Waiting for snow

Waiting for snow

For three days forecasters, dressed in their world of
television clothes, have been charting the progress of weather heading our way.
They tell us of consecutive fronts, moving direct from that land of Scott,
Shackleton and men buried beneath snow and ice – Antarctica. Even at latitude
41° south, more than half-way to the equator, the wintry fingers of that polar
region can reach out, to clutch at our warmth, to threaten a comfortable
existence. We’ve watched cloud build up against the southern hills, banks of cloud
that have changed from a sullen grey promise of rain to something colder and light-filled,
the air’s slow chilling. After winter months where neighbours have greeted each
other with smiles and comments about ‘mild winters’ or ‘good conditions to feed
out’, this is a moment of wonder, as well as our wondering what we’ve got
heading this way.

An afternoon like this holds good reason to anticipate the
thought of pumpkin soup cooking on a wood-burning fire, scent of the spicy tang
from that pinch of cayenne pepper and ginger added to the vegetables. Cooking
steams up windows just as our breath does those of the car. Even with the radio
and that CD of Maria Callas singing superbly about broken hearts on stage,
while acting Mimi whose ‘tiny hand is frozen’, travelling home brings a sense
of urgency to last-minute shopping – carried out in case we are snowed in for a
day or two, the way they are already in Dunedin. It is time to get home, to a
good book and the fireside. On a day like this every minute of summer spent cutting
firewood seems well worth the effort. The lean-to shed is stacked enough dried
and split, gum, macrocarpa and black wattle to see us through plenty of wet
windy weather when the cold snaps arrives.

How long it has been since we’ve had a fair dinkum fall of
snow. The forecasters’ insistence on this being a big one has produced a number
of cynical jibes about global warming, while each slight or perceived
inaccuracy provides new fuel for scepticism. Living in a farming district produces
all manner of weather talk, ranging from faith in Ken Ring’s much-publicised
prophecies or accusations that climate scientists haven’t got a clue, through
to the obvious and mundane, ‘nice spell of rain’ or ‘getting a bit dry’. We get
that tied up in the world of our own small acreage that global trends,
continental patterns, and statistical analysis seem wildly astray at times. To
try debating carbon emissions or climate change at the pub would be no more
feasible than an attempt to sell flat beer for health reasons. But here it is,
we’ve been told for days, snow is on the way. Things are as they should be.

I was born in Southland, at Tapanui. Down there they’re no
strangers to snowfall. We shifted a short distance, soon after I was born, to
Gore, and that may explain why I’ve always been okay with snow, because of an
early introduction to winters in New Zealand’s deep southern reaches. In fact the
‘winterless north’ is disconcerting for its lack of seasonal change. The white
winter carpet of snow has featured from time to time as I’ve shifted around. An
early memory is of walking through slushy snow at Rangiora. When I was thirteen
I went skiing for the only time in my life, travelling for the day from Rotorua
to a ski field south of there. As a young dairy farmer during the
nineteen-sixties near Waiuta on the West Coast, feeding out took place in snow
from time to time. The few houses at the mouth of the valley were a settlement
called Hukarere, worth a mention if only because ‘huka’ is a Maori word for
snow, as well as being a transliteration of sugar in their language. Over the
ridge at the back of the farm, and also running down to the settlement was the
Snowy River. There was little sweetness for me during that part of my life.

Many parts of New
Zealand are familiar with snowfall as a seasonal phenomenon. There is a
sensation of waking in the morning awash with quiet, a Christmas card phantasy
in the back yard and snow weighing down the branches of trees, or drifted
against garden walls and fences, flattening the silver beet or broad beans
against the frozen earth.

Snow is important though and acts on more than our
imaginations. The pattern of alpine snowfall, ice and glacier formation can function
as a water reservoir and climate modifier. On a global scale changes in alpine
snowfields are becoming a huge concern, with glaciers receding and polar
icecaps melting. It seems there are more random and violent events such as
cyclones, blizzards, droughts floods and so on – or do we just get more media
coverage of events that occur as they always have? I have no answers to a
question like that. Along with many other people, I sense the immediacy of news
reports building anticipation and concern for what is happening in ways that my
mind cannot cope with, except to become anxious about nameless threats, afraid
of what may never come to pass.

There was a time that I could read books like the Commonwealth and Empire Annual 1957,
where good and bad characters fought over right and wrong in stories of what
seemed then to be long-lasting certainties. And in those same books I could
gaze at black and white photographs, of tigers, or elephants at work and whales
being harpooned – or snowflakes. It was possible to lie in front of the evening
fire dressed in pyjamas, on a homemade rag mat, safe and snug while marvelling
at a world in which every snowflake that ever fell being its own unique
crystalline shape. Now the tatty pages hold few moments of awe and seem
immensely condescending or bigoted in the stories they tell – but snowflakes
still own the capacity to delight, even if the child-like thrill of a snowfall
when it first arrives is soon replaced with the awareness of problems brought
by such weather. Road closures, disrupted communications, branches broken off
trees, and with the thaw an inevitable slush all conspire to make life
temporarily difficult. The television news might catalogue the discomfort, but
I have never seen it cut to the miracle of it all to examine an individual

Where snowfalls are infrequent, we seldom get ready for them
in the way some areas of the world have to where blizzards are a fact of life,
and snow drifts part of daily existence each winter. In this country farmers’ newborn
lambs can be caught out and succumb to exposure, drivers’ cars can slide from
ice on the road into snow-covered verges, simply because we are not conditioned
to prepare for the sporadic storms. Each time there is a snow fall we seem to
need the same reminders about chains for car tyres, and supplies of firewood or
other fuel. Children may be able to abandon thoughts of school and make
snowmen. Paradoxically, as adults in spite of being unprepared, we like to
think we are indispensible, life will proceed as usual and we must get to work
– once the car is back on the road, or the buses are running.

At another time and place, people returning by train from
Wellington will arrive at Featherston station to see parked cars shrouded in
drifts of snow, and on that occasion something will happen I’ve not seen before
or since on that journey – the occupants of the carriage bursting into
spontaneous and delighted laughter. A couple of days later the same passengers
will be grumbling about the cold, but not that night. Again at Woodside and
Carterton, the car park appears through the gloom of early evening, as grey
ghosts of cars stand shrouded in their snowy blanket of drifts. Commuters leave
in the early morning waiting on the platform while flakes drift and float
through the arcs of station light to settle on the steel rails, the workers
return home at last light, to see snow still falling. There might be rumours
snow even fell in Auckland, so close to the winterless north. I do not begrudge
my fellow passengers’ laughter, nor their normally stolid acceptance of a life
where for months each winter they leave for work before daylight and arrive
home after dark.

But climate events from elsewhere are hearsay, what the
flickering screen offers me in bites of a few seconds to describe the anguish
of years. I am not living in the city, and not trying to get to work. There are
no lambs being born on our three acres, nor any failing glacier grinding down
out of the hills channelling through our land. I’ve never seen a European
banker, or his problems, face to face that I know of. The Africa gripped in
some places by drought, in others by revolutions and war, are far away – and snow
is the least of their concerns.

As novelist David Young writes’ ‘stories take time to live,
it is easier to borrow others, yet rewards occur …’ We are getting used to
clicking on the box, then treating what we’re told as if it is our news. Lives
have a habit of being so ordinary if they are only our own, as we live them day
to day. Yet what do we have to make meaning of life, except our own experience.
This afternoon at half-past five, just before dark, in this place, we are
waiting on snow.

First flakes settle against the wipers as they push across
the windscreen of our car. At last they appear out of the dusk as if they could
be floating on invisible strands of mystical thread, something to be swept
aside by each push of the wiper blades. Catherine’s laughter is also light,


This evening petals will fall through acres of electric
light, settle against the grass, buildings and tree trunks. I never saw Callas
performing on stage, but her voice is in the car with us while the snow has
arrived quietly … we will put on our coats and hats to go outside. It is at
least ten years since we have had snowfall.




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