Sunday, January 30, 2011

Let It Snow

To some, a blizzard is a natural disaster. Great cities grind to a halt, power lines go down, airline flights are grounded, roads are impassable, schools close. City mayors advise citizens to stay home rather than brave the treacherous highways. I love it because it is the only force outside war that has the power to put the emergency brakes on our juggernaut civilization.

When I was a boy in Georgia and South Carolina, one particular story that was in one of my reading anthologies impressed on me a dream that was only made tangible on the rare occasions when an ice- or snowstorm reached my latitude. It was Conrad Aiken's "
Silent Snow, Secret Snow." Aiken was a fine minor poet, and the parts of the story that stayed with me long after other details were forgotten were the fantasies of snow that a boy escapes to, eventually alarming his parents enough to call a doctor.

It was written as long ago as 1934, but the world it explores is familiar enough to anyone who grew up in a suburban neighborhood before the blight set in: sidewalks and front yards and picket fences - the world before housing projects and apartment complexes. Aiken captured that world and then subjected it to the deep freeze of a boy's deepening fantasy. By the end of the story, the snow in his fantasy world is filling up his room with snow:

A beautiful varying dance of snow began at the front of the room, came forward and then retreated, flattened out toward the floor, then rose fountain-like to the ceiling, swayed, recruited itself from a new stream of flakes which poured laughing in through the humming window, advanced again, lifted long white arms. It said peace, it said remoteness, it said cold - it said -

At least that's as much of the story as I took away with me and stays with me all these years hence. From where I live today, in a tropical climate, the news reports of snowstorms all across America, as far south as Alabama and Georgia, make me more homesick than ever, simply because nothing can make a cold, dark winter more alluring than a few years of perpetual summer.

Conrad Aiken had lived for awhile in Savannah, Georgia when he was a boy, before a disaster befell both his parents. He returned to Savannah late in his life, and is buried there, his tombstone fashioned into a stone bench upon which visitors are invited to sit and drink a martini. Aiken wrote about snow more eloquently, I think, than any other American poet, even Robert Frost:

Improvisations: Light and Snow


It is night time, and cold, and snow is falling,
And no wind grieves the walls.
In the small world of light around the arc-lamp
A swarm of snowflakes falls and falls.
The street grows silent. The last stranger passes.
The sound of his feet, in the snow, is indistinct.

What forgotten sadness is it, on a night like this,
Takes possession of my heart?
Why do I think of a camellia tree in a southern garden,
With pink blossoms among dark leaves,
Standing, surprised, in the snow?
Why do I think of spring?

The snowflakes, helplessly veering,,
Fall silently past my window;
They come from darkness and enter darkness.
What is it in my heart is surprised and bewildered
Like that camellia tree,
Beautiful still in its glittering anguish?
And spring so far away!

When I arrived here in the Philippines, I was informed by an older expat that I wouldn't miss the cold weather of America, or I would only miss it for a short time and then I would be glad I was so far away from it. He was wrong. I miss the cold weather, and most of all the snow, as much as I did when I was a boy in the American South. It's why I wanted to live in New England when I was seventeen, but had to settle for Colorado. It's why I had no qualms about moving to Anchorage, Alaska - which is, after all, only as far north as Stockholm or St. Petersburg. In mid-winter, when the sun rises in the southeast at about 8:30am, reaches a zenith at forty-five degrees in the sky, and sets in the southwest at about 4pm, I felt as if I had arrived in Paul's world, the boy in Aiken's story, who withdrew irresistibly into his private, secret world. "It was as if, in some delightful way, his secret gave him a fortress, a wall behind which he could retreat into heavenly seclusion."

Earlier this month here in the Philippines, the temperature in Baguio, at nearly a mile in altitude, dipped below 10 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit). The natives panicked - doctors prescribed the proper clothes to wear, the proper food and drink, to protect unaccustomed Filipinos from the cold snap. Today, when I look at the endless verdure all around me, I have only to close my eyes and I am greeted by a universe of white.

(Here is a short film of Aiken's story made in 1966.)

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