At 9:40 this morning, it’s -36° C. Warm and safe in my bedroom, I can allow myself to admire the frozen beauty beyond the garden doors. I can’t help but marvel at the resilience and savy of First Nations who thrived for millennia on this harsh and unforgiving land, and the determination of the Europeans who came later.
Today, however, secure in the humming furnace and flickering fireplace, freed from the obligations of travel, and confident in the skills of the engineers across the province who keep pumping out the power on days like this, I can indulge in the view before me. The deck itself is a meringue of sculpted undulations. A blade of grass arches out like a stray hair on an old person’s chin. Scattered around it, brown twists of dry leaves are toasted almonds dotting a cake icing. Nothing moves.
The mountain ash growing out of the deck is imprisoned, too, in the frozen air like olives and shrimp in aspic. The cedar waxwings have already devoured its berries. There will be no bright red canopy this year to frame the panorama from the window. To the left, evergreen branches caked with crisp snow hang over the side. On the right, Adirondack chairs lean on the wall in their winter pose, penitents atoning for some summer misdemeanour.
Behind the ash, the tufts of snow on the glass railing around the deck could be the white chenille bedspread Maman used to smooth out every morning when she got up. Between the clusters, I can see the trampoline covered with a foot-thick block of snow whose edges hug the frame like the sheets tucked into a hospital bed. The tangled tentacles of the bare deciduous trees around it stretch against the trellis top of the cedar fence. In front of those trees, in the center of the yard, a giant blue spruce extends its arms in a protective embrace, having grown into the role since our first year in this house when, as a sapling from the Indian Head nursery, it stood vulnerable and alone in its designated spot, its future uncertain.
Over that cemented world, the implacable blue prairie sky is a cloche insulating the creation within. Ever the optimist, the sun convinces me that the bitter cold can be managed, if not always appreciated, in stark contrast to grey days of wind and rain that can only be endured.
The frigid temperatures gripping the prairies, on the heels of the ice storm in Ontario and the blizzards in the Atlantic provinces, remind me of our vulnerability. Despite the illusions of power that technology, the suave seducer, has created, the environment is always in full control. My farmer father, who always had one eye on the sky, once said to his city-bred nephew, tempering his benevolent view of nature, “Nature destroys.” Dependent on nature for his livelihood, he had witnessed fields parched by a decade-long drought, crops levelled by hail and bins shredded into toothpicks by a passing tornado.
We can monitor natural phenomena, and we can try to predict trends, but we are subservient to nature always. The consequences of our manifested cleverness only increase our subservience, an ironic hubris that resounds in retracting forests, evidence of climate changes, and polluted air. Technology has unleashed forces whose effects may only be anticipated and managed rather than arrested.
And if, like the indigenous peoples of the world, industrial societies had respected the environment as a living entity, and had forged a partnership with it? Well, then the scene outside my garden doors this morning might have pushed this reflection in an entirely different direction.