Sound and light and snow

Russell Wangersky
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Awake at six, and the only sound is the delicate and distant scrape of a parking lot snowplow.

It’s a big plow, what must be a front-end loader doing one of several large lots in the neighbourhood, so there’s the sudden grunt of the engine at the start of each sweep, like the plow’s putting its shoulder into the effort. Then, the long, hollow ring of the blade carving another long line down the asphalt.

You think of strange things, awake in the dark, like whether every snowplow blade rings with its own singular tone; whether they could be designed with the sized specifics of a church bell, or whether each and every snowplow blade, made in similar foundries, is within a half-note of all its fellows.

Singing in gruff imperfect harmony, probably some traditional working-plow blues, down low in the register and with the regular engine beat of heavy diesel in the background.

Singular snow

You can never fail to be amazed by snow, by the way it changes this place.

Sure, it softens edges and rounds out the square and the jagged, and adds its own cornices along the roofline. Wind-blown, it fills in across highways in lines and drifts that serve to show that our dominion over nature is but a transitory thing.

It’s as if civilizations can come and go, but physics and chemistry, always on their empirical march, will keep on with their delicately fingering invasion until the battle’s eventually won. (A lesson that can be learned just as easily the first time you see a maple seedling work its way impossibly up through an asphalt driveway.)

The thing about snow, though, is that it so quickly changes both sound and light.

Add maybe three inches of snow, and the sounds of the city go flat: all those now-ground-bound flakes, knit together into drifts and rills and mounds, but still with enough captured air in among the icy stars to trap the sharp edges of sound and muffle them, taking the edges off sound the way drifts remove the lines of curb and car.

I like it best in the woods, where the weight of fresh snow makes it seem as if the outdoors has decided to hold its breath.

Background noise becomes a steady but indistinct thing, more a feeling than a sound, and any sharp sounds there are — a gunshot or a tree cracking in the cold — seem completely alien to their surroundings.

Your eyes catch at the motion of snow suddenly slipping from a tree branch, but the clumps that fall are almost soundless when they hit, the pendular movement of the now-empty green fir branch against the white background like the arbitrary motion of a second hand on an otherwise-motionless clock.

The absence of all that swallowed-up noise making whatever noise there is far more significant.

For ears and eyes

Then there’s the light. That eerie, wrong-headed light, the light that’s too much, too soon, too late, too early. Too light.

In the city, the reflection of the streetlights from the now-white ground is startlingly different from the dark of a day ago. Away from the city, and fresh snow lets you see far more of the things around you, but curiously, you see them all more clearly from your peripheral vision, as if the best way to watch is to not be caught watching at all. It might be nighttime, but your eyes are full of all sorts of things that you know you would not normally be able to see.

Just after the snow was starting Wednesday night, it was clear the world was going to change.

Sight and sound were already starting their gentle bend, their obsequience to snow, the hiss of wet pavement already gloved and tamped down, the bowl of the downtown too bright and orange for ordinary night.

Pitching forwards

Fine, thin snow on Lime Street, a great hill pitched down towards the waterfront, enough to defeat the salt, enough so that you couldn’t hear the tires, and when you turn downhill off narrow Cabot, there’s that momentary floating feeling, the car rolling slowly and you, afraid to touch the brake, when force and mass and velocity and acceleration meet that dearth of friction that tire treads depend on.

At the bottom of the street, there is a black metal fence at the intersection, and on both sides of the street, rowhouses lean out over the sidewalk in that way that it seems only rowhouses can, like they’re watching to see if you actually can brake gradually enough to bring the car to a stop.

Slide sideways, hit the parked cars. 

Slide straight, and the street simply ends where the fence awaits.

Everything silent, everything in slow motion, everything moving slower than it would if you were walking. And you know the usual rules don’t apply, and the unusual ones do. Snow rules.

The world has changed, and just for a moment, one single, snow-silent moment, it’s as if you’re flying.

And in the distance, snowplows sing their one-note songs, deep as bells.

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at

Geographic location: Lime Street

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