Snow at Walden (Walden 168)

2011-12 006s

OK, this isn’t snow at Walden as the headline says. It’s snow on a branch just outside my window in Nebraska. Thoreau would probably point out that you can see buds ready to open come spring. That’s one way he got through the long Massachusetts winters… by looking closely for any sign of the coming spring.

“At this season I seldom had a visitor. When the snow lay deepest no wanderer ventured near my house for a week or fortnight at a time, but there I lived as snug as a meadow mouse, or as cattle and poultry which are said to have survived for a long time buried in drifts, even without food; or like 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.” — Henry David Thoreau, “Former Inhabitants and Winter Visitors,” Walden

Thoreau is just telling tall tales about winters past, right? Classic old-timer stories of impossible winters that get bigger with every telling… well, not really. The Great Snow of 1717 really did dump 40 to 60 inches (100-150 cm) of snow on Boston and vicinity during what was already the worst winter in memory. In Hampton, drifts were so deep that people could only leave their houses by the lee side of the upper story. The storm killed livestock, reduced housebound people to burning their furniture to keep warm. But Henry’s reaction (can’t you guess it?) was,

“The Great Snow!  How cheerful it is to hear of!”

He’s not being entirely serious. His next sentence, about farmers having to cut down shade trees in front of their homes because they couldn’t get to the woods, is something I can’t imagine him actually celebrating, but I think — snug in his little house with no job to go to — the thought of a big snow makes him feel like a kid on a snow day.

Remember how it was when you were a child and a big snow fell and school was canceled? (If you didn’t grow up in a northern climate, just bear with me.) It meant getting to stay home and play in the snow. But for adults it seems that snow days are less likely to be granted, and a big storm probably just means a slower commute, spinning tires, scraping of ice, scooping of heavy snow.

The worst snow I remember was the blizzard of April 1973. My parents went for groceries and got stuck on the way home. Though they were only a block away my mom couldn’t walk into the fierce wind — a neighbor brought her home on a snowmobile (impressing us kids) and my older brother took a sled to help my dad with the groceries. The next day our back door was frozen shut and there were drifts in the driveway taller than I was. I’ve always thought of that day as great fun, and not until I was much older did it occur to me that there was any other way to remember that greatest of all snow days.

That’s how Henry felt, I think, snug in his little hut.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)


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