Like much of the country for the last several weeks, we’ve been under siege out here in Western Massachusetts. Snow, ice, strong winds, and freezing temperatures have us in a stranglehold. We have turned into primeval beings—searching only for food, shelter and warmth.
I can’t say that there’s much I enjoy about this harsh weather. I’m not a skier and have long ago given up snowman making. I’m not even much for hot chocolate.
For the past few weeks I’ve done little else except look out the window at snow and worry about the roof.
Roof worries abound. Daily newscasts are filled with stories of roofs caving in and barns groaning under the weight of three feet of snow. Residents in my town reported 70 incidents of structural damage from snow in the last 36 hours. A barn a few towns over collapsed on a herd of cattle. Big box stores are especially susceptible to failures, of course, with their long, flat roofs. Everyday as I drive down the main commercial artery between Amherst and Northampton, I see men in orange snow suits shoveling atop the local grocery and hardware stores. Bulked out in heavy-duty gear and silhouetted against the sky, they look like ice-locked astronauts.
If we weren’t concerned that all this snow signaled roof leaks and sagging ceilings, the icicles hanging from everyone’s homes might be beautiful. Last Sunday morning—a rare day of sunshine and mild temperatures—I went out for fresh air. I took my camera and hunted for images of this memorable winter–ropes of thick ice and glittering strands of crystal sparkling in the sun. Then there were more ominous scenes. Front doors locked by long frozen bars of ice—rods that ran from roof to ground. It looked as if no one had gone in or out those doors in weeks and I could only wonder what poor defeated soul was imprisoned inside.
The only pleasure I have taken from this winter has come, oddly enough, from shoveling the deck. For the first several days, the task was nothing but a back-breaking chore. I couldn’t get the deck door opened initially and had to push and shove against 30 inches of snow. But as I waded in and began work, something else took hold and I began to think of the job as facing down Mother Nature—as a test of character. Soon, I wanted more than a single path cleared. I wanted the whole deck free of snow. Every inch, every skim of ice, every frozen foot chopped and scraped and hurled into a growing mound of snow at the edge of the woods. That mound became a symbol of my perseverance, my readiness, my refusal to give in. It was as if each heaping shovelful of snow was a “Take that!” to forces I could not see.
Yesterday around dinnertime, I finished shoveling. I was so proud of my accomplishment I wanted to call friends, invite them over even to take a look. I hoped they would pat me on the back and say “Quite a job you did there!”
But then, thank goodness, I thought better of it. Shoveling the deck was only my personal stand against a rough winter. A way to blow off steam. Some claim to sturdiness.
But just to be safe, I’m leaving my shovel beside the door. Maybe it will ward off future storms.
Or maybe it will remind me of a local resident’s advice. After all, poet Richard Wilbur, tells us, “Out here, you never know.”
Strangers might wonder why
That big snow-shovel’s leaning
Against the house in July.
Has it some cryptic meaning?
It means at least to say
That, here, we needn’t be neat
About putting things away,
As on some suburban street.
What’s more, by leaning there
The shovel seems to express,
With its rough and ready air,
A boast of ruggedness
If a stranger said in sport
“I see you’re prepared for snow,”
Our shovel might retort
“Out here, you never know.”
*From Richard Wilbur, “Out Here.” Anterooms: New Poems and Translations. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010.