Surviving white outs and big chills


Snow is now well over the bottoms of the doors on our minivan—and it’s still snowing. It seems to me that we’ve seen far less snow since moving to this corner of the East Coast, and I’d almost forgotten how beautiful a really big snowfall can be.

Coincidentally, our snow-blower is on the fritz. Yesterday, as I was shovelling out the van (the first time), I tried to imagine what it was like here a hundred years ago. I wondered if people bothered shovelling at all. It seemed to me that a horse-drawn sleigh might do better in soft, fresh snow. Maybe I’m feeling understandably lazy with the prospect of all the snowshovelling ahead of me, but I’d like to believe that people back then didn’t do work they absolutely didn’t have to do—especially since they had to do most of it by hand, or to get stubborn animals to do it with them.

Of course, we have all our gas-propelled gadgets—snowplows, snow-blowers, four-wheel drives, ATVs, snowmobiles and the like, and because we bought them we feel compelled to use them all. It’s the same all over. Back in northern Ontario the way people behaved during severe winter storms never ceased to amaze me. As soon as the snow started dumping out of the sky, normally sane people would jump into their Jeeps and 4x4 pickups and winter-beater cars and snowmobiles and drive around the city—for no apparent reason, other than the fun of doing it.

There’s a call to the snow. I can feel it myself as I sit here looking out the window. Sometimes our kids catch the urge too, although this morning (another snow day away from school), they’re sitting on the floor in the living room playing with Legos. Occasionally we have to force them to go outside and play in the snow, and once in a while they resist a little at first, which I can understand, as toys might have more appeal than frozen fingers and toes.

Being Canadian (someone who’s had his share of frozen toes), snowstorms always bring a sense of impending mortality. You can see it in the white swirling hypnosis in the headlights when you’re driving through a snowstorm and the road disappears altogether. You can feel it when you take a walk on a country road in the coffin-quiet early morning stillness just after a new snowfall. Snow is all about extinction. It just takes everything into whiteness. Everything with any colour at all gets buried under the white.

Snowfall is also a metaphor for the human death experience, too. Deepak Chopra talks about the process of dying in his newest book, and he leads off with “near death experience” accounts of people going into the white light—and what happens after that. I know. There are likely some good jokes my editor could dream up about this. But somehow white and death seem to have a natural affinity.

So I find it kind of ironic that, as the planet heats up and species like polar bears begin to die off, there’s a famous disappearance of the fluffy white stuff in the Arctic and Antarctic. So I guess true to form, death can still be dark, too.
And in a real way snow is death. Or a precursor to it. When it snows life stops, literally. Plants get covered over. Birds stop flying. People caught in snowstorms do freeze and die. It’s the planet’s way of saying, “it’s time for a break.” And periodically, the planet takes even bigger breaks every 10,000 years or so with ice ages, which tend to wipe out a certain number of species each cycle.

It occurs to me that, as beautiful as this planet is, and as unique as it is in the immediate vicinity of our galaxy and beyond, it’s also an extremely harsh place. Here, organisms have to be highly adaptive and tenacious to merely exist, let alone flourish. On Earth life favours the hardy, no question.

I wonder about this when I’m doing business. It seems there’s a fine balance between cooperation and competition in the business world. If you’re too cooperative, you likely be exploited and end up working for free. Yet, if you’re too competitive, people won’t like you and you won’t get rehired. The sharpest business guys all know how to balance on that thin line very well.

Successful survival goes well beyond the merely competitive Darwinian “survival of the fittest”. Diversity has a lot to do with balance. Those of us who live in a region with a lot of natural diversity and resources can afford to cooperate more because of that natural wealth. And the smaller the population, the greater the need for cooperation—a lesson we could learn from the Inuit, who are probably the most cooperative people in Canada, if not the world, in my experience.

But change the equation, take away the abundant diversity of natural resources and increase the human population, and the competition factor goes up exponentially. In densely populated parts of the world, populations are more decidedly Darwinian, if not outright Dickensian in their unrelenting competitiveness. Where there are lots of people, life is cheap.

It seems there’s a rule of opposites at work here: the harsher the climate and the fewer the people, the more cooperative we become. And on the other side: the warmer the climate and the more people, the more competitive we become.

I think about that on days like this. Sure, it’s cold, and I’d really love to live in a warm place year-round. But I also value the more cooperative society that comes with a colder climate. And besides, it’s fun to have an excuse for being late for work, and getting outside to play in the snow—which for us grownups is driving a snowplow, or shovelling while we watch the kids play.

That said, I wonder what winter will be like for our great grandchildren a hundred years from now. Will the snowstorms be bigger or smaller? Will they still have gas-driven snow-blowers and plows? Will there be more people here of fewer? Will they be more competitive or cooperative?

Who knows? Seeing into the future is like looking into the swirling snow. We find out only after the storm—and by then you and I will have long passed into that great white beyond.


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