It’s been a snowy winter in Washington, and a cold one. I often think of the relative connection/disconnection modern people have with nature, but winters like this remind me that no matter how disconnected we think we are, the natural world still makes itself heard – and loudly. And I’m not even talking about all the global-warming-induced weather disasters we’ve had lately, but just something as simple as a big snow.
As a science fiction fanatic when I was a kid, I loved reading Isaac Asimov, and in particular days like this remind me of his Caves of Steel, in which Earth has turned into a warren of underground life, so overpopulated that it’s just a series of giant cities in which everything is connected through tubes and tunnels. The main character in that book is a detective who’s almost never been outside, and suffers as a result from severe agoraphobia. Part of the fascination of that particular novel was the horror it inspired in me when I thought of living without access to sunlight and the outdoors. Another, much more recent book that takes this on for kids is The City of Ember, by Jeanne DuPrau. In that one, an entire society lives underground, unaware that there is such a thing as outside.
Part of the genius of those books is taking a facet of modern society (how much time we spend indoors) and expanding it until it becomes something overwhelming and strange. While Asimov made me imagine the future, he also turned my attention to the conventions of my own society, and helped me see those with a new eye. This doubling of vision that science fiction and fantasy gives readers is one of the reasons I’ve always loved those genres. Which takes me back to all this snow, and to being in the midst of yet another snow day. One thing I love about days like this is that they let your mind wander. The kids are home from school, the schedule is wrecked, and no one’s going anywhere. On my particular street, which is always one of the last to see a plow, we have this sense of the world having shrunk to block size. Everyone else feels miles away and mostly inaccessible. If they call in, it’s like a missive from another world. Meanwhile, the neighbors are all outside, shoveling or just enjoying the pristine view of bushes turned into plush toys and trees that have become charcoal drawings. Last big storm, I fell backward into a huge cushion of snow while talking to my friend across the street. There I was, lying on my back in the center of the road, not at all worried about anything but how long my coat would hold out against the damp. A few snow days a year, I would say, can be good for the soul.