In January, this year, we’ve gotten record amounts of snow (somewhere above 50″ since the new year). This is true of much of the midwest and eastern seaboard in the USA. Snow holds a very convoluted position in modern American society. At least half of us live in areas that receive at a decent amount of snowfall per year, year after year. With the increase of weather events relating to climate change, more and more extreme weather events are occurring, and snowstorms are not the exception. In recent years, it has been my perception that as the extreme weather events are increasing, so is the weeping, gnashing of teeth, and hatred towards the snow. But it is not the snow to blame, but rather our underlying cultural issues that are exacerbated and intensified by the snow; we have a number of deep-rooted problems in society that are manifested by the appearance of snow. I am breaking these cultural issues into to two categories–issues we, as individuals, can more easily change and things that are more difficult to change but are still serious problems. After the discussion of these areas, I conclude with some insights and reverence for the snow.
Underlying Cultural Problems Manifested by the Snow: Things We Can More Easily Change
The following four areas represent cultural issues, and responses, that I think are fairly easy for us as individuals living within this culture to change. These changes do take some work, but they are still very much within our own power to change.
1. Negative framing of snow by national media (Underlying cultural problems = negative news, disconnection from natural cycles).
We have a substantially negative framing of snow by our news and weather media. For the snowstorms we’ve had the pleasure of receiving in the last month, I saw everything from “Life Threatening Snow” to “Winter Fury Unleashed” to “Ion Bears Down on US” as ways to discuss the snow. These negative discussions take away from the otherwise beautiful, yet powerful, winter scenes and immediately frame it as a negative event that has to be dealt with rather than a natural occurrence. Beautiful scenes of snow aren’t portrayed on our local or national news–no, we hear about the 30-car pile ups and the difficulties people have with the snow.
The second thing that I think is going on with negative framing of the snow is that as humans, we are disconnected from the natural cycles. Snow is an integral part of most climates; trees like the Black Birch and Maple need the cold before their sap can begin to run. Because of this lack of understanding of the cycles of nature and the negative framing, we don’t take time to appreciate the beauty and wonder of the snow.
Of course, with snow being framed in such terms nationally, its no wonder that individuals feel nothing but negativity towards the snow. Facebook feeds, twitter feeds, and other social media, combined with in-person weeping and gnashing of teeth, all frame snow in a negative light. Its a nuisance, its a bother, it causes work, it delays plans. And that is certainly one way of looking at it–but not the only way!
My response: Positive Framing of Snow.
My response to the negative framing of snow, the weeping and gnashing of teeth, is simple–I don’t participate in the negative framing of snow. Snow is a natural part of the seasonal cycle, and something to be celebrated in the same way that we celebrate a warm summer day. I work hard to revere the snow, to recognize its artistry and beauty, and to help others do the same. Are there times that a snowstorm messes up some plans I’ve had? Sure. Does that mean its the snowstorm’s fault? No. What it means is that I get to make new plans, to stay home, and to enjoy the winter. I can celebrate the solitude and quietude that the snow brings; revel in its incredible beauty, and remember the lessons it has to teach. I also remember that snow is but part of the cycle of the seasons, and that soon enough, spring will return.
2. State-of-Fear Reactions in Society (Underlying cultural problems = state of fear hype, fragility of current system).
One of the big shifts that occurred in America following the September 11th tragedy is that our leadership and mass media work hard to keep people in a constant state of fear. Everything is something to react to, to be afraid, and to panic about. Why? Its simple–people are easier to control when they are reacting and feeling, rather than approaching something using reason and their minds. This is why Aristotle, when speaking of the three primary ways that persuasion happens, suggested that pathos (or emotional-based appeals) were the most effective, but also the most dangerous. A reactionary populace is not a thinking populace. Snow, unfortunately, has become caught up in this state-of-fear mentality.
Furthermore, the media has made the move to name winter snowstorms and other large weather events. This personifies the storm, gives it human qualities and motives, and makes the personified storm’s actions more severe. Snowstorm “Ion” is somehow much more nasty than “that snowstorm coming tomorrow.”
Can snow cause problems and can it be dangerous? Absolutely, especially with the mass stupidity which which people treat snow (more under “transportation” below). We know snow is coming, its a natural occurrence. If one is carefully prepared, there is no reason to get upset or frightened. The underlying problem is not that we get a snowstorm, its that people are now so unprepared to have a snowstorm, it causes fear.
My Response: Careful Preparation and Building Resiliency
I look forward to the snowy times, but I only do this because I’ve worked to be well prepared for the winter months and to plan ahead. With a stock of wood to heat my house in the event of a power outage, a good relationship with a neighbor who has a plow, a stock of herbs and tinctures in case I fall ill, adequate winter clothing that I could wear to stay warm for hours outside in the snow, and the potential to call others in case of any difficulty, I’m not so concerned when the snow begins to fall.
3. Frantic Supermarket Chaos before Snowstorms (Underlying cultural problems = no food security, complete dependency on corporations for basic needs).
Hype about any given snowstorm is first built up to a frenzied state using the “state of fear” tactics I describe above. This encourages people to go out and spend more money than the otherwise would on massive amounts of food and other “supplies.” Supermarket shelves are stripped bare, and people take their stuff back to their houses and hope for the best. If we recognize that fueling consumptive activity is the primary goal of all media, it becomes no surprise that this is what occurs. However, there is a deeper issue at play, and that issue is food insecurity.
In this region of the world, when winter came, individuals, families, tribes, and communities had substantial stores–they spent the bulk of the spring, summer, and fall, growing, foraging, raising, or otherwise producing enough food to get them through the winter months. I think about the caches that Buffalo Bird Woman discusses in Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden, or the extensive pantry and larder that Laura Ingalls Wilder discusses at her family’s homestead. In The Resilient Gardener, Carol Deppe describes the Hopi’s rule of growing and storing enough corn for two seasons, not one, to ensure survivability in case of crop failure. Having a store of food through the winter time, with access to what one needs, is one definition of “food security.”
Right now, most Americans react to the snowstorm in what I’d call a reasonable manner, given their food-insecure circumstances. Most Americans have only 1 or 2 weeks of available food in their houses at any given time, and literally no skills or ability to produce their own food. Part of this is that many now live on convenience foods, rather than staples like dried beans, or rice, and there is only so much room in one’s freezer. So when they rush off to the grocery store, they are reacting due to their food insecure circumstances (which seems ironic, in a country that wastes up to 40% of its food).
My response: Increasing Food Security.
My solution has been to be more food secure and to work to produce as much of my food as I can, to store my food effectively, and to be prepared for when snowstorms happen. With 150 lbs of rice; 100 lbs of various beans, nuts, and other dry goods; 300+ jars of sauce, jams, preserves, jellies; and a freezerful of fresh pressed apple cider, meats, and other goodies, I’m not worried when the snowstorms come. I could get snowed in here for two months or more and still be eating healthily and with variety. If producing your own food isn’t possible, at least moving toward a pantry/bulk food buying system where one has more than a week of groceries in the house at any given time would help with food security issues.
4. The Work of Snow (underlying cultural problem = sedentary lifestyles).
When a snowstorm hits, there is, of course, the complaints about shoveling the walks, cleaning off the car, and so forth. I believe a lot of this is rooted in our culture’s largely sedentary lifestyle, where people aren’t used to a lot of physical labor, and shoveling a foot of snow is certainly physical labor. I realize here that some people have health conditions that prevent them from doing the labor–and to them, I suggest to make friends with a neighbor (this is another underlying cultural challenge–we don’t actually know our neighbors).
My response: Snow = Free Exercise.
Since I derive all of my physical activity from either being in nature (hiking, kayaking) or productive work (like double-digging beds, putting in a chicken fence, chopping wood, hoeing the garden, raking leaves, etc.) I am happy when the snow comes down. Why? It gives me a chance to get out, get some exercise, and move around a bit. I look forward to shoveling that long pathway to the chicken coop, and throughout the year, I work hard to keep myself in shape so that I can do that work. I don’t have to pay for expensive gym memberships–I can just shovel snow!
Underlying Cultural Problems Manifested by the Snow: Things We Cannot Easily Change
The last set of cultural problems that are manifested through the snowstorm are not things that we can easily or readily change, but issues that are very much impacting our cultural responses to snow.
1. Lost wages & Job issues (Underlying cultural problems = erosion of the middle class; living hand-to-mouth; income disparity).
A snowstorm, like the ones we’ve experienced here in Michigan for the last month, means one or two days where no pay is coming in, where a lost paycheck can mean the difference between paying the rent and not paying the rent. This is actually probably the biggest concern for a lot of people, especially those working hourly-wage based jobs or several jobs to make ends meet. Several days of lost paychecks can hit a family very hard, and again, the easiest culprit to blame is the snowstorm out one’s window.
However, I want to point out that issues of personal economic security have nothing to do with the snow itself–it has more to do with the fact that we have so many people working low-wage jobs in poor conditions and struggling to make ends meet. This whole situation has more to do with the erosion of the middle class and corporate greed than it has to do with a snowstorm.
My response: Shifting lifestyles, Reducing Consumption and Debt, and Doing Meaningful Work.
This is not an easy, or quick, thing to respond to. The prevailing cultural and economic winds have made times tougher and tougher for everyone I know, myself included. However, a series of life changes have caused me to deeply reflect on my own relationship to finances, working to track my funds and reduce my consumption, and creating a plan for getting out of debt. One of the books I’m reading now is a book called Your Money or Your Life by Vicki Robin; in this book, she suggests that we should align our values with meaningful work, examine our true hourly wage, and examine the relationship of time and money (too much to discuss here, but worth reading).
2. Difficulty in transportation, dangerous conditions (Underlying cultural problems = lack of care for employees, unnecessary travel)
The last issue that snow often raises is the transportation issue. The roads get covered in snow or ice, flights get delayed or cancelled, and travel is, generally, dangerous and frustrating. For some people, they have to travel because of their jobs (see #1 above) and have little choice if they are going to keep their jobs. For others, they are planning on some travel and that travel is delayed. I’m thankful, at least, that schools have it right–they don’t ask teachers or students to go out in bad weather, and I only wish that the rest of the nation would do the same.
My response: Shift Plans, Stay in if Possible
I often wonder how much travel is actually necessary during a snowstorm. I think that people try to treat snow like any other day–driving to go get gas, to the grocery store, to keep those dinner plans, etc. But we can’t treat snow like another occurrence–its a special time, a time that asks us to slow down, to reflect, to enjoy the quietude of the winter time.
People in other centuries holed up for a good snowstorm. Winter was a time of rest and reflection–you see this in the holidays in the druid tradition, based on the wheel of the year–we rest, we recuperate, we rejuvenate, we heal. When there is snow, I make a point to change my plans, to stay in, and to accept the gift that nature is giving me–a day off. Even if its an unplanned day off, its a message from the universe to slow down.
Winter as a Sacred Time of Healing and Rest
To conclude this post, I’d like to ask us to untangle snow from its cultural baggage, to take some time to enjoy it for what it is, and to embrace the cold and snowy times as times of rest and reflection. Our ancestors did this–they saw winter as a time of rest, a time to enjoy the fruits of their hard labors of the summer months. Warm in their houses, they enjoyed fruit preserves, family, music, and quietude. This is part of the natural cycle of the seasons, an important part of rest–for ourselves, for the land, for the trees, for all.
We have no such sacred times of rest in current American culture unless we create those times for ourselves. The snow provides us the gentle nudge to do that–to see the world in wonder, blanked and far from its usual state. To go out into a white wonderland, full of bliss and joy. To take time for ourselves away from the hustle and bustle of modern life.
It took me a long time to write this post–I started when the snows started coming down over a month ago, but it was only today that I finally figured out what I wanted to say. I hope that this causes you, dear readers, some pause for reflection and perhaps helps you see the snow in a new light. I feel like I’ve been called to be an ambassador for the snow, speaking the snow’s message of hope and renewal.As part of the message of the snow for me this year, I will be taking a hiatus from the web/social media for the next few weeks. I hope you go enjoy the snows! That’s what I plan on doing in the next few weeks :).