Snow – the shock of the familiar

Ancien StandThe village I live in in Switzerland sits at 670m (about 2,200 feet) with the hill behind us rising to 1,200 metres (a little below 4,000 feet) so, of course, it snows here every year.

At the top of the hill you can ski throughout the season. In my village we often have a metre of snow on the ground for much of the winter.

I don’t Ski. Throwing myself down a mountain at high-speed has always struck me as so insane it should be taken as a sign of adrenalin addiction, but I like to snowshoe, so I’ve spent a fair amount of time moving through snow-covered landscapes. I’m familiar with how the combination of reflected light, softened sound, finger-biting cold and crisp fresh scents, snag the senses, pull me through the back of the wardrobe to a Narnia that has suddenly taken the place of hills I normally walk through.

After more than a decade here, familiarity ought to have dulled the impact that snow has on me and yet, I find myself shocked by it year after year.

I took the picture above at a local viewpoint that looks out over Lake Geneva (we call it Lac Léman here – Geneva is only one of three Cantons on the lake so a derivative of the old Roman name is used to avoid conflict) and the Swiss and French Alps. In the summer, picnics and weddings are held here. People gather beneath the big trees, sheltering from the sun (it’s normally mid 20sC/upper 70sF). Kids use the table-tennis table. Adults sit on the old winepress to eat their food. It’s full of heat and life and vibrant colours. In winter it becomes a ghost of itself: silent, static, lifeless. The snow on the trees highlights their complexity and size but the main impression it leaves me with is of a parasite clinging to its host in a malign embrace. Stand too long here and the cold begins to penetrate, sucking at your heat, draining your vitality, making the perennial offer to take you in its arms forever if you’ll just rest awhile.

Perhaps my reaction to snow comes from being in my late fifties with less life left to look forward to than to look back on. Perhaps I just have a negative way of looking at the world.

I am surrounded by children and their parents who treat snow as an invitation to express joy and vitality, to assert life and to work together. They make their way to a small hill in the village, in sight of the gothic Chateau and close to the warm refuge provided by a coffee shop, and spend hours sliding down it on plastic trays barely bigger than they are.

This year, a group of kids built an igloo, two rooms, windows, tunnel entrance, by compressing snow into plastic boxes to make bricks. They spent hours creating it, working together without squabbles and with minimal adult intervention (just subtle checks to make sure nothing would collapse on the kids inside).  They were just having fun. I added an overlay of defiance of the elements, shaking off the embrace of the snow-parasite and twisting it to their will, but that’s just because I can’t help myself.

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