this crystalline world.

And then, we noticed it: the Rainbow Path. It spread from just beyond where we stood, off into the distance, at an angle from the sun blazing there just above the horizon.  In a narrow strip of this expansive field of sparkling frost, the sparks were not shining white diamonds, but All the Colors of the Rainbow….and for the next half-hour, we wandered enraptured in that strip of color – laying down to fill our field of view with the blanket of brilliance, leaning side to side so that the light inside one nearby prism of color rolled from red to orange to yellow and back again, while others nearby went from green to blue – every sparkle in sight shimmering along its own slice of the spectrum. When I slipped my glasses off, the tiny pinpricks of color blurred to three of four times their former size, so up close (within a few feet) these fuzzy circles of color now touched each other’s edges, and their internal color shifts became all the more complex. The landscape as a whole shone with these colorful blurs, as if layed with a wireless network of Christmas tree lights.

Before long, one of us — which one is lost in memory, as befits a journey built on the gifts of discovering the world through four eyes rather than two — brought our shared attention to the other Rainbow Trail. For on mornings such as this, there are always two: one angling off to each side of the sun’s direct rays. These moments, early on crisply cold fall and winter mornings, are not times for math or physics, so I’ve always just imagined the two trails mark the same angle from the sun at which rainbows form and those magnificent circles of color sometimes appear around the sun or moon in icy cloud layers high in the atmosphere, shining in subtle neon shades in the upper reaches of our earthly realm.  But, hey: Angle, Shmangle!  It’s all about the wonder of this yard here in front of me right now, strewn with colorful gemstones of light for a fleeting few minutes on this morning halfway through Advent.

And so this time, I play in a new way: with these binoculars. Rather than going outside and cocking my head around and leaning close and away and taking my glasses off and on as I’ve done two or three times a year ever since that El Morro morning (just about exactly) thirty years ago, today I settle into my chair in a stance that lets my elbows rest, steadying my Visual Enhancement Device, while I roam around this patch of color now gracing the yard I enjoy every day.  The changing of colors is gradual today,  leisurely shifting with the slow easterly spinning of the ground and its encompassing horizon, which brings the sun gradually rightward across the sky, angling low above the ridge across the way.  A flat crystal of snow slowly turns from soft red to brilliant crimson, my attention returning to check in on it periodically after I also notice a snow-covered roll of chicken wire far out by the fence line shift from sparkling white to join in the rainbow moment. I roll the focus knob to travel from that distant patch to the middle field where I check on the crimson spot (ah! a fleeting purple moment nearby) and on to a newly-discovered bit of close ground filled with the tiniest flecks of color.

A titmouse flits into the picture (tweak focus knob to watch as he pulls a seed from the feeder and turns directly toward me) then disappears in a flash out the left side of my view. Juncoes move in and out of the realm beneath the piñons, whose shade separates the colorful spectacles in the yard and that newly-spangled patch of snow by the fence line. A bright flash of movement: rabbit ears aglow with the sun, peachy-yellow atop their host bunny, who wanders along the fence line in a morning grazing session.  I love how the binocs let me get up close and intimate with these creatures ten to thirty feet away!  A couple minutes later, after my gaze wanders awhile more in the colors, a bit of motion behind a piñon trunk catches my eye: just the very tip of the bunny’s nose, whiskers wriggling as he sniffs and chews—I’d never have noticed that in a “naked eye” view!  At least half the time I pull out the binocs and just poke around in the near distance with its Enhanced Vision, I’m rewarded with some unexpected peek into animal or plant life, while there’s always the deeper visual immersion into that particular place, sifting through layers of tree branches and grasses and ground that I can examine in exquisite detail.

But today, it was all about the very-close nearby, and I turned my attention away from the bunny snout and back to the shining fields of white, still speckled with flecks of brilliant color, still stirring delight, still startling me back into this world of wonders.  Ah, a morning well spent.   And here’s hoping I haven’t broken any Natural Wonder taboos by mentioning it all in public…..

About Jim

Night sky watcher; a mobile bit of earth's body. One foot lingering in Lower Cañoncito's piñon-juniper foothills at the southern tip of the Rockies, the edge of the Great Plains stretching away from the mouth of our little valley a couple miles downstream. The other foot re-rooting into the Land of the White Pines, home of my blood and bones, amidst the coastal plain and glacial hills and ponds of southern Maine, between the North Atlantic and the bones of the ancient Appalachian Mountains.

Posted on 2011/12/12, in Earth, Jimwords. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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