I shovel by choice, not by necessity

Whenever snow falls in measurable quantities around the village, the phone rings. My mother, though not indifferent to the enchantments of a winter storm, worries about its impact on me. For 25 years she has graciously offered to buy me a snow blower, and for 25 years I have demurred, insisting that I shovel not out of necessity but choice. I enjoy the physical exertion. The day may dawn when I will look more favorably upon her offer, but for the moment I prefer simplicity to speed and the muted scraping of a shovel to the clank and clamor of an engine.

I love stepping out into a storm to clear the front walk, the driveway, the back steps, with my ski cap pulled down around my ears, shovel in hand. Late at night, with nothing but the sighing of the wind in the pine trees, the falling snow glittering in the streetlights, my breath condensing in small white clouds, I come as close to feeling like a pioneer on the fringes of a great white wilderness as is possible 30 minutes from Times Square.

To shatter that evening stillness with the roar of an internal-combustion engine seems a sort of sacrilege. Not that I begrudge my neighbors their snowplows and snow blowers. I understand the eccentric nature of my position. To my wife, to my mother, and especially to my teenage son, such a labor-intensive approach to a problem easily dispatched by machine makes little physical or intellectual sense. But I have never felt at home with complex machinery and prefer the sound of my own breathing to the thunder of exhaust fumes.

So as the first snowfall descended and I prepared to venture out to clear the driveway, I thanked my mother once again for her generous offer. I promised to give it serious thought and in the meantime to bend my knees and to enlist the services of as many children as I had shovels. The children, it turned out, were off with friends, the snow was light, and the night all asparkle. I was reluctant to come back inside.

Nevertheless, I'm not without ambivalence when it comes to snow, whatever my passion for winter storms. I've experienced the havoc it wreaks upon commuters, the interminable delays at airports, the hazard to automobiles, the cancellation of cherished plans. I've lost the insouciance of youth that powered me at unsafe speeds through blinding blizzards as a college student; now I prefer to remain off the highways, if possible, relishing that feeling of snowbound escape we all cherished as children when the cancellation of school gifted us with a day beyond time.

I love to stand by the window watching familiar landmarks metamorphose into gleaming white statuary, taking particular pleasure in the whiteness of the road. So long as the refrigerator is provisioned, I welcome the prospect of being snowed in, of impassable streets, of a complete break with routine - at least for a day. The pleasure quickly cloys, but at the beginning of the season, before familiarity has rendered the experience more nuisance than novelty, I secretly long for record accumulations and the quiet that descends when an entire community stays close to home.

Timing, of course, is everything. If the snow begins at dusk, especially on a Friday or Saturday, little industry is expected of anyone. Few cars pass, no shovelers emerge swathed in down jackets and wool hats, no snow blowers hammer into service, no chain-snapping town plows clear the street. Toward dawn the plows may begin to roll, but for the next several hours we're all locked in hushed admiration.

I watch the developing drama unfold without the tug of a guilty conscience beckoning me to suit up and get to work. I feel cocooned, swaddled, all expectations and obligations temporarily suspended; the immediate world is on hold. And if I choose to step out, I do so not compelled by guilt but simply to get closer to that miracle of temporary timelessness. I go to enhance the sense of escape by violating my own routines, to feel the sharp, icy bite of snowflakes on my face, the isolation of the night, the stillness, the silence, the stark and breathless beauty.

But day eventually dawns and the routines of life must resume. Much as I might enjoy spending another hour admiring the crystalline glaze of the neighborhood, to boot up and walk the snow-muffled streets, there's work to be done. The town plows have already come through; shovels are scraping pavement on either side of me, and the snow blower is cranking up across the street. Suddenly I'm delinquent, and for just a moment I look with envy upon my mechanized neighbor. He will complete the task in 15 minutes, regardless of the accumulation, walking effortlessly behind his roaring cloudmaker as it casts snow left and right, a light dusting or two feet of wet snow dispatched with equal ease.

I will begin with the narrow front path, hoping to achieve a quick sense of accomplishment before turning to the greater task, 120 feet of asphalt driveway. It's wide enough for two cars at the street and half a basketball court by the garage. If the snow is light it should take me no more than an hour; if it's wet, perhaps twice that.

You enjoy this, I remind myself. When the snow is powdery I truly do, recalling the famous haying scene in "Anna Karenina," Levin mowing alongside his laborers with mindless abandon, thrilled by the simple tactile pleasure of a swinging scythe. Within moments I'm lost in the white contours of the winter landscape, pushing snow from side to side, heaving it onto the buried grass, pausing to glance back over what I've completed, to listen to the wind, to watch a cardinal dart among whitened branches. I feel vital, virtuous, and blissfully self-sufficient. Private contractors plow a driveway up the street, completing the task in minutes. My neighbor with the snow blower has long since finished. Young men armed with shovels filter through the neighborhood, knocking on doors, asking the unplowed if they would like help - for a price. They pause before my walk, catch sight of me, ask if I want help, then move on. I'm in no hurry.

How long will I keep this up, I wonder. Another neighbor up the block, well into his 70s, has not yet relinquished his shovel. He takes his time, pauses frequently to enjoy the view, and fills me with hope that I might remain equally independent of the encumbrances of men and machines.

It all boils down to patience. Those most eager to return to the world enlist the services of support troops and dispatch the snow within minutes; those less compelled to resume the normal routine attend to the task alone.

The most patient of all simply wait until spring.

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