Maple Street in Woonsocket, R.I. is pictured about a week after the infamous Blizzard of ’78, when people could finally come out of their homes. (Wikimedia Commons)

With the first massive snowstorm of the winter predicted to hit the Boston area today — and the region marking the 35th anniversary of the Blizzard of ’78 this week — I am reminded of the power of snowstorms past. And why I love snow. Why we need snow.

As a kid, I grew up near woods, fields, and the ocean. I spent many winter hours outdoors. I trudged up hills for sledding marathons. I skated on frozen lakes, and foolishly played on icy rivers. I burrowed into snow banks and built igloos. I practically lived in nature’s cold embrace. (I also walked to school in the snow. Yes, the snow was deeper then. I was also shorter.)

With its blanket of pure white, a blizzard transforms not only the landscape, but people.

Today, my connection to the world’s raw elements has diminished. I have been programmed to despise winter weather. My instinct is to retreat from nature, to shelter myself under my duvet, or in my bathtub. Behind my apartment’s insulated walls, I hide from cruel winds and snowdrifts, protected by plasma screens and digital avatars.

Yet snow deserves a second look. I’m going to sound like a hapless romantic, but here goes: blizzards bring us together. The heaps of white stuff renew the landscape with fresh possibility. Snow softens the world. And us.

Think of the way we used to live and work. Once upon a time we had to embrace daily chores like keeping livestock, hunting for meat, raising a barn, clearing a woodlot, haying a field. Tasks like these tested our skill and strength, bringing us outdoors to work together, under the wide open sky, in full view of our neighbors.

Yet, since the advent of mass food production, there’s no need to practice the hard labor ways of yore. Some of us garden, but rarely for subsistence. Do we build or dig or bend our backs anymore? Barely. We can hire carpenters and landscapers to take care of what manual drudgery we once undertook ourselves. We have become disconnected from our bodies. The brisk air of a February morning has become an unpleasant space to get through on the way to the mall, not a sharp, senses-enhancing environment in which to revel.

So it is with gratitude we should welcome the snow.

We need to be outside. To puff out cold air through our lungs and see our breath condense into cottony wisps. We need to work, to shovel. Yes, shovel. We like to grumble and moan about the toil of moving snow. We tend to complain about any monotonous work. But take the wider view: Struggling and heaving and throwing snow, we exert ourselves as we did in days gone by. We push our bodies not for pleasure or exercise, but for survival. Or what we now call survival: to clear sidewalks and steps for safe passage, to rescue cars from tombs of snow. If that’s what passes for necessity in Somerville or Southie these days, let us celebrate it.

I think back to the last big snow year, the winter of 2010-11, when some 80 inches fell. Typically, after the storm of the week, I would be out tossing the white stuff with a bent aluminum shovel, old-school, and I would meet my neighbors anew.

Across the street, I’d see Rachel, and Peter, and Julia. “Hello!” I’d call with a wave.

They’d reply with gloved gestures, backs bent, shovels pushing forward like ploughshares.

“Enough snow for you?” the fellow who lives next to me would respond.

“We’re running out of places to put it,” I’d reply. We’d both chuckle.

We need to be outside. To puff out cold air through our lungs and see our breath condense into cottony wisps. We need to work, to shovel. Yes, shovel.

There we’d all be, working together. Getting to know each other, rather than hurrying inside to get back to the business of staring at our computer screens. Sure, an office might buzz with group activity, but each employee delves into a separate microcosm of work, shielded by cubicles. When we shovel out our Jettas and Suburbans and Priuses, we connect again to those tasks we used to do in unison, like picking crops or weeding beds, and making our way across the earth in long lines of labor, wearing hats or boots and, perhaps, singing. We find community. A common purpose. And a connection to the sun and stars and seasons — and to the reality of frozen day and frigid night.

One time, after working up a sweat, my neighbor and I leaned on our shovels and removed our hats and scarves. He told me about his job, his daughter who lives with his ex — far away, his hope to see her again. To see spring. Before the snow, I probably hadn’t uttered a dozen words to him all year.

Then, my landlady offered, “Let’s tackle your car!” Sure! We brushed off the cape of snow. Feeling a rush of kindness — how could I not? — I shoved the snow off my upstairs neighbor’s car. Then, I trudged half a mile to free my girlfriend’s vehicle.

Another morning, sometime before dawn, the loud, ill-mannered teen two doors down from me took his family’s snow blower and cut a swath through the foot-high drifts, not only in front of his house, but down the entire block.

With its blanket of pure white, a blizzard transforms not only the landscape, but people.

So come on, Old Man Winter, give us your best. Me, the surly teen, my community, we’re ready for you. Not only that, we welcome you.

Tags: Boston, History, Relationships

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  • VHanson

    Right on!! I too get a warm feeling when I think of how New England was turned into a frozen tundra in 1978. And now, I crave a good storm – neighbors helping neighbors, doing crafts and playing games with my daughter, baking and cooking, SLEDDING!!, etc. Whether you live in Boston or the suburbs there’s no excuse not to bundle up, appreciate the awesomeness of the weather and knock on your neighbors’ door.

  • Valerie

    Agreed! I’m looking forward to this storm. Get outside and enjoy it! And use the time to try to connect with neighbors and think about building community and resilience. Times will get tougher and we need each other!

  • Katie R

    Love this Ethan. Bring it!

  • JenMG

    There’s a wonderful book on this topic, “The Grid and the Village” written by a guy whose Upstate NY community pulled together during a 2-week blackout in 1998. Public radio played a critical role!

  • The Lone Home Ranger

    I LOVE THIS STORY!! Thank you. Bring on the blizzard!

  • Not Her

    Thank you. I love snow and winter, and though aware that storms can cause damage, I also live by this New England credo: weather is just an excuse for more gear. Pardon me while I get my snow shoes out of storage.

  • Nicole

    Love this! I spent a year in Singapore and flew back during that last big storm of 2011 and had to dig out our airport shuttle after finally getting home. I was actually giddy! My husband makes fun of me but I am secretely relishing the idea of digging out tomorrow.

  • Jackie

    You are so right about “weather” bringing folks together. Thanks fr the very eloquent reminder.

  • GLK

    So true Ethan! We ‘ve had awesome neighborhood connections in snow storms and today is no different. BBQ later on our street!!! But only after we’ve been sure everyone’s dug out! It’s a pleasure to be home all day!

  • ELS

    So true! I met so many neighbors today because we were all out shoveling. And once everyone was done with their own driveways, we teamed up to dig out the older people on the street who couldn’t do it themselves. Warmed my heart!

  • JBK007

    It is true that the snow brings people outside and often together. Our whole neighborhood was out in force yesterday, helping each other dig out, and reconnecting along the way. I ended up having a drink at a neighbor’s house, for the first time, who’s driveway entrance I helped dig out with the snowblower lent by another neighbor.

    I’d gander to say that all natural disasters bring communities together, at least temporarily…….

  • Donna P

    I Love this article! I had to share it! Spot on to how I feel!

  • rkean

    Like the rest of the commenters I’ve experienced the good feeling of talking with neighbors as we work together to shovel out. But, what is wrong with this picture? Does it really take a violent act of nature to prompt some ‘fellow-feeling’? And do we have to put our heads back down, noses to the grindstone, and wait for the next blizzard to feel it again?

    Actually I’ve noticed that in more rural settings people are more concerned about each other on a daily basis, noticing and depending on their neighbors. And here in my city many people prioritize developing a sense of community through family, churches, interest groups, neighborhood or activist groups, or even at work! And of course carpentry and landscaping are much more than ‘manual drudgery’ and we can now see the problems of mass food production. So getting back to a greater degree of DIY in all areas of life may be a way to connect with our neighbors and feel that great sense of community and caring we feel after ‘the blizzard of 2013.’ On the other hand, as climate change and intense storms multiply maybe we’ll be seeing a lot more of our neighbors anyway!

  • annie

    nice article Ethan.. and I invited my neighbors in for soup! It was fun..and a nice way to gather after all shoveling the white stuff all day.

  • Timothy O.

    Great story, beautifully written! Helped to melt my winter curmudgeonly back to The Blizzard of ’78. A time when people on cross–country skis or on foot with sleds in tow, commandeered our suburban streets to go the market. The industry of the automobile laid waste to Nature’s sneeze. A time when a routine part of my day was spent shoveling with the neighbors. An all-ages gang that went door-to-door, driveway-to-driveway, shovels holstered on our shoulders, dismay on our face, when the plow man cometh and make fresh driveway barriers.

    The shovel gang was my fondest memory perhaps because my dad was part of it. He joined after we welcomed him home like a hero the morning after he abandoned his car on route 128. (We had no contact from him since he’d left work the prior day). A time when the complexities of the day were awed back to a simpler life. A time when you went to the phone to talk to grandparents who were still alive. (The phone, it didn’t follow you around.) A time when my dad was vibrant and healthy and strong, slinging three times as much snow as I, a good dozen years before his cancer-driven death clock began and sixteen years before we un-plugged him, moaning, from the machine. Another example of technology being over-run by nature. My son’s age, during this storm of 2013, is within two weeks of my exact age during The Blizzard of ’78. I am within weeks of my dad’s age of his diagnosis. I wonder what my son’s future recollections will be. I bet he doesn’t know them yet.

    Thank you Ethan for reminding me of the time The Storm made life simple and easy despite our sweaty-cold skin, aching bones and hot-chocolate appetite. A time when, I realize now, was simple and sweet, storm or no storm. I just didn’t know it then.

  • jennifer

    Excellent, Ethan! LOVE this

  • Charl M

    I’m a New Englander by adoption, coming here after living in Tucson most of my life. I live in Natick, in a condo development on an old 85 acre farm and there’s lots of trails and sidewalks and avenues. What brings us together is dog walking. One winter I didn’t have a dog and I didn’t go out except to go to work. That was the most unpleasant winter I spent. Dogs have to go out, and we have to take them. So, with a dog, I get up early in the morning, get warmly dressed, put the dog-sized horse blanket on my dog, and carry my snowshoes to the front door. Then I take off into the wilds. The dog walks in my tracks until the paths are beaten down by repeated travels. I see beauty, I see birds, I see tracks in the snow. I get used to the cold weather and it doesn’t bother me. Even digging out my car doesn’t seem too bad after that.

  • Marie

    Beautifully written and makes me (typically an indoor pet) smile. Thank you.

  • Estengel

    After a very chilly Sat w/o power, we woke this morning under several layers of quilts, blanket, & dogs, to find lights on & heat (slowly) warming icy edges of floors, walls & toilet seats (those without power will agree the last get colder faster & are most uncomfortable). I sent exultant text to friend in next neighborhood, assuming if we had heat they would too. Not so. So an hour later my husband & I happily shared hot, hot breakfast with 3 good friends. Over coffee, oatmeal & bagels, we chatted about subjects we have frequently over restaurant or potluck dinners. They’re home shoveling now but if their power is still out later, they’ll be back for dinner & sleep. Snow storms make bring good friends closer.

  • jessica handler

    the Marlboro market was giving away food. I was a freshman at BU, living in Shelton when it was still a freshman dorm. Friends left the building via my 2nd floor window.

  • Pointpanic

    Oh please what contrived bullshit this is about “bringing us together”. yes I’m a hiker and surfer in al seasons but not everyone is fit to shovel snow whichj is a tedious task. Ask people freezing in their homes without power about “the pure whiteness bringing us together” Typical 21st century nPR tripe.

  • Pointpanic

    By this logic ,a nuclear war could “bring people together”. SHould we have one of those for that reason? It’s easy for whitebread suburbanites to wax gleefully about “community” and shoveling out our Jettas and Suburbans and Priuses” when many people are trapped by such severe storms in freezing homes due to power outages. ANd I have friends who have lost badly needed income because they had to relocate for awhile till the power is restored to the uninsulated home, they are renting.It’s amazing whathas been justified on “public” radio over the last2 decade or so in teh name of “community” and “bonding”. Everything from unquestioned wars to ritual whale killing by the youth of a Pacific Northwest tribe who no longer “hunts’ whales to survive, to a most inhumane bear hunt in which the five shots through a treed black bear (yes, nPR broadcast all five shots) Oh but the comeraderie justified it all., and pre-empted any need for independent critical
    inquiry.You know-thekind touted at every fundraiser.But hey as long as we con shovel out our priuses together (fixed grin on face)

    • Ethan Gilsdorf

      hey Pointypanic

      I agree. blizzards can de devastating. and dangerous and deadly. I probably should have added a line like “Of course, I’m not suggesting all natural disasters are benign. Some can be dangerous.” But I think you’re missing the point of my essay. Even a nuclear war would bring us together. Not that I am wishing that upon anyone. But the side-effects of tough times — even if it’s snow — is that we come together.

      I wouldn’t be in favor of hunting whales. Scout’s honor.

      anyway, thanks for writing, and hope the snow wasn’t too hard on you.


      ps I’m not a “whitebread suburbanite.” I live in Somerville and my Jetta is rusty and ancient, carbon-dated to 1997.

      • pointpanic

        OKay Ethan, I ‘m glad. you didn’t write this from a comfortable living room in Lincoln or Duxbury. Thank you, I was one of the luckyones. my power returned before the cottage I live in got too cold. But as I wrote above, some of my friends were not so lucky. If my tone seemed harsh ,it’s only because I’m a disaffected believer in public radio. Your piece seemed to fit the NPR pattern of justifying anything by labeling it “ritual” or “Bonding” et al . I feel NPR, as well as the “counterculture” has been co-opted by the very market, corporate forces ,it was meant to scrutinize Sure, I do believe in making the best of a situation and the more who can help the better. But pieces like this often forget or disregard those who are less advantaged. Thanks again for your response and good luck with that old Jetta.

  • Pointpanic

    BTW Oh sure shoveling snow is a great way to “get in touch wth your body”. Just ask any chiropractor.