»  The Straggler, No. 15

December 31, 2003

  Snow-Bound — A Winter Idyl


The first few flakes came down in mid morning. By noon it was clear the stuff was settling. Watching from the window of my study, I started mentally going through my snow checklist: Boots oiled? Wood chopped? Shovel? Salt? Gloves? By mid afternoon we had had four or five inches and I was out there shoveling. Yes, I possess a mechanical snow blower, but that is not a happy story.

There are many aspects of American life that I have never fully adjusted to. Gasoline, for example. Sure, I have stopped calling it "petrol," but I have never taken on board the American faith in the gasoline engine as the motive power of choice for any outdoor appliance. The cheerful, obliging, but severely English-challenged (and, one cannot help but suspect, documentation-challenged) workers who attend to my neighbors' lawns in spring and summer use gasoline-powered trimmers — driven by a full engine with cylinders, cam shafts, pistons, and exhausts.

This seems extravagant to me. My own trimmer, which I wield myself, is powered by electricity. You plug it in and it goes. Same job, half the trouble, a quarter the weight, a tenth the noise. When I first went shopping for lawnmowers in the U.S., in fact, I assumed I would be able to buy one of those handy "Flymo" things that people in England use. This is a light, electric-powered mower that works on the air-cushion principle, floating over the grass as it cuts, emitting a genteel hum. Once it is floating, you can maneuver it with one finger; when it is inert, you can lift it with that same finger. The Flymo, however, seems to be unknown in these United States. I ended up with a thundering 50-pound gasoline-powered behemoth for my few hundred square yards of lawn.

When, five or six years ago, I went looking for a snow blower, I was therefore delighted to find right away that an electric-powered model was on sale. I bought it at once. Snow duly arrived, and out I went to clear the driveway with my electric snow blower. At that point I discovered that America's love for the gasoline engine is not altogether irrational. Losing track of 100 feet of bright orange electric cable in a few inches of snow is much easier than you would think. It is also, one next learns, extraordinarily difficult to untangle an electric cable that has got caught up in the moving parts of a snow blower. The cable itself, when untangled, proves to have had a fair amount of its outer insulation stripped off. Worst of all, the blower is so feeble that, with a light breeze against you, most of the snow ends up just where it started from, except for what has blown down the neck of your jacket. Shoveling, in any case, provides welcome relief from my desk-bound work and leaves me with satisfying aches in shoulders and thighs.

By four o'clock I had shoveled the driveway more or less clear; and, for bonus points toward my next life, had cleared the front path of the housebound old lady opposite. Snow was still falling, though. Since I was already booted, jacketed, and outside, I volunteered to go wait at the corner for the school bus. There was just one mother there. We stood stamping our feet and discussing the storm. The bus was late. We moved on to other common interests: our kids, town affairs, a grisly crime at the college where the mother teaches. The bus was very late. I checked in at the house — no phone call from the school. I drove to the school, at eight miles per hour. The bus had left just before I arrived.

That was Friday. By midday Saturday we'd had 15 inches and I was shoveling again. The kids were thrilled. Some of the thrill was induced by the snow and its possibilities. They spent a happy couple of hours sledding in the housebound old lady's back yard, which has a long slope. Most of it, though, was just holiday feeling brought on by the cancellation of piano lesson (he) and ballet practice (she), and the thin but much-discussed possibility of school cancellations the following week. I drove to the village. It was eerily empty in the blowing snow. Most of the stores were shuttered, but eventually I gathered videos and snack food. Back home again, we lit a fire. There was still some trimming to be done on the Christmas tree. The kids busied themselves with that for a while, then we roasted marshmallows, watched movies, and chewed our way through packages of dates and figs.

There is no use pretending that our circumstances bore much real resemblance to the besieged intimacy of John Greenleaf Whittier's childhood memories. I once saw preserved, in a barn-museum in Vermont, one of the heavy horse-drawn rollers used to compact the snow in the days before mechanized snowplows. It did not look very efficient. Of that same state, native son John Cotton Dana remarked: "Everything in Vermont looks toward winter." Claude Fuess, in his biography of Calvin Coolidge, adds: "The houses were built close to the highway so that long walks through the snow could be avoided." I suppose Whittier's north Massachusetts boyhood was not much different. A couple of hours spent digging out one's car in order to take a drive to the video store is small hardship.

Nor are we disconnected from the larger world. The snowbound inhabitants of Whittier's poem had to wait a week before "At last the floundering carrier bore / The village paper to our door." We are better provided with news, via TV and the Internet; though it is hard not to feel that the quality of news has declined considerably since the 1820s. Instead of the Creeks rising and the liberation of Greece, we have Michael Jackson and Paris Hilton.

There is still, though, the atavistic pride in having secured for one's brood a shelter from the elements. The children's faces, laughing in the firelight at fingers stuck together with molten marshmallow, glow as those of the infant Whittier and his siblings must have glowed. Mom and Dad smile from over their books, the dog shifts on his couch (he is old and has furniture privileges). Dad sips at a glass of port — a winter drink, according to my parents, and so it will always be for me. The hardships of our ancestors are long gone, and thank goodness for it; but some of their simple pleasures are still here to be enjoyed, around the family hearth, with the snow all deep and silent outside.