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‘Is the Ground Nostalgic for Snow?’

Letter from Antigonish: as winter warms, a welling of grief.

By Marc Fawcett-Atkinson 16 Jan 2019 | TheTyee.ca

Marc Fawcett-Atkinson is a student in the UBC Graduate School of Journalism.

I’m back in Vancouver after a visit home to Nova Scotia. For the first time in years, the holidays were seasonal: hoar frost crunched underfoot; wood-smoke wafted horizontally in air too cold for it to rise. Winter, true winter, had arrived in Antigonish County, and that, in a way different from the past, was something to celebrate.

I was reminded of my previous visit home in April, of opening my town’s weekly newspaper to find an old photo republished. In the picture was a house, eaves covered by powdery drifts, front door lurking at the end of a tunnel through the snow. Two men stood outside leaning on shovels. Steam swirled up from the mug they shared and mixed with the cloud rising off their sweaty bodies. The smear of a dog filled the image’s lower left-hand corner; it wasn’t patient enough for the archaic camera to hold it in the frame. A date was scrawled at the bottom of the picture: April 28, 1918.

Beneath the image the newspaper editor cheerfully noted that — a hundred years later to the day — Antigonish County was snowless and the winter had been warm. “Aren’t we lucky?” he seemed to imply.

“Is the ground nostalgic for snow?” I thought, turning from the newspaper to look out the window onto the few remaining patches of crusty snow hidden deep in the spruce forests. The fields were a rusty brown and covered with brown grass and mud while white-green shoots peeked through the dead vegetation, searching for sunlight. Dead grass, new growth, water, melting snow; odoriferous remnants of a season distinguished by a lack of smell wafted on the breeze. They came early last year. Like the year before. And the year before that.

April is fickle; a month of snowstorms and snowdrops. When I was little, the train of winter storms that trundle across Nova Scotia would drop enough snow that warm spring days couldn’t dent the white blanket until May. Yet over the past decade, that powder has melted into a smorgasbord of precipitation — wet snow, sleet, freezing mist, rain. April gales now blow warm and wet, worming into the most inaccessible snowy hollows and transforming them into piles of frozen mush, melting Narnia into Mordor.

What is lost when winters retract their bite?

February 2018 was among Nova Scotia’s warmest on record for Environment Canada, and the average air temperature was about 2 C above normal. This difference — two degrees — might not sound like much, but it’s the difference between a perfect cuppa and scorched brew; between snow and bare ground; between life or death. In the space of two degrees, the rituals and memories that create place literally melt away.

Places are not static wrote British geographer Doreen Massey. They are not just there. They are created through the “coming together of the previously unrelated,” through “a constellation of processes” that isn’t intrinsically coherent. Places, I take Massey to mean, are thrown-together meetings between the lives of various humans and non-humans. It is impossible, therefore, to know a place, as that place never sits still. Yet within this chaos, there remains a bedrock of stories, encounters and meetings that have, over time, become sedimented into a predictable rhythm. “It’s the returns,” writes Massey, “which lend continuity.”

The seasons, then, are the essence of continuity. They are atmospheric tides, shaping the landscape, making sense of the weather and transforming life’s expressions and pace along the way. “Weather,” notes geographer Mike Hulme, “is constantly in flux. It’s both always passing away and in renewal.... It is always unruly, and yet in some ways, as the atmosphere moves through the seasons, also regular.” These movements are marked by ritual: migrations, Christmas trees and white-knuckle drives through snowstorms.

CrystalCliffsNovaScotiaBW.jpg
Crystal Cliffs in Antigonish County, Nova Scotia, taken on April 7, 2007. Photo by Brendan Riley, Creative Commons licensed.

A snowy January welcomed me to the world in 1994. I was born near the end of the month as the returning sun painted the snow-covered fields a deep pink a few minutes more each day. At the time, my parents lived with our enthusiastic golden retriever in a drafty farmhouse a dozen kilometres away from the hospital. The morning after my birth, my mum awoke to gentle taps on the room window and a big, black, snowflake-tipped nose nuzzling the glass. My dad and our hyper-excited dog had skied over the fields and frozen bays between the farmhouse and the hospital, carrying a warm thermos of coffee for my mum and my first snowsuit. Bundling me up in goose down and a woolen hat, they brought me outside for the first time for winter to infuse my first breaths of fresh air.

Writing 25 years later, I’m not sure that ski trip would still be possible. January snow no longer falls deep enough or lasts long enough to drift before it’s erased by rain.

“Ecological grief,” write anthropologists Ashlee Cunsolo and Neville Ellis, is the grief born from an ecological loss. It’s a catch-all term to describe the loss of species, ecosystems and the landscapes of meaning people have made from them as a result of environmental change. It is grief for the stability and continuity that seasonal rhythms bring to memories, experiences and histories.

We developed the idea of seasons as a collective way to cultivate the atmosphere, argues Hulme. Large, unwieldy — atmospheric changes seep around, within and beyond us. Yet, imagined within names — winter, spring, summer, fall, monsoon, drought — they offer a common language. Grief floods in when these linguistic categories are shattered; when the illusion of order they conceal falls apart and we float, adrift, to watch what was once called winter slowly melt away.

The felt loss can be vaguely collective, and sharply personal. The thrill raised by the creaks and pops of ice melting in May. The burn of frozen air curling down one’s throat during a February cold snap. A nor’easter cutting through Gore-Tex, wool and a bellyful of tea. Climate change makes itself known in our breaths; in sweat, shivers, tastes, longings. It robs everyone by stealing individual sensations.

I’m at the beach. Cold seeps through my gloves, driven into the wool like grains of sand chafing my skin. It is damp and the sky is steel grey, transforming the snowy landscape into a real-time monochrome film. My knuckles are purple, cracked from the cold, sluggish as the blood flowing through my capillaries. I warm them up against my neck as I walk, skin touching skin with an electrifying burn, changing hands every minute to keep them thawed evenly. I’m always happy when it is cold enough to co-ordinate this dance between my hands and my neck.

On the drive home, ten centimetres of snow cover the road. White specks blow through my low-beams — it’s too snowy for the highs — and vanish in the darkness beyond the circle of light. The plough has not been on this small county road since the snow started falling in mid-afternoon. I guess that a lone truck has been the only other vehicle to pass along on this narrow road. I play CBC 2 the background, the muted music easing the crunch of wheels passing through snow and the engine’s occasional revs as I push through a drift. A hand on the wheel and the other on the stick shift, I slowly surf my way the last few kilometres home, my stomach unknotting only when I slip into park and switch off the ignition.

Winter moments, once mundane, are becoming unique as if on the brink of extinction, in need of recording, saving, storing away.

There are not many words in English to describe the sensations of winter. Few convey joy: cold, freezing, hibernal. They hint towards sluggishness and sleep; darkness and damp, capturing the season’s difficulties and discomfort.

Apricity is an exception.

In 1623 an English lexicographer, Henry Cockeram, introduced the word to the English language. Derived from the Latin root apricus — the warmth of the sun — apricity means the warmth of the sun in winter. It captures the caress of sunshine on a frozen cheek, and the reflective warmth radiating off the snow and through a window on a January evening. It is a word that captures what is lost by an average rise in temperature of 2 C.

I hope my great grandchildren will have winters in which to use it.  [Tyee]

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