If you pass my front yard on a snowy morning, you might spot a scene straight out of Winnie the Pooh: two bundled figures trudging around and around. I’m Winnie, the big one in earth tones. My daughter, Lily—smaller, in pink—is Piglet. Our feet are busy stamping the ground with “snow circles,” the cold belt’s answer to crop circles. I sometimes spend as much as an hour at this. Trudging long after Lily’s school bus has come and gone, I’ll make nine or 10 concentric circles—a frozen target that lasts at most a few days.
This may seem silly, but I’m convinced that, now and then, nothing beats doing something ephemeral and seemingly pointless. Clearly I’m not alone. Almost anywhere you can find snow, ice, sand, sticks or stones, you’ll also find people using them in short-lived creations: sand castles, ice sculptures, teetering stacks of beach debris.
Why bother with a pursuit that has no lasting tangible result and barely qualifies as exercise?
Ask a child this question, as I asked Lily, and you’re likely to get the simplest of answers: because it’s fun! Kids never doubt the value of doing something for its own sake, with little thought to the outcome. As Zen types might say, they know that life’s greatest joy comes from shooting the arrow, not hitting the target.
Ask an adult why she picks such an evanescent hobby, and there’s no telling what answer you’ll get. Sand sculptors, stone balancers and the like have spoken to interviewers about how their pursuit helps them shed stress, entertain onlookers, or even (in the case of a college student who likes making snow circles late at night, for others to puzzle over in the morning) “mess with people’s heads.”
I admit this last reason has crossed my mind, too; finished sets of snow circles give few clues to their origins, and I enjoy peeking out a window as passersby squint at my white lawn and wonder how it got that weird pattern in it. (It’s probably too much to hope that they suspect UFOs—but at least they might picture something more interesting than a woman walking stiff-legged in Lands’ End boots.)
Mainly, though, I think I make snow circles for the same reason Lily does: for the fleeting joy of the activity itself. Like almost every adult I know, I spend a lot of time obsessing over long-term goals and problems, and feeling the weight of the expectations and fears that go with them. What if the course I teach next semester isn’t the best it can be? What if it is, but my students secretly spend their class time playing Candy Crush Saga? Snow-circling tricks me into taking a rejuvenating break from all that. Unlike ordinary walking, it’s just enough of a challenge to keep my mind from wandering to Big Things I Should Be Working Toward or Worrying About. (If I stop watching my feet or thinking about their path, my circle veers into an oval or I might topple in full view of the mailman.) It becomes a meditation of sorts, a chance to be present in the moment. And because it’s outdoors, it reminds me—more vividly than many other forms of meditation—that I’m part of a greater whole.
Circling and circling beneath the sky, surrounded by trees and houses, streets and dog walkers, how can I not feel that I belong to the world and even the universe, all of it as transient as my footprints? And how can my aims not seem a little smaller and more manageable afterward, when I’ve just been reminded of what a puny, Winnie-the-Pooh-like creature I am?
Recently I read a quote from Thoreau that puts into words, more or less, the knowledge that sometimes hits me while I’m making snow circles: “The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening.” When you come down to it, every goal I seek—publishing another book, helping my mother cope with an illness—will vanish in the larger scheme of space and time, along with any missteps I make. So why be afraid of them?
Today Piglet and I will circle as best we can. Tonight more snow will fall. Tomorrow we’ll circle again.
This article was published in March 2015 and has been updated. Photo by @batoshka/Twenty20