The Sunday Magazine

Canadians are a winter people and we know the indifference of nature — Michael's essay

"Humans have been praying to the weather gods since we slouched out of the primordial ooze. The gods haven’t been listening. But we humans are nothing if not resilient. Canadians are a winter people, and we know the indifference of nature. It does its worst and we prevail. This is especially true of Newfoundlanders.”
Two residents stroll down New Gower Street in St. John’s on Jan. 18. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

My favourite literary hero, Mr. Mark Twain, had a thing about weather. He wrote about it all the time. Though he was not a very good poet, he once wrote a poem about the sweltering heat of Australia.

He probably did not say, "Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it."

But his interest was keen and everlasting. He loved the indeterminacy of it.

"Climate is what we expect; weather is what we get," he said.

From time to time, I am roundly criticized by listeners for using the phrase, "all the news and all the weathers." Plural.

I make no apologies. I take my cue from Mr. Twain: "In the spring, I have counted 136 different kinds of weather in 24 hours."

Writers and poets have made the weather a staple of their creative work.

The English critic, John Ruskin, rhapsodized about every element of weather.

"There is no such thing as bad weather," he wrote, "Only different kinds of good weather."

Robert Frost's most famous poem is "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening".

Climate and weather are on everybody's mind these days. An entire continent catches fire, something that hasn't happened before. Coastal Australians seriously consider having to jump into the ocean to save their lives.

At the same time, the city of Calgary sees freezing temperatures it has not experienced since the Depression.

Bangladesh and islands of the Philippines, are in danger of being washed away by monsoon rains, while parts of the southwestern United States can go for months without rain.

A snow bank with a "for sale" sign in St. John's after this month's blizzard. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

And on the east coast of Newfoundland, from the Avalon Peninsula to Gander, the island is hit with a snowstorm of unprecedented ferocity.

We've all seen the pictures. Shops and schools closed. Impassable streets. State of emergency extended. The army called in to help the civilian population. Winds as high as 140 kilometres per hour.

Every year for the past 20, my family has spent at least two weeks in the small village of Salvage on Bonavista Bay. It is one of the most beautiful villages in the country.

Massive storm surges in Bonavista, N.L., washed away much of the shoreline in January. (Submitted by Eric Abbott)

When the storm broke, I began emailing almost everyone I know in that part of the island. They all said they and their families were fine.

Salvage and the Eastport Peninsula were plugged with snow. But the villagers had enough food and warmth to get through the storm.

At one point there was an avalanche, which swept down on the houses on the Battery in St. John's, which overlooks the Narrows, the harbour and the city.

When I heard about the avalanche, I contacted Chris Brookes, the brilliant radio documentary maker who lives on the Battery.

Ice in the cove at Charlottetown, in Bonavista Bay, N.L. (Submitted by Penney Turner)

He and his family were without power for a time, but otherwise they were fine. Chris was a bit concerned about the hens he keeps for fresh eggs.

The thing about the weather is its damnable indifference. Humans have been praying to the weather gods since we slouched out of the primordial ooze. The gods haven't been listening.

But we humans are nothing if not resilient. Canadians are a winter people and we know the indifference of nature. It does its worst and we prevail. This is especially true of Newfoundlanders.

They are used to the horrific variations of chaotic weather systems.

And they deal with them with gritty grace, exuberant good humour and determination to —  yes, the word is weather — the storms.

A soldier from the 4th Artillery Regiment based at CFB Gagetown clears snow at a residence in St. John’s on Jan. 20. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

As the comedian Mark Critch put it: "Newfoundland and Labrador is the only place on Earth where a disaster could strike and you'd find yourself wishing you could be there for it."

One of the most moving passages about the indifference of nature, winter weather and snow is in James Joyce's greatest short story, The Dead, from his collection called Dubliners.

This is the last paragraph of The Dead:

Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, further westwards, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling too upon every part of the lonely churchyard where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

Click 'listen' above to hear the full essay.

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