Staying put

Following the thaw, life has returned to more normal routines, and everyone has been emerging from the Siberian blast with their accounts of having been snowed in. Here in the uplands of Northumberland National Park, the snow lay siege and fell continuously for several days. As the wind picked up, we watched as blizzards bowled across the fields, kicking up the snow in great clouds of spray, despositing deep drifts against anything vertical in its way. We lost track of the track and the garden became a scooped out hollow. Every time we looked out of the window, it was still snowing, and the deposits accumulated in exaggerated lumps and mounds like a rising tide.


It was impossible to travel, an effort to even walk to the top of the track as far as the single rack road, which was drifted in anyway. Life stripped back to the absolute basics, tending to the necessary and the immediate; the simple tasks of making a meal, digging a path through the snow to the woodshed, feeding the birds, bringing in the logs, brushing snow off boots, drying waterproofs. There was time and space to appreciate simple things. Time slowed like a pulse rate to a natural rhythm of quietly unfolding activity. In the bitter temperatures, comforts seemed more deeply appreciated; warm bread, dry socks, the logs burning in the stove. Golden oak leaves lying on the path and the egg yellow trumpets of daffodils on the windowsill sang out in a landscape erased of colour. On a late afternoon walk, a hare dashed from cover and its fleeting form hovered along a line of snow banked up against a stone wall, insubstantial, barely touching the surface, as if running in thin air, a moving clip of film. In silence, thin veils of gauzy snowflakes continued the steady pulse of precipitation, adding to a growing sense of transparency and space within which life became regulated.

Perhaps it is because ordinarily so much more of our time is spent on the move, covering greater distances, walking more easily and quickly, traveling further afield, accomplishing a wider range of tasks, and the mind and the senses stimulated by a greater variety of subjects, that the contrast of life in the snow seemed so highlighted. It aroused different reactions. People loved or hated it, surrendered to the slowed pace of life or felt cabin fever. But there was no choice. Perhaps the real “beast from the east” was more a reflection of our inability to slow down and adjust to the severity of the prevailing weather conditions, the withdrawal of distraction.

In the quietness following the blizzards, I suddenly heard a nuthatch, its fluting call ringing out with a confident, urgent insistence, itself an invitation to wake up to the detail of a temporarily transformed world. The thaw soon began, a slow yielding, the snow receding and revealing things just as they had been left before. The amount of rising moisture generated a cloudy mistiness that coated the air and permeated the snow itself, compacting and shrinking it, softening the hard contours and releasing the trees, creating room to breathe. Grasses reappeared in the field as a messy tangle, the perfection of the snow giving way to the juicy mess of life beneath and the natural order of things, and slowly our human life and activity following in its wake, with its renewed possibilities.