This essay originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune on January 3, 2014.
I exult in the wonder of the cold white beauty.
Okay, okay, I know there’s another way to look at snow-shoveling. And it’s not with delight.
I know that, for many people, shoveling snow is simply a chore. No, that’s too mild. For many people, shoveling snow is a big fat pain-in-the-neck.
You have to put on your boots. You have to swaddle yourself with your scarf and your hat and your gloves, and you have to zip up your jacket to the neck. You have to go out into the cold, and you’re not just going through the frigid air to some other warm place. You’re staying out in the freezing wind for a good long while, and you’re working.
You’re doing heavy manual labor (especially when it’s a wet snow that’s just fallen) out in the cold. And you could give yourself a heart attack. What’s to like?
All of that’s true, of course. But consider this: People pay thousands of dollars and travel hundreds of miles to encounter the artistry of nature. To go to the Grand Canyon or a beach on a Pacific island. To stand close to the awesome power of Niagara Falls or stare up at the Alps or walk through a redwood forest.
Yet, on many a winter day or evening, we get a huge load of natural beauty dumped on our stairs, porches, driveways and sidewalks — for free!
Think about it. In the course of sometimes a very few minutes, our world is transformed. Tired concrete and worn asphalt are covered over. Dead leaves disappear. And so does the trash that lines curbs and fences. The long, gray-brown branches of skeletal trees are festooned with a white coating that sparkles in sunlight.
This is beauty, though, that we don’t just look at. We interact with it. Wait, that sounds too bland.
This is beauty we dance with.
All right, that may be too much in the other direction — too poetic. Especially when you picture a bulky shovel as somehow being part of that waltz.
But there’s no denying that, when I’m out there shoveling the snow, I’m up close and personal with it. It is cold, and I am cold. It is heavy, and I am lifting it and tossing it off to the side. My muscles are stretching, and my heart beats faster.
When the snow falls, it claims the cityscape for itself. When I come out and do my shoveling, I’m leaving my mark on the snow.
Now, that field of white is broken by the path I’ve carved. The snow piled along the right and left edge of that path forms short walls. And, if the winter is a snowy one, those walls can grow as high as my knees and higher.
That path is very temporary. Another snowfall will come, and the path will have to be shoveled again.
So the beauty of the path is transitory. Just like the beauty of the snow. Even in a blizzard, even when the winter winds are howling and the heavy flakes are pounding down, we know that warm weather will come. No matter how deep the drifts, no matter how pretty the sparkling snow crystals, we know that it is all ephemeral.
And the white of winter will be replaced by the green of spring.
And I will have to put my snow shovel away.
And I will be — at least, a little bit — sad.
Patrick T. Reardon