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.)
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.
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.