Tuesday, December 28, 2010
The madness of snow
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.