Reading Winter's Body Language

This morning I wake up to a wonderland outside. The ground is covered with new-fallen snow, and a white rabbit sits on my lawn where the mountain ash used to be. It stands alert and unmoving. I can almost hear it muttering, ''Oh my ears and whiskers.''

I am not Alice, so I wipe my condensing breath from the windowpane and look again. Now I see that the rabbit is only a snow-covered stump - a kind of winter topiary.

Ordinarily, I dislike topiary: All those trees and shrubs trimmed, clipped, trained, and restrained to resemble animals or ornamental shapes simply end up having their natural beauty distorted.

Winter topiary, however, is another story. Nothing is hidden beneath the snow. This covering only enhances the real shapes of the natural world: the underlying structure of the trees, the contours of shrubs, the pattern of the land. The snow allows secret forms to emerge that spark the imagination and please the eye.

A lion, for instance, sleeps within the drifted snow that is heaped against the hedge. In the rock garden, two crocodile eyes peer at me, and a long ridged back wiggles up the hillside.

At the base of my steps, a horse chestnut tree extends its long branches outward. In other seasons, I am aware of the tree's conical flower clusters, masses of large seven-fingered palmate leaves, spiky green capsules that fall to the ground and split open to eject shiny brown seeds for the squirrels to tote away.

Now, however, I am aware of the tree's rounded crown, the spreading branches, the elegant twigs which, despite their thickness, curve gracefully at the tip like wooden talons.

In sharp contrast, the Lombardy poplars lined up at the back of my neighbor's lawn crowd together, tall and straight as guards. They hold their short branches stiffly erect and almost vertical, forming a border I don't wish to cross. Only in winter can I read this body language of trees.

A stolid beech stands sentry in another yard. Its shape displays neither ease nor fluid line. The wide, gray trunk, heavy limbs, and thick toes sticking up through the frozen soil bring to mind an elephant standing patiently in a zoo enclosure, waiting.

At the corner, a green patch of conifers breaks up the stark, skeletal landscape. Hemlocks weave in and out of the deciduous trees - narrow pyramids among the cylinders.

A row of pines in the distance tilts permanently in the direction of the prevailing wind. On the windward side, the scraggly branches are at odds with the heavy growth to the leeward. Hokusai has painted such trees, their sweeping shapes as eloquent as ballerinas.

I make a cup of cocoa and return to the window once more. The rabbit is still there, looking at me across the smooth contours of the white, rolling lawn. Only I know that this classical landscape has been achieved not through diligent care but by the exigencies of nature: the depression left by the maple we moved; the rippling mulberry roots that threaten to disembowel the mower each summer; the little hillocks of crab grass and clumps of chickweed that persist throughout the year.

But I am not complaining. Winter has sculpted the lawn of my dreams. Everything outside is perfect - the proportions, the shapes, the textures.

The French architect Le Corbusier once said: ''Cubes, cones, cylinders, and pyramids are the primary forms which light reveals to advantage.'' He neglected to mention that winter, too, reveals these forms to advantage, if we open our eyes to the wonderland around us.

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