A few days of steady snow and it doesn’t take long to switch from summer mode to winter. You hear things out here like “Well, at least we made it through October.” It’s true, we mostly did. But now only three days into November, October seems like a long time ago, and the world suddenly looks different, the colors have been drained from the landscape and the world now appears in black and white.
Just last week, I heard the old refrain, the old wishful thinking: “Maybe this year it won’t snow. Maybe this will be a warm winter. Maybe this year it won’t happen. Maybe global warming isn’t such a bad thing after all . . .”
But of course, it did snow. It needs to snow. Have a look at some of the photos of the depression from out here and you’ll see for yourself what happens when it doesn’t snow. My mother used to say that the thing that near drove her mad in the ‘30’s was the dust. Dust and fine dirt everywhere, no avoiding it, impossible to keep anything clean, it would even get in your mouth. No water and everyone thirsty all the time, a mouthful of dirt, well, sorry to inconvenience you but we need the snow.
As for the cold, I don’t know that we need it but we’ll get it. It’s only adults who mind the cold. Kids don’t notice it. When I was a kid my mom’s biggest worry was getting us to do up our coats and put on our mittens, even on the coldest days. In high school we shunned boots and wore Converse, the only concession to winter that we would put on an extra pair of socks. This at 40 below, where the Fahrenheit and Celsius concur that it’s fucking freezing.
In Saskatchewan when I was a kid it would go on for weeks like that. Cars developed square tires, if cars would start at all. Remember the sound of someone trying to start their car on a cold dark morning. The hacking sound of the ignition, the whine, the silence. Again and again and again, until the thing turned over, and then you’d have to listen to the person rev the shit out of their motor for ten minutes before the car could crawl away, spewing huge flumes of white steam out the tale pipe. Either that or the sound of the car door slamming when the person finally gave up and went back in to call someone for a boost.
The sound of your footfalls squeaking into the thin dark air. The cold made audible but the air too thin and brittle to hold the sound for long. It’s a sickly sound, the sound of ice, the sound of the deep cold. You might want to do up your coat if it gets that cold and you have to walk a ways, but by and large you don’t think too much of it, it’s just how it is.
And so many ways to express it. It’s cold. It’s chilly. Breezy. Or the interrogative form: Cold enough for you out there? Sure, it’s a tad frosty out there. Colder than a hooker’s heart. Colder than a well digger’s ass. It’ll freeze the balls off a brass monkey. Exposed human flesh will freeze in less than 60 seconds. And it did, and it still does, but apparently human flesh thaws out again.
And everything now rendered in black and white. The white snow and the dark endless night of winter. White breath pluming out against the black sky, remote white stars above twinkling cold and eternal as if you have been caught and fixed in space along with the constellations. And even the sun when it bothers to shine, and shine coldly, radiating cold, shines almost as white as the moon and about as warm.
Every year it comes as a bit of surprise, no matter how many years you’ve had in the cold, you manage to forget, the summer effectively erases all memory of the long hard winter so that every winter becomes the first winter.
More than the cold and the snow, though, it’s the darkness that pervades everything. If summer is one long endless day, winter is an even longer more interminable night. It presses in from without. It works its way inside, seeping in, leaching all color leaving only the black and white outline of things: trees, fences, brown-black grasses poking up through a blanket of white snow, shadows of things under stark street lights, outlines of buildings, white swirling snow passing through the feeble white cone of a street light.
And yet for all that, life carries on. We lash wooden boards to our feet and head once again to the mountains, even more beautiful in winter than in summer. And there is beauty to it too, but not the lush, plentiful and easy beauty of the tropics. It’s austere and even barren. We have no choice to fill it up with something, and so we create art. Into the void, we feel we must offer something, from Shakespeare and his Hamlet to Beethoven and his 9th Symphony to the Group of Seven and their sublime and timeless images of the land and the climate. To this little effort of mine. We do try to fill the void.
In this way we carry on, and maybe even prevail.
And if nothing else, it only lasts for six months.
Thanks for reading.
Here’s a wonderful Gordon Lightfoot song from Sarah McLachlan.