By Katie Stannard
Snow on peony garden
Snow on spruce
Snow in trees-2
Oh yes, the dog days of August keep on barking. In the interest of providing some coolness during this seemingly endless hot summer, we’re traveling back to April to share some chilly images to help you keep your cool! 
Do you remember this spring’s early warm up? Then Old Man Winter returned for the last laugh with snow and frigid temps. 
To set the scene: April 21 at Nichols Arboretum, 8 a.m. and 23 degrees. The peony stalks hung low, weighted down by ice and snow.
I went to the Arb to document the effects of the snow and cold temperatures on the peony garden, shrubs, and trees. I expected to find devastation and destruction from the ice and snow, popsicle peonies and ravaged redbuds.
Snowy forest with text over it-2
I soon discovered a landscape of astonishing beauty, where snow was highlighting all the best and beautiful parts of the Arb like magic fairy dust, like a wintry scene on a movie set–perfect, astounding. Because the April sun was higher in the sky than in the winter, the light made everything brighter, bolder, and breathtakingly beautiful.
A gardener’s relationship with time at the intersection of weather is complicated. Wait too long to weed and the weeds try to take over. Wait too long to admire flowers during a hot spell and the long-awaited blooms fade too quickly.
Around each corner was another scene of such beauty that I kept trying to record these fleeting moments on the tracks of my recollection, and through the 92 photos shot in half an hour.
How many photos could ever be enough to try to capture a scene, and the moments in it? In one’s life there are images we cannot forget and wish we could erase. But these moments in a frozen Arb I wanted to record and remember and then replay many times again when in desperate need of that utter stillness, that utterly beautiful, utterly peaceful, Zen-like, not-enough-adjectives-and-adverbs-in-the-world-to-describe-it kind of morning.
The Arb’s paths, vistas, trees, and valleys are sublime on an ordinary day. This day, every feature stood out in bold relief. Sometimes it seems all too easy to look past trees and shrubs as a blur of green that somehow melds together into a whole. That morning, each branch, each leaf, each and every bit of nature was gorgeously highlighted through the magnifying lens of a soft blanket of snow.
There’s a welcome calm or pause for gardeners in the winter, absent of the digging, weeding, and striving from one task to the next. So this surprise day at the start of the spring gardening season was like winter’s gift: one more day of peace, of the tranquility of being free of gardener responsibilities for that day and letting go of whatever repercussions of the cold freeze—to just be.
How can we find those freeing moments on hot days and busy days and days full of stress and worry and uncertainty? Can we locate an inner quiet–a still moment of winter calm, and use that to rest and recharge for the time ahead? 
That April day was like a metaphor for the pandemic: out of the awfulness and terrible, a spark of something beautiful emerged, hinting at the resilience and fortitude in nature that can be found, too, in ourselves. 
I had gone to document what the peonies looked like. Instead, I traveled deeply into the beauty of that ephemeral time and place drawn along by the sheer joy and gratitude for this amazing space–made unbearably beautiful by the late snow and cold. I felt like the honored recipient of an enormously significant gift–a window on the immense power of nature to remind that resilient beauty exists, prevails and triumphs, even in despair and destruction.
Why write about unseasonable April snows in August? Well, it’s been a really hot and humid summer. And if I could wave a magic wand and take everyone who reads this and all of my own beloved on a return trip to the Arb on that April morning, I’d do it–in order to forever share a glimpse of those glittering sights, to store up a recollection of a moment that won’t but might last forever, a pause to wonder, refresh, and restore for the paths ahead.


Author Katie Stannard coordinates and onboards the summer interns at Matthaei-Nichols. She also helps the visitor engagement team run the visitor center at Matthaei. While we were closed in 2020 and into 2021, Katie posted on our social media and wrote insightful blog posts that delved into issues such as meteorology, personal history, horticulture, native and invasive plants, and U-M students, to name a few. 
Katie received her Master Gardener certification in 1999, and has years of experience with heirloom flower bulbs and small business operations. She is passionate about encouraging kids of all ages to “go outside!” and explore the natural world. Her current gardening interests include children’s gardens, native plants, and everlasting yet nonintrusive perennials. Katie volunteers for her kids’ school, for Carleton College as an alumni volunteer, and in her neighborhood to organize community events. She holds an M.A. from Carnegie Mellon University in literary and cultural theory, and a B.A. from Carleton College in English.
All photos by Katie Stannard.