Silliman courtyard stairs in snow

It’s winter in New Haven. In honor of last Wednesday’s snowfall, and anticipating the snow this Tuesday, I’m going to offer some thoughts on snow. I think snow is fascinating because it has the capacity to completely remodel our environments, to make them new. Snow tweaks our surroundings enough that they become alien, but not enough that they cease to be familiar. I’ve been reading about the environmental psychology of snow and I’ll talk about that more in an upcoming post. Here, I want to focus not on what snow hides or changes, but what it reveals: paths.

In revealing our collective and individual pathways, snow becomes like a four-dimensional instrument. It passively annotates the environment, showing how and where we move. These annotations are known as desire paths, a term introduced in The Poetics of Space, which I am totally adding to the stack of books-to-read on my mantle. Wikipedia reports that Finnish park planners visit parks after the it snows to assess how closely the paths laid out match with the desire paths of the parks users. 

Silliman College courtyard in snow. Outside Byers Hall.

Isn’t that blank triangle in the middle interesting? What can we do with the knowledge that that part of the pathway goes un-stepped on? Two thoughts spring to mind: one, we use the empty space for a decoration (a fountain? a flowerpot? a millstone?). Or two, we invest energy and materials disproportionately when we construct our paths, preparing parts of them for heavier or more frequent foot traffic. Maybe the empty space gets thinner or less durable stone, allowing the pathway to wear equally.

This is another way of seeing four-dimensionally: Looking into the future and attempting to focus on how time will alter your built spaces. The pathways ground into snow are almost reverse echoes, fast-motion forecasts of what will eventually happen in real time. Snow shows our future, and our past.