Thursday, January 28, 2016


"Snow-Bound," by nineteenth-century New England Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier, was my mother's favorite long poem. (Her favorite short poem was Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." Notice a theme?) "The sun that brief December day, Rose cheerless over hills of gray...."


Any East Coast readers here? How did you fare during the blizzard? Record inches of snowfall accumulated in this area. Our supermarket was predictably thronged on Friday, as if people expected to be stuck in the house for weeks instead of two or three days at most. (I was there because Friday is my regular grocery day, and I knew going on Thursday instead would have been as bad if not worse.) The stereotypical supplies of bread, milk, and toilet paper weren't noticeably depleted. Kitty litter (presumably bought by people who neglected to stock up on snow-melt powder ahead of time—luckily our cats were NOT in danger of running out this week) and bottled water, however, were stripped from the shelves. And there seemed to have been inexplicable demand for a few strange products, e.g. green onions and plain yogurt. (I managed to get enough of each from the small amounts remaining.) We were very fortunate to escape a power outage. Years ago, we lost electricity for a full 48 hours after an ice storm while the temperature stayed in the twenties (Fahrenheit) the whole time. I never want to do that again. By the time the power came back on, the interior and exterior temperatures had equalized. Pipes froze, but happily they didn't crack. Without electricity, we have no running water because our neighborhood gets its water from wells, not the public system.

And how about the familiar lore of statistical "baby bumps" nine months after a major weather event? I've always thought that was baloney, an urban legend based, if it ever held any truth, on birth patterns in preindustrial societies. It turns out, according to an article I saw a day or two ago, that there's some truth in it. This pattern, if it exists, makes no sense to me. Okay, so couples have unexpected leisure and few options for entertainment. Getting stuck in the house without electricity makes them suddenly forget how to use birth control? Enough people just happen to run out of condoms or contraceptive prescriptions during a snowstorm or hurricane to generate more than a tiny blip in the numbers?

During the present crisis, there have been relatively few highway accidents locally, because citizens paid attention to the mayor's and county executive's pleas to stay off the roads. With 29 inches of snow and drifts piling much higher, by Saturday most people couldn't have left their houses anyhow. We certainly couldn't have. We were snowbound with our computers, televisions, and other modern luxuries. Also with the chore of walking the dog several times a day in snow too deep for my boots; being a St. Bernard, she loved it and seemed baffled that I wouldn't take her any farther than the edge of the front walk.

Whittier's poem, at its heart, is more about nostalgic memories of his childhood and family members who've passed away than about the snowfall itself. In addition, though, the poem does include lots of vivid details about daily life in rural New England in the midst of coping with a blizzard that confined the family to the house for most of a week. It has often occurred to me that people in that kind of environment would have gotten along better during a major winter storm than twenty-first century people deprived of electric power in a similar situation. Whittier's characters already depended on fireplaces, wood stoves, candles, and oil lamps. They would presumably have stocked plenty of fuel for all these. Their wells, unlike ours, didn't rely on electric pumps. In the absence of a medical emergency, a farm family wouldn't need to go anywhere, so impassable roads were only an inconvenience. If they had to leave home for some urgent reason, "The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh..." and a smart horse would refuse to budge if the "white and drifting snow" got too deep. Cars have no judgment (not yet, anyway). The computers, televisions, telephones, etc., that we urgently miss when they fail weren't a factor for our pre-electronic-age ancestors. In "Snow-Bound" the storm causes only one major change in the household routine, the chore of digging a path to the barn to care for the animals. Whittier does mention the ominous gloom of the wintry sky and the fierceness of the blizzard, but once the family gathers inside around the fire, they are cozy and contented. After the storm, people greet with joy the teamsters coming through to clear the road, as we might cheer for the county snowplow. They're happy to receive newspapers after their days of isolation and don't seem upset that the news is a week old.

On one of Michael Longcor's filk albums, he discusses dealing with a power failure after a big winter storm. Because his household was prepared, they were living in the nineteenth century, as he puts it, while most of their neighbors were living in the tenth century. I'm reminded of DIES THE FIRE, the first book in S. M. Stirling's "Emberverse" series, in which all advanced technology ceases to function instantaneously and permanently. (Spoiler: The gods did it to keep humanity from annihilating itself.) My favorite aspect of that book is the vivid, detailed account of how the survivors cope with the reversion to a preindustrial world. I especially enjoy reading about Juniper MacKenzie's Pagan community, which embraces a lifestyle of harmony with the cycles of the seasons. And unlike many post-apocalyptic novels, DIES THE FIRE ends on a note of hope and promise. In the "next generation" stories that follow the first three books of the series, only the elders clearly remember any other way of life.

Nevertheless, I agree with Longcor—I'd much rather read it than live it. I'm very attached to my central heating, running water, electricity, and modern communications.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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