Rock Island, IL

A century ago in New England, the approach to snow was quite different. When snow began to fly, people switched to runners. Roads were not plowed out, they were rolled down. A giant roller pulled by horses packed the surface to a fine, smooth glaze. Then the sleighs came out, with their bells. And sleds, to haul wood out from the woodlots. Wheels were laid away for the season.

—E.B. White, “The Winter of the Great Snows”

If you have a weakness for sounds and snow alike, “The Winter of the Great Snows” will seduce you. Once it has, you will return to the essay time and again, and time and again it will welcome you. It will satisfy your icy longings and yield its frigid treasures to the cleanly lusts of your northern soul.

And you’ve read E.B. White before. You’ve been delighted by his pig and his spider and the dragon fly on the end of his fishing rod. “The Winter of the Great Snows,” you’re sure, will also delight.

And so it does.

The barn door blocked by snow, the hedges and fences buried beneath it, the loitering geese with their orange snowshoes, the canyon-like roads of Maine, heaving high on either side their ubiquitous excesses of snow, even the odd inclusion of gulls and smelt—delightful all to the very last. You are awed by the sheer bigness of the Great Snows, and you love the snow because you love the words and sounds in which it falls upon you. You belong to a genealogy of pleasure, an ancestry sustained by a love for the mother tongue and by an unbroken and unbreakable lineage that begins and ends with a pure and holy devotion to snow.

The Great Snows that delighted us most as children were those half-dozen or so each winter that got us out of school for a day. These “snow days” as we called them were holy days, and our house held high festival. My parents were school teachers who longed for the closings as much as we did. I remember especially those times when the news of an unscheduled vacation came at night. Outside, the snow fell thick and heavy and promising; inside, we huddled around the radio, poised like sprinters at the starting line, waiting for the gun. A nameless voice, working its deliberate way through the alphabet, came at last to our letter. How many schools could there be with the same first letter? We were like spectators in a dusty gym, the buzzer sounding but the basketball still dancing on the rim, uncertain of whether it should fall in or out.

And then at last, as if indifferently, it fell in! We shot from our chairs and burst into cheers. Bed time was abolished, homework thrust aside, the fears of Mrs. Wilson’s menacing stare and her gray teeth forgotten with a word. Nothing, not even the sweetness and light of Christmas morning, could compare to this brilliance. Never did anything flare to life so brightly as this great wooden kitchen match of hissing joy.

At length we would cease running and jumping and shouting and hugging; at length there began the slow, still, silent pleasure of the evening, burning down like a candle. A long snowdrift of time lay ahead, and because of the blessing of the snowfall there would be the promise of sleeping a little later, the sure confidence of a huge breakfast in the morning with my mother’s famous creamed eggs and funnel cakes, even the leisure of redoing the math problems we knew to be so miserably and hopelessly wrong. Everything lay ahead; all of life was yet to come. We were happy, happy children.

And sometimes an added blessing undisguised fell upon us: a “power outage,” as the grown-ups called it, which darkened our evenings even as the snow spread its magical and palpable light across the land. The outage imposed the sacred necessity of candles and a fire, but the outage was really a “backage,” something thrusting us back in time, a forced but welcome about-face. We would build a fire and sit near it while my father, by the light of fire, would read to us. One night he read Jack London’s “To Build a Fire.” We sat at his feet on the floor, leaning eagerly over our wiry knees crossed Indian-style, dangling precariously from each syllable of the story, hoping in quiet desperation that the man could get his fire lit, hardly able to wait for news of what the dog would do. Darkling we listened. And the faint smell of something always hung upon the air as my father spoke, something that came from his favorite old stoneware cup, his own piece of the past, which he stopped periodically to sip from—the faint smell of brandy, we know now, though we didn’t then. We listened and shivered. And even the fire itself took pleasure that evening, crackling like bubble gum and smiling like fire smiling.

* * *

I always stayed by the fire long after the others had gone to bed. I sat, even then, keeping vigil, flames in my eyes, a limp pencil in my hand and a piece of virgin white paper beneath me, wishing as a child wishes that I could write something like Jack London had written, whoever Jack London was. But I didn’t know how, and so I couldn’t. I didn’t know that there was nothing yet but desire—deep, desperate, but snowed-in desire. So I slept. I slept on the floor by the fire, and the fire would slip away as I dreamed of athletic fame or, even then, of a girl with long, sun-hung hair who would hold my hollow, my not-yet-unholy hand.

In the middle of the night, if I happened to wake because of the press of the ropey carpet in my cheek, or else in the morning, if I happened to sleep straight through the unknown black of night, I would rekindle the fire with my own wind, breathe back the ancestral fire on the dim vestigial coals. Fire would snap in the bright morning, a different kind of fire. And children, as on Christmas morning, and grown-ups too, would rush to the windows to see just how much snow had actually fallen. We would look out across the field at the vast white landscape, each of us considering the treasures of the snow, each of us singing unvoiced songs of thanks and praise. We were still children then: we had not yet eaten of the tree that inclines the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve to hate the snowy cold. We really did want to embrace the ground. It was white and pure and lovely, and I loved it with attention and devotion.

And after the creamed eggs and orange juice we dashed out with the sleds and saucers to make the difficult expedition to the hill, our snow pants swooshing like Aunt Marian’s nylons. There many of the other children already laughed and screamed and howled at those unexpected and painful blasts of snow up the sleeve, and even as we approached the hill we could see one young boy drop the rope to his sled and walk around in circles, his right arm hanging low and his right shoulder dipped toward the ground as in silence he grimaced and waited for the icy pain coursing up and down his arm to subside.

Wintertime, O Wintertime! pattern of life incorruptible, days without end! Amen!

Snotty noses, Lifesaver-red cheeks and pieces of snow crusted like coats of white mail to knitted mittens and hats. In no time at all our socks had slipped down to our toes or off our feet altogether, and we hated to stop from the fun even for a minute to pull off a boot and pull up a sock. We learned even then the way innocently to covet—to covet the other boy’s sled or Snurfer, to look lasciviously on the newest piece of sledding equipment we’d never seen or imagined before.

And I was glad, even then, when a certain girl came to the hill, and already the way I loved her was different from the way I loved the snow, though she stood four inches taller than I.

We had a dinner bell on the back of our house that my mother would ring when she had decided we were getting too cold or thought we might have to pee. We cried from the heights that all was well, that we didn’t want to quit, but as we yelled she bombilated louder, drowning out our voices, which is how mothers negotiate from afar.

We’d pee and have hot chocolate and if we were lucky, which we always were, someone’s father would shovel a rink on the pond at the base of the hill. We would search the basement for our skates and then once we’d found them meet head-on that great childhood dilemma: do you put your skates on at home and walk to the pond, hoping the snow will support you, or do you plunge your feet back into your boots, now wet, and put your skates on when you get there?

* * *

The treasures of snow were inscrutable then, as now, though we didn’t know it and couldn’t scrute them if we tried. The brightness of the snow and sun, the sparkling things, as the poet said, “rough in the distant glitter of the January sun,” the snow above my waist and the hard crusted places where I could walk across the top like Jesus on the water, the various preferences, even then, in outer-wear: snowsuits and snorkel coats and vinyl-sleeved “varsity” jackets, scarfs or no scarfs, ski gloves with hooks on them or mittens without, shoe-boots or pullovers, and the itching scalp under a Pittsburgh Steelers hat, which, like the Fran Tarkenton pajamas, came new at Christmas from the JC Penny catalog, and being happy without knowing it, and the poor kid in corduroys who always ate the snow stuck to his mittens and who licked the green lava that crept from his nose and down the slope of his upper lip and who always peed his pants.

I see now that the snow day was a day of obligation for all families, whether Mom and Dad were teachers or not, for all parents stayed home too. We were all of us content to let the world stop for a day on account of this chilly baptism. Once again we became neighbors to one another, engaged in the common work and vision and fun of shoveling driveways. Lucky for us, no one had been impertinent enough to invent the snow blower yet. Sometimes, after the really big snows, we joined forces to carve a narrow lane down the street and out to the main road, since the chance of seeing a snowplow on our street that day seemed a welcome long-shot.

Sometimes we would walk a mile to the store, pulling someone’s kid brother on a toboggan. We took this walk not because we couldn’t live without milk or a stick of butter for a day but because of backage, because we wanted to see ourselves get to the store without a car—just for a day. We wanted to see that the world did in fact have the good sense to shut down. We were glad to find the store closed and silent as the grave. We would turn around and walk home from a mission unaccomplished.

What I remember most is the house-high snow this entropic earth once gave me. I remember digging my snow forts out of lamb-white drifts so high and deep and mountainous that once I was warm and still within their silent walls I felt the wild and perverse but strangely wished-for thrill of dying a muted suffocating death at the crashing down of my own fallible creation. Genesis and Apocalypse, all of providential history, contracted into a single day.

We slept well that night. A long holiday had come to an end. Tomorrow there might be great fun on the playground, but, like the morning fire, the fun would be different. School fun, not family fun, not neighborhood fun—unless (could it be possible?) more snow were on the way.

* * *

I read White’s “Winter of the Great Snows” late one morning over coffee, a bit later than I usually rise—later, surely, than White’s ritualistic “descent to the dark, cold kitchen at six in the morning, to put a fire in the wood stove and listen to weather from Boston.” The night previous we got what these days seems a generous deposit of snow. But it was hardly enough even for small children to find trouncing through it difficult and certainly not enough to get them out of school even for an hour. I had stayed up into the familiar black of night and the early morning darkness, adequately sampling some brandy of my own and watching the snow fall and thinking about snow days. The durability of White’s essay struck me. It’s grist for a lot of mills.

I’m not saying anything especially profound here; anyone who reads it again will know what I mean. But I’m especially interested in White’s comments on the runner as a thing that used to replace the wheel during the great snows: “Wheels were laid away for the season. The old pleasure in runners hasn’t died, though. The snowmobile is the big new thing—life on runners. It pollutes in two ways: with its exhaust fumes and with its noise.”

That morning the essay reminded me of what I knew would happen later. I knew that when I went out to shovel my driveway I would hear the cacophony of distant snow blowers, much, I imagine, like the outboards in White’s “Once More to the Lake,” and I would wonder again about the uncontested triumph of progress, especially in light of what I heard from the room above me the night before:

It was not the sound of a father reading by brandy and firelight to his children. It was the sound of a monkey. I could see in my mind the goings-on. I could see a teenaged girl who had stayed up long after the others had gone to bed, the gray light of a television in her eyes. I could see her holding the erect stick of a video game controller. I could feel the noisy inward clamor, the deep-down absence of desire. I could see a monkey on the screen; I could hear him making his stupefying screech, a screech that that night serenaded the silence of the snowfall—a great snow—of maybe four inches.

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  1. Well done teecher!
    I started to get choked up at the mention of Jack London’s “To Build a Fire.” It’s in my top five of short stories, sometimes No.1, sometimes not. The story bears the weight of memories; a nubile, recent college grad, sophomore class, English teecher who said I should read Jack London, Flannery O’Connor, H.P. Lovecraft, etc and smiled when she told me.
    Jack London, yessireee, I named my half Lab, Buck, after another of that old socialist’s stories and he was a damn good dog.
    Old Buck’s favorite activities was fightin’ and sex, that boy’d dry hump a tree stump, and I saw him fight a whole pack of wild dogs. My Democrat neighbors said I should get him cut, but when I looked in his moist, watery eyes I couldn’t do it. I always figured he wouldn’t have me cut if the shoe was on the other foot.
    You’re right about the rest of it, the regressive, soul draining cultural progress and I’d rather you were wrong. But we don’t remain the same…never did figure that one out.
    Kinda like Dylan said, “You ain’t goin’ nowhere…”

  2. Wonderful essay. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt that same concentrated intensity of joy you get from hearing your school announced on the radio. Snow days were just about as perfect a day for a child as you could hope for, sleighing and snowball fights all day, then to come home and have the most delicious hot chocolate ever concocted by mom.

  3. There aint nothing quite as deeply stirring as the loud and forceful hush of a monumental snowstorm. The trees whisper songs as the flakes drift down.

    ….”a geneology of pleasure”….nice one but just to follow this up with a Proper Lundy, I noted you still snuck the word “virgin” into this piece you recidivist scalawag.

    Hoist a Laphroaig by the fire Peters,neat….. enjoy this remarkable few days that seems to tame even dyspeptic sots such as ourselves. Not that I would insult you with any kind of comparison or anything.

    As for you Cheeks, now I know the odd linkage that somehow binds us in tart riposte, we both had a half Lab mutt named Buck. Mine was a canine linguist, known to bark entire stanzas whence properly motivated, such as trips to friends when he would wear his favorite visitin attire of a ratty old Brooks Bros. tie and an Iggy Pop t shirt showing him writhing on a dirty Detroit stage screaming “I Wanna Be Your Dog”.
    He wernt no geldin neither. Buck I mean, and of course, the Ig.

  4. DW, dude, anytime I think back on Buck I get a little choked. Someday we’ll have to exchange Buck stories..don’t wanna break Peter’s thread,”yet.”
    The new boy, “eutychus” is playing nice today. I like this fellow, kinda like you in your prime; nasty, brutish, short, and argumentative.
    BTW, it’s “Christmas Jewess!”
    Also, BTW, you’re waxing eloquent this morning!

  5. Terrific piece. The flood of one’s own memories comes back reading this – different but similar enough… This was a great read. Thank you!

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