White thoughts

To live in a big city is to be an enemy of snow. ''What a fine season!'' people in the street will say, meaning that the winter has been snow-free. When it does fall, the snow is attacked in a most brutal way, the delicate substance being dissolved by chemicals, pushed into piles by monstrous plows, or as a final indignity shoveled into trucks and hauled away.

Some years ago when I was involved in city government, we organized at the slightest rumor of snow as if a hostile power were on the march; we kept vigils as if against an impending visit by an extraterritorial invader. At one midnight conference, called by the mayor, each agency head was asked to report on what his forces were prepared to do in countering the expected attack. I was in charge of parks, and I ventured the opinion it might be a good idea to do nothing at all. We would just let the snow lie where it fell and see what happened. I remember the shocked silence that followed; it was evident that I was not treating the crisis with sufficient seriousness.

On that particular occasion, the snowstorm never came. Quite often this happens. Snow has a way of being blown out to sea, or turning to rain, or letting its burden fall upon some other city - on Boston, for instance, rather than on New York. It was painful to see the letdown as the city agencies returned to their normal functions, with the plows being removed from the sanitation trucks as if warhorses were being unsaddled and put out to pasture. A clever and ambitious sanitation commissioner of my time went through his whole term of office without being able - despite successive mobilizations and constant alarms - to show what his men could do.

Under a different commissioner the snow actually did fall. It chose New York's borough of Queens for its special target, and for three days its inhabitants lived in a white world, almost silent, devoid of cars. Far from enjoying their situation, the people of Queens made a fearful fuss. The United States Ambassador to the United Nations, who happened to live in Queens, sent an irate telegram to the Timesm declaring it an indignity that he could not get out of his front door. Ordinary citizens, sitting at home, just cursed the mayor.

I suppose that when people go to live in a suburb they expect to be liberated from snow. People who like snow, they seem to say, ought to live in the country; while people perverse enough to live in the central city ought to be punished by having lots of it. Meanwhile your true suburbanite deems it his special privilege to have snow banned by the municipal authorities - or to have it hastily removed if it creeps in.

In her recently published, very delightful book, Green Thoughts - A Writer in the Garden,m Eleanor Perenyi raises the troubling question whether anyone in this country (apart from a few self-styled eccentrics like herself) really understands and cares for snow. Even in the countryside, and even in so nature-oriented a state as Maine, we salt roadways and plow them down to the black asphalt before it has stopped falling. I have heard that the Eskimos have five words for the white substance to which we give but one, lovingly distinguishing snow in all its subtle varieties, its elegant changes. And the Japanese, Mrs. Perenyi reminds us, adore snow.

They make it a recurring theme in their art and literature; they ascribe to it a spiritual power. Japanese gardens are made to be seen under snow, when ours are concealed like a dead thing. The Oriental style of pruning exposes the dark pine bough through much of its length, a calligraphic stroke against a background of white, while at its end the tufted needles hold snow as in an outstretched palm. Our own evergreens, by contrast, stand in a winter garden like shapeless lumps.

I suppose, in a way, we are all of us ambiguous about snow. We are like an old man I remember from my youth who day after day sat on the porch of the lodge from which we set out skiing. I asked him whether he did not like to ski. Yes, he replied in effect, he liked it very much, but judging by the comments of skiers he could never find a time when the snow was exactly right. It was too soft, it was too hard; it had a crust, or was too deep, or not deep enough. So he just sat there, waiting. . . We wait, too, if not hating the snow then partly fearing it; if seeing its beauty, still aware of its awesome power to disrupt our busy lives.

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