The Sunday Edition

Snow defines us as a country: Michael's essay

"There is a kind of social grace released by heavy snowfall. Strangers push the cars of other strangers out of banks. The young volunteer to shovel the walkways of the old. Falling snow ignores boundaries. It is there for all, serenely democratic if you will."
A man walks a dog as snow falls in Vancouver, B.C., on Feb. 23, 2018. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

The other day I did something I haven't done in ages, maybe 25, 30 years.  I threw a snowball; two in fact. Not at anybody or anything. I threw them into a snowbank.

Just for the momentary remembering of the long-ago joy of grabbing a handful of wet snow, carefully patting and molding it into a tight white sphere and throwing it at your best friend or worst enemy. 

In The Book Thief, Markus Zusak writes: "A snowball in the face is surely the perfect beginning of lasting friendship."

The snow was close at hand. The city was blanketed, smothered in snow drifts five feet high and more, clotting the main roads and side streets. Hardware stores ran out of shovels. 

My 60-something-year-old neighbour, in a toque and high winter boots, yelled across the snow-choked street that he hadn't seen this much fall since his childhood.

Childhood snow seemed whiter than the modern variety. It was banked higher along the narrow downtown streets. It stayed around longer.

Snow went everywhere. (Kelly Malone/CBC)

It was denser, I think. Which made it architecturally perfect for making snow forts. The roof of the fort had to be shaped and packed just so, in order for it to be supported by the snow walls during a thaw. 

We are a snow country. We complain about it or exult in it, but it is as much a part of our national consciousness as the flag, or maple syrup or Tim Horton's or playoff hockey.

It has dictated how we live and where. It has touched every facet of our private and public lives.

In his beautiful hymn to Quebec, "Mon Pays", Gilles Vigneault writes: "Mon chemin, ce n'est pas un chemin, c'est la neige."

The vocabulary of snow surrounds us. We put on the vestments of snow and winter; snowsuits and snow boots. Some of us walk on snowshoes. We make snow angels and catch the first flakes on our tongues. We layer.

We are snowbirds, our children pray for snow days, we tame mountains in order to race downhill on the most expensive skis we can afford. Skiers pray to the snow gods for a good weekend.

We delight in the poetry of snow. There is something about a nighttime snowfall; its gentle silence, its majestic indifference.

e.e. cummings wrote: "The snow doesn't give a soft white damn whom it touches."

And there is a kind of social grace released by heavy snowfall. Strangers push the cars of other strangers out of banks.

After a half-hour of shovelling Monday morning, CBC reporter Catherine Harrop was only a foot closer to her car and considered giving up. (Catherine Harrop/CBC)

The young volunteer to shovel the walkways of the old. 

Neighbourhoods draw in and embrace the shared moments of community experience. Falling snow ignores boundaries. It is there for all, serenely democratic, if you will.

My favourite evocation of snow is from "The Dead," James Joyce's best and best-known short story. It centres on Gabriel Conroy, who arrives late at a Christmas party in Dublin given by his two aunts. 

After a long evening of drink and conversation, Gabriel, a mordant professor and book critic, comes to realize that his life has been an empty thrill.

He hears snowflakes tapping against the window.

"It had begun to snow again ... Yes, the newspapers were right: snow as general all over Ireland. It was falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling to dark mutinous Shannon waves. 

"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 dead."