March 09, 2005

Iceland's banana tree

The kids thought they’d have a snow day today. I had a feeling they wouldn’t. They’ve had so many already this winter that they’ll be lucky if they’re free by the 4th of July... Some Boston-area towns have held or are threatening to hold classes on Saturdays to meet the state requirement that public school students get a full 185 days a year.

Last night around 10pm, Adam looked out the window at the raging whiteout and said, grinning hugely, “They haven’t even started to plow yet.” I warned against counting unhatched chickens and predicted that town officials would have roads and sidewalks cleared by morning. They did.

The world was a white wonderland at 5:30 this morning when I went outside to start digging out. The air was so cold it cut like a knife as it traveled from my nose and mouth to my lungs. Crisp, icy, like the color blue. The snow crunched and made a satisfying, grinding sound underfoot. The sound iceberg lettuce makes when you break it apart.

I shoveled my way down the walkway and stood in the street. The rising sun was just clearing the peak of the O'Briens' roof, and it threw a glorious orange-magenta blaze onto Reynolds Street. The plows had packed the street snow down to a hard, sparkling, mother-of-pearl surface. My neighbors were still in bed, and I had the white world to myself. Fences and tree limbs, porches and eaves, yards and driveways sat draped in a pure, crystalline coat. It looked like Iceland.

Winter can be harsh and brutal, but days like today and places like Iceland let the season show its other face – clean, fresh, unsullied, intense, brilliant.

A few years ago, on a day like this when cold and light and crispness become animate forces that bite and pierce and penetrate, I joined a day tour that started in Reykjavik, Iceland and traveled through a winter world of staggering beauty. I scrambled up the lip of extinct Kerio Volcano and peered into its ancient, snow-filled crater. I took in the icy massiveness of still active Mt. Hekla, which commanded the horizon for miles. I bought handmade red glass earrings from an artisan in Hverageroi, a geothermal town that’s harnessed the energy it sits on and created a greenhouse industry that supplies Icelanders with tomatoes and cucumbers year round. (A banana tree grows in Iceland, and I have a picture to prove it.) I stood on the wooden walkway overlooking Gulfoss, Europe’s largest waterfall, parts of it thundering and rushing down the canyon, other parts suspended into dreamlike ice sculptures of epic proportions. In the Geysir region, the hot spring Strokkur, Iceland’s Old Faithful, blew its steaming insides far into the cobalt sky.

And between sites, I sat in my front row bus seat and watched Icelandic ponies run free along the road. Their breath formed clouds as they cantered ahead of us.