When I woke up this morning, there was already an inch of snow on the ground.
An inch of snow is just enough to turn an early spring yard into a white midwinter field. Snow has an amazing ability to expand the world visually as it withdraws it mentally. My eyes draw toward each tree in in our backyard pine stand, individual trees barely budging in the gentle winds blowing through the yard. My little stone wall becomes a part of an impressionist painting, the individual stones frosted to create one hundred different little personalities, the snow obscuring where one begins and another ends. The wall has long ago ceased to serve an economic function, but that is to say nothing of pragmatism; there is a deeper usefulness in a pretty stone wall than any external function I can find.
Snow, in a sense, is Nature’s last innovator in and protector of the poet’s landscape.
Snow has a way of coaxing this type of transformation out of even the most profane, utilitarian devices that human hands have created. The fire hydrant that sits in front of my house, typically squat and unpleasant, a nuisance to circumnavigate for strollers and garbage pails alike, becomes a fact of a greater landscape, discernible only as a dignified sentinel guarding my front wall, the only badge of its office the white mantle resting upon its shoulders. Power lines, possibly our least romantic contribution to Nature’s landscape, all but disappear, the whiteness of the snow overwhelming the individual ugliness of any one object and blending it into every other object. This effect is added to mailboxes, chain link fences, telephone poles, parked cars, newspaper stands, garbage pails, and parking meters, all are swallowed whole into winter. Snow, in a sense, is Nature’s last innovator in and protector of the poet’s landscape. Whereas the forest, field, mountain, farm, desert, or ocean must remain, to a degree, pristine and undisturbed in order to give the effect of a landscape, snow can create landscapes where there were none. A snowy day anywhere is beautiful. Snow adds a coherence to what goes on outside of every person’s window, no matter where those windows happen to be.
Outside of my window is a road. Like any road, it sees plenty of use during the daylight and then gets some quiet in those small hours of the night that pass between yesterday and today and tomorrow. I know this from experience; on those nights when I can’t sleep, I check on the road to see if it’s getting any rest. It usually is and I can go on about my business. On those nights that someone is out driving late, I’m always happy to see them driving slowly, out of respect for my road and quiet hours we enjoy together. All beings must enjoy moments of reflection, and my road is no different. How happy, then, is the road that can enjoy a day of reflection during a snow?
Snow has the effect of chasing traffic off of the streets and into homes and businesses. People avoid driving when possible, and the road is reclaimed by those who are courageous enough to be out or whose fate draws them somewhere in spite of what is easy or reasonable. I like to imagine that roads were originally for people to follow some sort of brave journey or destiny, and so the snowstorm brings that world closer.
The only others out on the roads are the poets, those Thoreauvians among us — like myself — who still believe in traveling on foot from somewhere they wish to leave behind to somewhere that exists in the sacred realm of aspiration. In this sense, snow cover is a gift to those who remember that roads were built for feet. The car has, in the last century, overtaken the carriage as master of the roads. And while there was an uneasy peace between the carriage and the pedestrian, both sharing a reliance on the power produced by the foot of some creature, the car has made no such concession. “We’re too fast and powerful to be bothered by the likes of you, whose legs aren’t even round!” cried the internal combustion engine. And, just like that, one less place on the planet was allotted to Man. Snow, then, is Nature’s reminder that Man lives as a part of Nature, and can create nothing that is not in the end subservient to Herself or her own grandfather, Time.
When the snow settles upon the road, the mighty automobile must give the road back to Man, its original creator. With the car absent, roads reclaim their beauty. They become somehow longer, more difficult, and only used out of necessity, whether that necessity is practical or poetic. Even frivolity is understood in terms of necessity in a in the snow. If you are walking to a sledding hill, you must make the decision with the sober understanding that travel to and from will be arduous.
But the snowy road is rewarding and beautiful in its austerity. A walk to the store on my corner is filled with epic purpose; I prepare the proper attire, take the first exciting steps into a barren world, experience the fatigue of not being halfway done, savor the reward at the store for my labors along the way, push through the tired trek back in a world colder and less interested in me, declare the victorious homecoming, and recall the happy memory of purposeful action from the comfort of a job well done. This comes from the intrinsic adventurousness of all roads, everywhere, which nowadays is only dusted off when dusted upon by snow.
The storm is building to a crescendo, so I step outside. The world is silent, but for the sound of the passing wind. All is muffled, each sound suffocates. Off in the distance are the sounds of engines moving snow from one place to another in a desperate attempt to feel some control. Every so often a car, muffled, emerges from silence to pass humbly back into silence.
Everywhere is motion, nowhere is sound.
Everywhere is motion, nowhere is sound. A snowstorm is a frenzy blustering over a still life and narrated by wind and engines. But the wind absorbs every engine into itself, so after ten minutes of sitting and listening, I cannot discern any sound except “snowstorm.” Individual sensual objects are obliterated. Everything I see and hear is snowstorm. I find no respite from the snow’s powerful monotony.
The moments of silence between gusts and engines are the world at its most introspective. Here is a moment with nothing to hear but myself. The world is not dead, but alive, raging with life, speaking in a whisper. Trees are bending to let the snow pass, the air so thick with whiteness that I cannot see the end of my beloved road, and the delicate sound of a wind chime across the street is the only break from the dull hiss of wind.
Here is poetry — a true paradox — frenzied silence, muted rage, quiet death. The imperceptible numbness overtaking my fingers and toes — a silent burial alive with nothing to hear but other unknowing victims and a breeze — a car gently, almost obediently, glides into a tree. The storm reminds me that the world destroys without fanfare; it needs nothing but silence.
There is nothing more potent for the thinker than Nature at her most destructive, so how much more potent the thought with no sound to interrupt the mind? If I stare at my writing pad for several minutes, there is nothing to draw my attention outside to the billowing waves of snow but the sight of it. In this, the mind has no closer reflection. There is no metaphor better suited to the interior life of Man than that which is furious, obscuring, inconsistent, indomitable, and ultimately destructive, but at the same time quiet and deceptive, while so unrelenting as to keep us all indoors, separate from one another until we make a strong effort to find another soul.
Toil and snow are practically synonymous. When it snows, labor must be done: shoveling the driveway, salting, clearing cars, cleaning gates, keeping up with the plows, salting again, shoveling again, salting again, and then breaking through the wall built by the plow to rub some of that salt into your open wound.
When is begins to snow, I like to put off thinking about work until precisely one o’clock in the afternoon. Two o’clock would be too arrogant, and twelve noon would simply be overachieving. No matter the forecast, there is no good reason to ruin a snowy morning with labor unless you absolutely must go somewhere. Of course, I strongly recommend against having to do much of anything, but that recommendation informs most of my decisions in life, letting alone those during snowstorms.
During the day, I achieve goals; at night, I make up for lost time.
Once afternoon strikes, my negotiation begins. I always try to balance the work to be done perfectly between the forecast and the amount of daylight left. First is the forecast. If the snow is ending by the afternoon, then I can clear things at any time before sunset, and the sooner the better so I can enjoy a full late afternoon of leisure and reflection. If, however, the snow is set to continue until late, then the decision shifts to the question of daylight. All clearing must be done by sunset because outdoor labor after dark takes on a tragic hue, and what I can do while holding my head high in daytime feels less resolute at night. During the day, I achieve goals; at night, I make up for lost time. If I’m caught shoveling outside after dark, the work becomes burdensome and undesirable; I can’t really feel any accomplishment in it if it happens under cover of darkness.
Another consideration beyond my control is the precise moment that my neighbors clear their driveway. If at all possible, I like my shoveling to be done at the same time or before my neighbors. Shoveling next to a neglected driveway is inspiring; I’m getting ahead of my neighbor, and I probably enjoy this satisfaction more than that of actually finishing. Shoveling at the same time as my neighbors becomes easier because of our common plight; we commiserate as we clear out, and, as we all know, misery not only loves company but is partially healed by it. But shoveling against the backdrop of another’s finished work is demoralizing, even more so than shoveling after dark. After dark, I’ve only lost self-control, but after a neighbor, I’ve lost self-respect and made it public.
Assuming, then, that I can get the timing correct, the labor of a snowstorm is joyful work. It is physical, first and foremost, which guarantees the sweetness of rest afterwards. It is mindless, therefore peaceful, but when you consider the utter beauty of a world during and after a snowstorm, it is fully meditative. Snow shoveling is necessary and tangible. It can be avoided, but not ignored. Necessary work is the most fulfilling, being tied somewhat to survival. And it is tangible in its visibility. Work that can be gauged visually is self-reinforcing; it gets easier the more gets done. In fact, snow-shoveling is the closest I’m convinced a person can get to Aristotle’s eudaimonia (look it up) or Buddhist nirvana (you probably don’t have to) or Sufi fanaa (I might have to re-look that one up). I can get lost in shoveling. I melt into the snowy landscape: just another creature struggling for survival in an unforgiving world.
My satisfaction after shoveling is one of the greatest I get to experience. When done, I view my work with contentment, knowing that a thing got done by my hand and all can see what I’ve accomplished. Indeed, there is vanity in shoveling. And there is poetry; even the tumultuous landscape of a snowstorm is somehow dead without my participation. The participation is necessary and joyful, if one looks at it properly. I know people who frown when snow is forecast, groaning about the cold and the work. But those things cannot be avoided, so I know to find joy in them. When, at the end of the night, I sit in the warmth with a drink and a day’s labor behind, I am one of the few who have found some satisfaction in this life’s labor. There is no more to do, and that which was done was done by my hand. I have found no truer joy.
I can’t move on without a final word on brotherhood. Snow’s toil deepens our bonds with other New Englanders. The fellowship among those who know the certain struggle that winter brings is no more visible than during a snowstorm. Two people shoveling share the weight of the world, and that burden is borne together. There is no language more compelling than that of shared experience, and, speaking from experience, there are few experiences more moving than a heavy New England snow.
After the snow ends, I’m often left feeling melancholy. A snowstorm is an event that’s still cloaked in magic. In a world ravaged by economics and answers, the snowstorm is one of the last bastions of a romantic world for the mystic and the poet. At what other time can people huddle near a fire with a warm beverage and the view of a world tamed by Nature? The end of a snowstorm signals a return to reality, and a reality that is hard for dreamers to swallow.
Loss is a natural companion to beauty.
And, still, coming out of a snowstorm is a part of the whole experience. Loss is a natural companion to beauty. Without absence, fondness is merely indulgence. A person should go through all of the stages of a snowstorm: the anticipation in a dire forecast, the preparation to make sure the experience is perfect, the storm itself in all of its grandeur, the labor involved when dealing with snow, and finally the world going back to normal. The whole progression creates an experiential symphony that would be out of place without each of its parts. This progression ensures that a snowstorm is a break from regular living: a haven from one’s daily responsibilities and concerns found in a whole other set of joys and tasks.
I see the snowstorm as a microcosmic affirmation of what is meaningful in life. Finding joy in the appearance of a snowy world, experiencing the raw power of the universe, having to put one’s hands to labor, seeing it all go away, all are things that reflect daily life. But during a snowstorm, they present themselves in a neat package to be digested easily, unlike that far larger, messier set of circumstances that each person must encounter as they live as a human in this world. I see the snowstorm as a series of lessons to be drawn upon in other situations. It teaches us about the transient and shifting nature of beauty, the strange reverence that we all hold for real power, how to cope with a life dependent upon struggle, and how to let go of things we love. There are other lessons, too, but these are the powerful ones for me.
I love the snow, and I love nor’easters and blizzards. My back aches when I shovel, I’m annoyed when I have to food shop before a storm due to poor planning, I wish my house held more heat, I wish I had a wood burning stove or fireplace to make a snowstorm even more magical, and yet I still have never lost my childlike appreciation for a world forced to slow to a stop in silence. Snowy winters give a rhythm to the year and so to life, and rhythms that transcend our daily goings and comings are healthy for the spirit.
If winter were to ever fully disappear or the snowstorm become more elusive, I wonder if the loss would feel like coming down after a beautiful blizzard, but for the whole of the rest of life? I imagine it would, and so I already mourn the day that snowy winters live only in magical, reverent, and sobering memory.