It’s not just the landscape that snow changes, but a whole outlook on life
The dog has gone slightly mad. Astonished every morning that her territory has been transformed into a sparkling white playground, she bounds through the snow, her nose acting as a snowplough. Normally rather ladylike when it comes to creature comforts, she ignores the cold, the wet, the fact that balls of ice hang from her fur like baubles on a Christmas tree. She just wants to be out there all the time, having fun.
Humans are acting differently, too. Here in the frozen wastes of Norfolk, smallholders trudge out to their fields, bearing hay for their sheep or food for their pigs and hens, pretending for a moment they are fell farmers battling against the elements. Drivers edging past one another on the country roads exchange information about hold-ups. In the village shop, there is cheerfully grumpy weather talk while, outside, school children waiting for the school bus enjoy a snowball fight. On the platform at the local station, travellers waiting for a delayed train have built a snowman. Everywhere, nature is quiet, but humans are chattier, more aware of each other, than usual.
Let’s hear it for snow. The press and the TV news may be telling a grim story, with those familiar favourites “chaos”, “misery” and “disruption” returning to the headlines. That new contributor to national gloom, David Quarmby, author of something called the Winter Resilience Review, may be telling us every day that our national infrastructure is not nearly resilient enough. The chorus of moans about roads, railways, gritters, icy pavements and the cold are all justified in their way, but another brighter narrative has been unfolding, largely unreported.
The snow does not just change the landscape, giving the dull browns and greys of late autumn an instant makeover in white, and often bringing a startling beauty to the most unexpected of places, but it also affects the way we behave towards one another. It has an invigorating effect, shaking us out of our daily complacency and generally making us feel more alive.
Normally, when the natural world reminds us of its might, and our own puniness, with a flood, a hurricane or a mighty wave, it is a nasty, jolting experience. With snow, it cushions the blow with beauty and an eerie stillness.
Obviously it brings its share of discomfort – commuters need to travel, jobs need to be done, the economy must keep turning – but the benefits of snow outweigh these annoyances. Now and then it is healthy to be reminded of the fragility of the convenience culture upon which we have all become so pathetically dependent. The familiar complaints in the media about the incapacity of our basic services to deal with the weather have the same, simple subtext: we are not in control; for all our sophistication and knowledge, we are helpless when the snow starts to fall.
People need occasionally to get off the machine of 21st-century life, to be jolted out of their daily routines. When winter weather slows, or brings to a halt, the daily, practical world of jobs and chores, the noise and rush subside for a few days. We are forced to step back and take a look at the wider picture of our lives – to appreciate what we have, those close to us, to put work and business in their proper place.
When they do that, most people become less exhausted, less anaesthetised. It is why they are prepared to make fools of themselves when there is snow on the ground, to play, to be kind.
We should be grateful at times like this. There was a time when weather of the kind Britain is experiencing now – a much more regular occurrence – was a matter of life and death. The last thing anyone would think of doing as the snow began to fall would be to run about and celebrate. In rural parts in particular, it presaged hunger, hardship, loss of livestock.
Now, for most people, the greatest fear is that the daily supply of bread and milk to the shops might briefly be interrupted. A few wimpish weather-haters, suddenly fearful of having to go cold turkey without their everyday comforts, have scurried and slithered to those places of worship of the convenience culture, the supermarkets. Confronted by the unimaginable horror of delivery lorries being unable to deliver pizza, chicken pies and toothpaste, they have in some parts of the country set about emptying the shelves.
The panickers are in a minority, however. For most people, snow brings out the best in human nature. Never is it more obvious that our lives become easier than those of our forbears. Traditionally, it reminds us of the past but the present plays its part, too. Being able to enjoy snow is a modern luxury.
When systems start to break down and our 21st-century network of supplies and services turns out not to be quite as sophisticated as we had assumed, and judders to a halt, people have tended to follow their best instincts. One might think that pressure and difficulty might have the effect of making people more selfish, but snow has the opposite effect. It is a benign inconvenience and those affected by it, from pensioners stranded at home to hungry birds in the garden, are given help. Something old-fashioned and kind kicks in.
It is not Hollywood sentimentality that connects a winter wonderland with decency, family and childhood. The disruption, even the chaos, are a force for good. Snow offers us the chance to remember the silliness and play that tend to be forgotten in our busy, important adult lives. When, a couple of years ago, a video appeared on the news showing a New York policeman, caught up in a mass snowball fight in Manhattan, drawing a pistol, it was not the humourless cop that was most interesting but the fact that, in one of the toughest cities in the world, strangers had spontaneously engaged in a snow-fight. Nothing else brings out that all-important sense of childish fun in the way that snow does.
The positive effects of winter weather are probably most evident in areas where a sense of community – “localism”, as politicians have taken to calling it – is still alive. The local shop, if you are lucky enough still to have one, becomes a lifeline, the local pub a refuge. Briefly, even farmers become part of the community, taking to the roads in their tractors, unlikely St Bernards.
In fact, the scenes which now appear on the daily news, of people sheltering the stranded, doing small acts of decency to help others, belong in the dreams of David Cameron. A few inches of snow fall, and suddenly the Big Society seems not such an impossible idea after all.
The dog is right. These are days to savour. In the countryside, a world of hidden wildlife is revealed, highlighted against the whiteness or simply in footprints left in the snow. People in towns are taken out of themselves. For a few days, the travails of modern life – the economy, the silly royal wedding, the protesting students, Sepp Blatter – are forced to take second place to that great gift of nature, the snow.
Independent, Saturday, 4 December 2010