Big blizzards have a way of getting bigger in the telling. Maybe it’s because they reassure us that we are not alone.[L]ast winter, as the state of Maine was being hit by one storm after another and snowfall records were falling from Eastport to Bangor to Caribou, I kept hearing similar expressions repeated over and over by people stocking up on rock salt and ice choppers at the hardware store. We haven’t had one of these winters in a while. Reminds me of when I was a kid. We used to sled right off the roof, the snow was so high.
Some of these statements were uttered in frustration, others with almost youthful exuberance. Whatever the sentiment, most everyone I met felt compelled to say something. There seemed to be no escaping the topic.
The winter of 2015 was indeed a corker: bitter temperatures that never seemed to rise above freezing, snowbanks so tall there seemed no way to pile them higher, a relentless pattern of blizzards and near-blizzards that challenged the ingenuity of public works departments.
By February, it was already clear that 2015 would be one of those legendary winters that people would talk about for years to come. It would join 1978, when gusts blew in excess of 100 miles per hour for countless days, and it would be mentioned in the same breath as 2010, when “Snowmageddon” hammered the eastern half of our continent with one system after another.
It got me wondering: why do the snows of yesteryear loom so large in our memories? What is it that drives us to mythologize storms, making them mightier in our memories than they ever were in fact?
I have some theories. My own interest in meteorology extends back to childhood, when I would watch weather forecasts on television and tell my parents that I wanted to be a “sun and moon man” when I grew up. I have always been sensitive to the weather — but even more so to its effect on the psyches of the people around me.
Weather is the great communal experience of humanity; it is a reminder of our helplessness before the power of nature and how, despite our differences, we are all on this world together. Every human being is on a constant search for meaning. Our souls, for lack of a better word, recoil at the thought that our short time on earth might not add up to anything. So we remember the past not necessarily as it happened, but in ways that give it personal significance.
Perhaps we mythologize our winter storms in order to affirm a vision of ourselves as strong-willed stoics. For some of us, maybe it’s an acknowledgment that Maine isn’t where we truly belong — that is, until our neighbor comes by unbidden and snow-blows our walk.
One of my favorite writers, the late Raymond Carver, published a story collection titled What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. I have come to believe that what we talk about when we talk about weather isn’t the state of the atmosphere, or the movement of winds, or the rise and fall of temperatures, or the evaporation of moisture and its return to earth. When we talk about weather, we are talking about ourselves — our shared humanity and our ongoing struggle to differentiate who we were from who we are becoming.