Category Archives: News and Events

Protean Snow

It’s not hard to decipher where this title came from. Like our touchstone, Henry Thoreau, I have been outside, and now, from my morning chair by two large windows, I can see the sheets, flurries and wind-worries of leftover storm, which follows earlier storm and, I suppose, anticipates the next. We are in the thrall of snow. And, while we missed the two feet predicted 48 hours ago, this winter’s full measure has been enough to send me “up-roof,” as my neighbors say, to see about easing the load on our sun-state-design, shallow-pitched roof.

Up there, I’ve found a stratigraphy of this remarkable geology of snow, in which I read its narrative, even as I remove it. Each storm has its story, which is, in turn pressed down and preserved by the next. This morning, I put in about an hour of shoveling, flinging an estimated 3000 pounds of snow over the edge, where it grew into piles that should remind into May. When I climbed down and went to move the flank of one of those piles, I encountered a familiar metamorphosis. The soft snow I had thrown easily from the roof had set like the whitest concrete; when I did chop some of it free, it came off in dense chunks. The shift from angel snow to construction-grade hardpack had taken less than an hour.

Wages of Shoveling

Wages of Shoveling

Which got me thinking about transformations. Which got me thinking about avalanches.

A decade or so ago, I was sent a book for review (review appended at the end of this post). I read Jill Fredston’s Snowstruck avidly and with increasing admiration. Fredstone and her husband Doug Fesler (composers of most interesting northern lives) are avalanche experts from Alaska, and her 2005 book distilled their experience and a series of harrowing narratives into a very readable chronicle of moving snow. The book has since become a must-read for many avalanche courses.

What I recalled from the book was the wild variety of snows on offer, and the way it emphasized moving snow’s grip when it comes to rest. What seems a wonderland of sliding can become, rapidly, a hard, gripping reality.

As I’ve read through Thoreau’s 1855 and 1856 winters, while this Winter of ’15 mesmerizes, I’ve noted down its snows. And now in its deepness, I climb to my roof and read its layerings. It occurs to me that I am in the company of Proteus, the shapeshifter; day after day, as I wrestle with him, he keeps changing.

Snowstory

Snowstory

A Review of Snowstruck.

Jill Fredston.
Harcourt 2005
352 pages
$24.00

Snowstruck’s chapter three opens with a photo of a long chain of people ascending Alaska’s wintery Chilkoot Pass. Soon the reader learns that everyone in the photo is doing “the Chilkoot Lockstep,” an uphill shuffle to the top of the pass and a chance at joining the 1898 gold rush into Alaska’s Klondike. But a reader who knows snow might be pardoned for wondering what all those people were doing tramping together across a slope that looks distinctly like avalanche terrain. “Seeking fortune,” would be the ready answer, but of course those who seek gold often find hard lessons rather than wealth, and most of these Klondike stampeders found hardship in abundance. Later in the chapter, woe visits in the form of one of history’s deadliest avalanches, wiping out tens of stampeders.

The story of these Klondike aspirants is uncovered by one of Snowstruck’s central characters, snow and avalanche guru Doug Fesler, who also happens to be the author’s husband (their romance is a subplot of this larger love affair with snow). Fesler is digging back through old newspapers to learn more of avalanche history in Alaska (their home state). It is a measure of his and the book’s focus on avalanches that he will closet himself in small, dark rooms to read microfilms about snow sliding a hundred years ago. That he is rediscovering an intimacy of knowledge about the natural world that Alaska’s aboriginal people had casts Fesler (and the author) as valuable anachronisms, albeit ones who use modern analytic tools. They are the ones who remind us in lucid detail of what is lost when we march in lockstep pursuit of wealth and out of right relationship with nature – we might as well be crossing a perilous slope poised to carry us all away.

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Filed under Arts, General, Henry David Thoreau, Literature, Nature, News and Events, The Roost

Cold Fridays (or Other Days of the Week)

By Corinne H. Smith

“Mother remembers the Cold Friday very well. She lived in the house where I was born. The people in the kitchen – Jack Garrison, Esther, and a Hardy girl – drew up close to the fire, but the dishes which the Hardy girl was washing froze as fast as she washed them, close to the fire. They managed to keep warm in the parlor by their great fires.” ~ Thoreau’s journal, January 11, 1857

If you have visited Thoreau Farm, you can no doubt picture this scene. An assortment of family members and a few servants were huddled beside the large fireplace in our first-floor parlor. They had abandoned working in the kitchen in the salt-box shed attached to the back of the house. Outside the wind whipped across their fields. None of them knew how long they would have to stay here. And if they had to keep building “great fires,” perhaps we should feel fortunate today that they didn’t accidentally burn down the whole house back then.

Every region has its dramatic weather stories. For winter records, New England has the Blizzard of 1978, the Great Snows of 1717, and the Cold Friday of January 19, 1810. (Perhaps the Winter of 2014-2015 will get a fancy name and will be added to the list.)

Yes, that's cold.

Yes, that’s cold.

Thursday, January 18th, 1810 had been an unseasonably warm day. Some spots reported temperatures as high as the 50s and low 60s. But by sunset a line of snow squalls moved into western Massachusetts “with the power and fury of a tornado,” according to one source. “Desolation marked its course.”

Temperatures plummeted as the storm moved from west to east. By midnight, many thermometers were down to zero. On Friday, they dropped to -14, even -20. And those readings didn’t take what we call now wind chill into consideration. Wind velocities weren’t reported then, but they must have been catastrophic. The front brought a sustained “high wind, cold and piercing in the extreme, and of such force as to prostrate many trees and buildings.” Tree trunks were sheared off at various heights. The meeting house in New Ipswich, New Hampshire, was just one of the buildings that lost its roof. The wind and cold abated a bit by Monday, but the rest of January remained frigid.

Cold Friday was tragic enough that it was written about in town histories. In Woburn, Massachusetts, Joseph and Benjamin Brooks had gone to a nearby woodlot to chop wood that Thursday. On Saturday, they were found frozen to death. In Sanbornton, New Hampshire, Jeremiah Ellsworth’s house was torn apart by the wind. He pushed his way against the gale to a neighbor’s house for help, then returned to his own to rescue his wife and three children. The wind tore the children’s clothes right off their bodies. In spite of their best efforts, Jeremiah and his wife lost all three.

While other New Englanders dealt with dire losses of property and lives, the Dunbars and Minots and their friends stayed safe in this two-and-a-half story frame house we now call Thoreau Farm, built in 1730. According to entries in Henry Thoreau’s journal, members of his mother’s generation brought up memories of Cold Friday whenever the winter was particularly cold or snowy. Cynthia Dunbar had been 22 years old back then: still two years away from becoming Mrs. John Thoreau, and seven years away from giving birth to little David Henry.

As we in the Northeast hunker down to experience our own version of cold Friday, perhaps we can take inspiration from Cynthia and the people of Concord in 1810. They made it through the cold, and we can, too. Let’s hope ours isn’t one for the record books.

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Filed under Environment, General, Henry David Thoreau, Living Deliberately, Nature, News and Events, The Roost, Thoreau Quote

Deeper Still – Digging Back into The Great Snow of 1717

I’ve just come in from hoisting more snow off the driveway and onto the banks along it. I use the word “hoisting,” because the usual dig-and-fling of shoveling won’t work anymore. Instead I’m now tossing snow back at the sky, which seems to underline the futility of the work.

8-foot tall blueberry bushes "innived" (left foreground)

8-foot tall blueberry bushes “innived” (left foreground)

Whenever Henry Thoreau wants to evoke wallowing snows and winter awe, he turns back to the Great Snow[s] of 1717. Then, in the very month of February, huge, wind-driven snows laid down Buffalonian depths that buried both houses and pastured animals. In “Winter Visitors,” he writes of “that early settler’s family in the town of Sutton, in this state”:

…whose cottage was completely covered by the great snow of 1717 when he was absent, and an Indian found it only by the hole which the chimney’s breath made in the drift, and so relieved the family.

And a little earlier, at the end of “Housewarming,” he returns from being “exposed to the rudest blasts” to this thought:

It would be easy to cut their [humanity’s] threads anytime with a little sharper blast from the north. We go on dating from Cold Fridays and Great Snows, but a little colder Friday, or greater snow, would put a period to man’s existence on the globe.

Both moments in Walden point to the narrow span that we call “normal” and what waits outside it; they make his point amply. But for drifts of detail equal to the snows they describe, we go to his journal, where Thoreau, in turn, records an eyewitness account from Cotton Mather in a December letter from 1717. The letter begins with understatement:

On the twentieth of last February there came on a snow, which being added unto what had covered the ground a few days before, made a thicker mantle for our mother than what was usual.

Okay, we think, big storm atop prior snowfall; we’ve seen the like. But like our current winter with its more than 5 feet of snow for Boston in the past 17 days (ah, the recurring 17), there was more to come:

On the 24th day of the month comes Pelion upon Ossa [see mountainous imagery]: Another snow came on which almost buried the memory of the former, with a storm so famous that Heaven laid an interdict on the religious assemblies throughout the country…The Indians near an hundred years old affirm that their fathers never told them of anything that equalled it.

There follows vivid description of all sorts of snow-burials – cattle entombed, sheep too:

For no less than eight and twenty days after the storm, the people pulling out the ruins of above an hundred sheep out of a snow bank, which lay sixteen foot high, drifted over them, there was two found alive…A man had a couple of young hogs, which he gave over for dead, but on the 27th day after their burial, they made their way out of a snow bank, at the bottom of which they had found a little tansy to feed upon.

So, given this ’17 comparison, not so deep for us…yet. When last I checked, we still have “a little tansy to feed upon.” Still, there’s more winter to come.

Added note for those looking for winter words: Mather uses the word “innived” for those animals buried in snow. Just the word for our winter, I think – may your days be enlivened for being innived.

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Filed under Environment, General, Henry David Thoreau, Literature, Nature, News and Events, The Roost, Thoreau Quote