Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The madness of snow

Increasingly I am coming to associate the color white with madness, with sheer blanched out craziness, with snow on the ground and cars skidding and hobos hobbling through the pale sludge.

My state of mind is partly the result of a four hour drive on icy roads in falling snow in a storm that turned everything we take for granted on its head. In the drive-through of a McDonalds somewhere in North Carolina we waited 15 minutes behind unmoving cars before realizing the restaurant was closed or on some crazed snow time.

Then after two 5 a.m, shifts, of long hours staring at pink walls and the unforgiving whiteness lying impassive beyond the windows, I am feeling my sanity slide as surely as my body in my chair.

The cold withers and diminishes us. In another fast food restaurant pooled with slippery slush stains on the floor two bearded men talked in a monotone. “I just smoke and eat and smoke again,” said one. The other nodded in affirmation of a life stripped down to the basics.

So the snow brings out the worst in us. The Christmas card beauty is illusory. The reality is a wind with teeth that tears and gnaws under a sky scoured of all warmth and color: it’s all the neat little assumptions we have built our life on being flushed into a dirty freezing sink hole.

The most frightening cell Brian Keenan, the half demented Beirut hostage, was held in wasn’t dark and dingy but white like the inside of an ice cube. And his captors tormented him with a radio that was off frequency and squealed all day and all night.

When I think of madness I think of Karma Police by Radiohead. I have no clue what it’s about but it reeks of insanity.

Karma police, arrest this man
He talks in maths
He buzzes like a fridge
He's like a detuned radio.

The snow makes me think of disorientation and blindness, of tracks covered up and Captain Oates with his cable knit sweater and big boots heading out into the whiteness to be gone for some time. I shiver as I think of the Antarctic expeditions of Ernest Shackleton and the Endurance trapped and crushed in pack ice and immortalized in time by Frank Hurley’s haunting photographs.

After the loss of the Endurance, Shackleton and his party camped on a large ice floe for almost two months hoping it would drift towards an island. After this failed there was a mind and body numbing expedition including five days on the freezing waters in a small boat. They arrived on solid ground in April 1916, almost five months adrift after the loss of Endurance.


But more chilling than the exploits of Shackleton’s men, who all survived their ordeal, notwithstanding  frostbitten fingers, is Napoleon’s Grande Armée's retreat from Moscow in 1812.

Few historical accounts do justice to the horrors faced as an army that was once the most formidable in Europe was reduced from almost 700,000 to 70,000 men.

After the horses died the French army hobbled across the frozen wastes into blinding snow and sub zero temperatures, in inadequate clothes under constant attack from the Russian army. Men cannibalized each other and burned their comrades alive to steal warm clothing. By the time the remnants of the army returned to cities they had marched through in triumph, citizens turned away in horror at the sight. They had turned into a squalid sub human species in rags. Their bodies and minds had been undone by the biting wind.

There are few more chilling tales than those that combine the inhumanity of the cold with the inhumanity of war. More than a century later it happened again in the bitter winter of 1943 when the German 9th Army was encircled and faced starvation in Stalingrad.

It’s not easy to imagine the desperation of the soldiers huddled below the burned and blackened buildings knowing death was making its way towards them across the freezing white plains.

We think of death as black but bones left out in the cold are blanched white.

13 comments:

  1. I would be too scared to drive anywhere in the East Coast right now. Moreover, how does a radio become detuned? Insanity indeed.
    Stay safe and warm.
    xoRobyn

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  2. Oh, you've nailed this Minnesota girl's biggest fears: unremitting cold.

    I grew up with the stories of the blizzards the pioneers endured, on Jack London.

    "I shiver as I think of the Antarctic expeditions of Ernest Shackleton and the Endurance trapped and crushed in pack ice". You and me both, buddy.

    And then you go on to tell about Napoleon's Army's retreat from Moscow -- which I did NOT know about! -- and pretty much sealed it for me.

    I won't be warm again until March.

    Pearl

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  3. i always wanted to play in the snow and build the snowman, but your post gave me another insight of different part of the snow, maybe I should reconsider again!thank you very much for the info. :) I like your blog, it is always filled with extra info. keep it up. God bless!

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  4. Thanx Robyn - it's better now; good point re the radio, take care. Thanks for the comments Pearl. OMG - must be kind of hard to aviod the snow in Minnesota. Thanx Garbiel, you too. And thanks for the follo.

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  5. When I was a kid I thought that snow was fun. I made caves in the snow at my grand parents backyard.
    When I was a teen I thought that snow was scary. I was at a cross country trip and went under the ice with skis.
    Right now I think that snow is tolerable and beautiful. Thank you for the post.

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  6. I'm a Canadian, and I stopped liking snow when I was 5. My theory is that the Stork got lost trying to deliver me to the tropics. He got tired and I landed here. Bah!

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  7. Yeah, snow, not a big fan. My wife and I looked at each other about 11 years ago on a ridiculous winter day in Minneapolis and asked ourselves: why do we live here again?

    Now we're desert rats, and our kids have this idyllic image of snow. We try to tell them snow isn't all it's cracked up to be, but they aren't buying it. There's actually a chance of snow here in the desert on Nwe Year's Eve, and this has my girls very excited. I actually wouldn't mind either. It'll be gone the same day, and there is something unique about a cactus with snow on it.

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  8. Thanks Olga, actually when I went skiing snow was fun. But it's scary in the Russian historical context. Ha Marnie - I sort of have that theory too. wow love the desert Tim, where do you live?

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  9. i believe it after my xmas. Xmas cards are just propoganda.

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  10. As someone who loves color and springtime, I agree with you that white can be frightening. I'm not a fan of snow and am always glad to see the last of it.

    Very well written piece, David. You choose great images.

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  11. I live in Tucson. Arizona politics can be dicey for us, but we love it here.

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  12. Karma Police - oh dear god I love that song!

    Ever see Doctor Zhivago? That's what sprang into my mind reading your post.

    Since I live where I live, I have to embrace the snow since it's a fact and what am I going to do? It's beautiful as well as horrific.

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  13. Too right Mo. Christmas cards are so yesterday. Thanks Daisy, I guess this one was a bit dark. Nice Tim - went to Flagstaff once, seemed cool. Hi Deborah - for sure Deborah, Dr Zhivago nicely sums up all that bleak snowy wilderness in Russia thing.

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