A big winter storm is a complex event that, though more or less vast in scale, is well understood by science. Air masses, having varying temperatures, pressures, and moistures, and moving at differing altitudes in different directions at different speeds, collide and commingle, producing clouds, wind, and snow. Considered from the point of view of […]
By Castle Freeman Jr.
Dec 14 2011
A big winter storm is a complex event that, though more or less vast in scale, is well understood by science. Air masses, having varying temperatures, pressures, and moistures, and moving at differing altitudes in different directions at different speeds, collide and commingle, producing clouds, wind, and snow.
Considered from the point of view of weather science, then, storms are straightforward phenomena, differing from one another mainly in their effects on human affairs: So many inches of snow mean so many roads closed, flights cancelled, travelers delayed. But in addition to being a meteorological event, a winter storm has another aspect: Because it plays out over time, a storm is more than weather. It’s also a narrative–that is, a story.
A story, let us say, is a sequence of actions with a beginning, a middle, an end–and, somehow or other, a point. In considering a snowstorm as a story, the beginning, middle, and end are, as comparisons, not far to seek: the point we’ll get to shortly.
Beginning. “Announced by all the trumpets of the sky, / Arrives the snow . . .” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in his well-loved poem “The Snow-Storm.” Emerson composed it in 1835. Things are different today. Our winter storms arrive announced by all the trumpets of CNN, The Weather Channel, TV networks, and the Internet–but they don’t use trumpets. They don’t need them. Instead, they use terrifying metaphor and hyperbole worthy of Chicken Little: “Monster Storm Bears Down on New England” … “Colossal Blizzard” … The media bill a big winter storm as a kind of semi-monthly Armageddon. They do so for a reason: It’s good for business. Weather is news, and therefore weather sells, but only if it’s big and bad. This fact is one that the student of weather should always keep in mind, especially in New England. If you want to remain sane in this region over the winter, you’ll learn to discount the weather headlines by at least 75 percent. Without benefit of press agentry, a real winter storm tunes up in a series of notes, chords, and scales far quieter than the broadcasters’ clamor–but perhaps in its own equally ominous way. The sun, so bright and agreeable earlier in the day, or the week, is suddenly quite gone. Out of a low, mouse-colored sky an idle flake descends, then another. Not even flakes: tiny grains of white. And only a few. You can almost count them. Nothing to write a poem about here, you think. But wait. You go indoors for some reason, and 10 minutes later when you look out the window, you can’t see the barn. Welcome to the storm.
Middle. Half the day on, the wind picks up and fills the air with snow. The new snow as it falls and the already-fallen snow as it’s snatched aloft again are mixed, driven, and whirled this way and that by the wind, faster and faster, as if in a mad Scottish reel. The neighbor’s horses stand stoically in their pasture, unmoving, as if carved out of shaggy marble. They wait it out. You’re waiting, too, and the time passes slowly. Partly that’s because, through the heart of the storm, the temperature hardly changes. The thermometer has been stuck at 18* for hours, as though it, too, were waiting, hanging on tight and steady, like the horses down the road.
End. You know you’ve come to the end of a real story when the design, so to speak, that the beginning has established is complete–as, for example, in Shakespeare, when the wise virgin has married the prince, or (a different play) everybody’s lying dead on the stage. The end of a winter storm is signaled differently: The snow changes. The minute, sandy flakes that ushered in the storm are now plump and soft; they drop from the sky like white doves. The sky itself is different; it’s lighter. The soup has been strained. Presently, in the southwest, a patch of blue will appear. Now, if you go outdoors, you’ll see the aftermath of the storm in the brilliant-white ramparts, towers, and cathedrals that the wind has constructed–what Emerson’s poem calls “the frolic architecture of the snow.”
“Frolic architecture of the snow” is good, isn’t it? It suggests that the storm has been having fun; it’s been at play. Before you take up your shovel and begin the long job of recovery, pause briefly to do the same. Enjoy the snow, if only as a spectacle. You might as well. For, remember, a story has a beginning, a middle, an end–and a point. And the point of this story is this: The storm wins. You can’t hide from it, outsmart it, make it go away, gain its friendship, or hire somebody to experience it for you. The hero of the storm’s narrative isn’t you. The hero is the storm.