Non-Profit Internet Source for News, Events, History, & Culture of Northern Frederick & Carroll County Md./Southern Adams County Pa.


Of Snow, and Silence, and Salvador Dali

Bill Meredith

The horse was lean and lank;
misfortune was his lot.
We ran into a drifted bank,
and we, we got upsot.
"Jingle Bells."
James Pierpont, 1857.

It is mid-February as I write this, and I have spent most of the day shoveling snow off the walk in front of our house. It is 21 inches deep, a relatively meaningless figure because it came in two separate storms a week apart, was drifted by winds that were said to reach 50 mph, and has packed itself down by its own weight. If it had fallen all at once with no wind, it might have been three feet deep, but I've no way to tell. The Weather Bureau says it's a record; I'll take their word for it.

Record or not, it isn't unusual; every decade or so, we get snow like this. Last month's article on "100 Years Ago" described sleigh races down Main Street and people getting dumped into drifts when sleighs ran off the road, just like in the song. I remember digging out of snow piled over the hood of the car in the '60s when we lived out at the college, and a similar storm completely buried our VW Beetle here in town in the '70s. One day in the '80s it started snowing about 8:00 a.m., and we had over a foot by noon; the college closed, and I tried over an hour to locate my son so we could come home. He and his girlfriend, who later became his wife, had decided to go for a walk in the snow, and by the time I found him it had drifted over two feet in some places and we almost didn't make it home. And the previous record for snowfall was in 1996. Looked at from this perspective, we were due for such a storm.

I have always enjoyed snow. To be sure, getting old makes you feel insecure and less certain that you can cope with it, but I still love the beauty of it. I used to collect verses for my calligraphy students to copy in Adult Education, and among them was the shortest poem I ever saw. It consisted of just three words:


All's new."

Brief as it is, it captures the essence, and in that sense the value, of a snowstorm: it explains why it is beautiful. Snow covers up the dirt and disorder of our everyday surroundings, and it forces us to stop whatever we're doing and think about something other than our daily grind. I looked out the kitchen window the morning after the storm passed and almost didn't recognize my own yard; the dead vegetation in the flowerbeds on the bank was gone, as were all the bushes less than three feet high. In their place the wind had sculpted the yard into the contours of the sand dunes at the beach. The whole world looked new; even the birds at the feeder were different. Within the next few days I had a fox sparrow, a rare migrant, and a towhee, whose usual date is April; and oddest of all was a myrtle warbler, which I never had seen in the yard before.

In addition to its visual beauty, snow has an effect on sound. Several years ago, when I was still able to wade through drifts, I walked to Toms Creek one day while snow was falling. There was about a foot of it on the ground, and I had to concentrate to keep from falling. When I got to the creek I watched the flakes come down a while, and then I saw a red fox running across the field about 200 yards away. It had its full winter coat with a long, bushy tail floating behind it, and it moved without effort, like a leaf blowing in the wind. As I watched, I suddenly realized that there was absolutely no sound. The storm had stopped traffic; the road noise that is always in the background and you learn to tune out like elevator music was missing. There were no helicopters overhead, no chainsaws, no ATVs, no farm machines, no construction noise… nothing, except a few things that really belonged there, like the breeze rustling a dead leaf, the water flowing over a riffle in the stream, or a woodpecker tapping in the distance. My mind does strange things in such situations; I had been thinking of Haiku poems the day before, and these three lines came to me out of the air.

Child: "Grandfather,

what makes it so quiet now?"

Old man: "Nothing at all."

I don't know enough about poetry to say whether this is a haiku; it has the requisite 17 syllables in the prescribed 5-7-5 arrangement, but syllables in Japanese and English are different. But, no matter. The essential truth is that, in our fast-paced world, times when nothing at all is making noise are a rare experience, a golden moment that may have been commoner once but we rarely experience any more. I know of nothing but snow that can make that happen.

My wife constantly reminds me of the latest horror stories about old geezers having heart attacks while shoveling snow, so when I was clearing the sidewalk I took frequent opportunities to rest. Leaning on a snow shovel in the bright sunshine with the wind blowing gently at your back and no background noise makes your mind go off on strange tangents. I can't retrace all of the steps my mind went through, but I was recalling childhood memories of snow… sled rides, my first experience driving in it, hauling hay to the barn on a horse-drawn sled… and just then came one of those golden moments when it got quiet and there was no noise of any kind. Somehow… it seemed logical at the time…

I thought of Salvador Dali. He was one of the most eccentric artists of the past century; people of my age will remember his picture in Life magazine, with the ends of his mustache waxed and sticking up like the horns of a Texas steer. Everyone remembers his most famous painting, a strange landscape in which several watches were laying on tables. The watches seemed to have melted, and drooped limply over the edges of the tables. He called the painting "The Persistence of Memory," which always puzzled me; maybe that's why I thought of it, there on my sidewalk daydreaming in the snow. I was thinking of why memories come back to us, and it occurred to me that perhaps in order to have a memory, time must stop in our brain and turn off the distractions that are happening around us for a brief instant. And if time did stop, wouldn't it would be perfectly normal for watches to go limp, like letting the air out of a balloon?

I never heard that explanation of the painting, and I wished I could ask Dali if that was why he chose that title, but he has been dead 50 years or so now, so I rushed into the house and asked my wife what she thought about it. In terms of producing a fruitful discussion, that turned out to be a failure; she just shook her head with an expression of resignation and went off to the kitchen to start supper. However, I think it may have piqued her curiosity; several times that evening I noticed her peering at me out of the corner of her eye when she thought I wasn't looking. Maybe time stopped in her mind too; maybe the discussion will come later. Snow does that, sometimes.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith