Oscar Wilde once quipped: "Conversation about weather is the last refuge of the unimaginative." Yet tune into any news station and listen in for a few moments and you might wonder: how have we allowed ourselves to become so insipid? In our newsfeeds, the weather is all too often the entrée when it really should only be an appetizer. Yet we are increasingly inundated with such small talk and, what's more, it's increasingly in a tone bordering on panic, verging on despair.
I don't know about you, but I've almost been driven to madness with our incessant infatuations with polar vortexes (vortices?), Alberta clippers, wind chill factors, and, well, the fact that it's cold. It's winter in Canada, what did we expect?
I have one hypothesis for how we got here.
Recently watching Fritz Lang's 1927 silent film Metropolis, a quasi-allegory on spirituality and the rise of machine technology, I was struck by a certain moment near the end. In the film's (melo)dramatic conclusion, the great reservoir upon which the city has been built breaks through the subterranean realms of half-dead labourers, drowning the machines and workers and unleashing chaotic destruction into the well-ordered and highly constructed form of the metropolis.
The city had been built on top of a great natural source of water, but had contained it, controlled it, and harnessed its energy to power this mighty world of concrete, steel, and glass—the archetype of all our modern megacities. Of course, the people who have been born into the city are quite unaware of this water's existence. Indeed, their rigidly controlled environment buffers them from any exposure to "unwanted" elements of the natural world: rain, sun, wind, snow. Everything is under control, which is why the water is so surprising to them—and why frozen water is still so surprising to us.
Around the time of Lang's film, Walter Benjamin was beginning to stroll around Paris, making observations of one of the first modern metropolises in the world. Benjamin's wanderings yielded a massive collection of fragmented notes, today known as The Arcades Project, which attempted to understand modern humanity through the objects and places it created. And one of the many things so fascinating in Benjamin's notes is the frequency with which he refers to modern humanity's attempts to control the natural world so completely. Indeed, the modern city, with its covered arcades, paved roadways, and iron and glass buildings, is figured upon the greenhouse: it is meant to keep the rain out and the sunshine in. Many spaces are artificially heated and cooled so that gardens can be kept in the winter and ice kept in the summer. In fact, much of the dreaminess Benjamin found in Paris was that it allowed people to live in a very unnatural way. People could work before sunrise and after sunset with the help of gas lights and, later, electricity; they could travel at impossible speeds on trains which cut straight lines through or under the landscape; and they could keep tropical plants under glass year round as if the seasons no longer mattered. One of Benjamin's fragments optimistically reports: the people of Paris would soon live like so many potted plants.
Of course, such buffering is not a bad thing. I'd hardly want to be handwriting this blog out in my backyard today. Yet read a little of our admittedly soul-crushing Canadian literature from the past century and you'll see we are descendants of much hardier stock. Read Alistair MacLeod's stories about fishing off the East Coast in a snow squall or Sinclair Ross's accounts of braving the unmarked prairies during a blizzard to feed the livestock. These authors knew of a world where one's livelihood was intimately connected to and dependent upon the caprice of the natural world. They knew that this was a country of risks and risk takers, where at certain times of years anybody could lose their life simply by being caught out of doors. They had many attitudes towards the seasons: anger, fear, delight, and joy, but never surprise. Surprised by nature seems to be our lot.
As the alarum of our meteorologists radiates out from our great metropolises, fixating us like moths upon what will inevitably be our imminent demise, I'm deciding to mute their noise and refuse to be whipped into a frenzy over ice rain and the indubitable fact that it's—once again—cold outside. Rather, I'm going to bundle up and, finally, shovel my walk.
NOTE: I write this as "snowpocalypse" (or "snowmageddon") is descending upon Hamilton. It's the third time this year.