E. B. White — The Winter of the Great Snows

E. B. White — The Winter of the Great Snows
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Somebody told me the other day that a seagull won’t eat a smelt. Even if the gull takes the smelt by mistake, he will disgorge it. I find this hard to believe, but I haven’t had a chance to experiment with a smelt and a live gull. I’ve always supposed a gull would eat anything. If Herbert Tapley were alive, I would put the question to him and be sure of a straight answer. But Herbert is dead, and I find people quite evasive when I ask them if a gull will eat a smelt. I raised a gull chick once, and it never refused anything I handed it. And once, years ago, when I worked in a ship, I used to empty garbage into a chute that discharged overboard. Gulls attended this rite in great numbers, screaming their appreciation. I can’t recall ever seeing a gull reject anything that came out of that chute. There were never any smelts in the garbage, though, and this leaves the question wide open. A smelt has rather a sweet taste—there seems to be nothing of the salt sea in its flesh. Perhaps that’s why a gull won’t eat a smelt, if indeed it is true.

This has not been an ideal winter for pure experimentation here in the East—to see if a gull will eat a smelt. It has been more a time of simple survival, to see if a man can stay alive in the cold. The snows arrived early, before the ground froze. Storm followed storm, each depositing its load and rousing the plowman in the night. And then the cold set in, steady and hard. The ponds froze, then the saltwater coves and harbors, then the bay itself. As far as I know, the ground, despite the deep cold, remains unfrozen: snow is a buffer against the frost, an almost perfect insulating material. A fellow recently reported driving a stake into a snowbank, and when the point of the stake reached ground level it kept right on going. I haven’t tested this—it’s like the gull and the smelt, a matter of hearsay. But I would have to have a pretty long stake, so remote is the ground.

When snow accumulates week after week, month after month, it works curious miracles. Familiar objects simply disappear, like my pig house and the welltop near the barn door, and one tends to forget that they are there. Our cedar hedge (about five feet high) disappeared months ago, along with the pink snow fences that are set to hold the drifts. My two small guard dogs, Jones and Susy, enjoy the change in elevation and the excitement of patrol duty along the crusted top of the hedge, where they had never been before. They have lookout posts made of snow that the plow has thrown high in the air, giving them a chance to take the long view of things. For a while, the barnyard fence was buried under a magnificent drift. This delighted the geese, who promptly walked to freedom on their orange-colored snowshoes. They then took off into the air, snowshoes and all, freedom having gone to their heads, and visited the trout pond, where they spent an enjoyable morning on the ice. On several occasions this winter, we had to shovel a path for the geese, to make it possible for them to get from their pen in the barn to their favorite loitering spot in the barn cellar. Imagine a man’s shoveling a path for a goose! So the goose can loiter!

The door of the woodshed hasn’t been open since early in December, the snows having sealed it shut. The house, which always gets banked with spruce brush against the winter, never got banked. The flower beds never got covered. We were simply caught short: the snow arrived ahead of schedule and. in large amounts. (I think we’ve had something like one hundred inches, all told.) We did manage to give the rosebushes decent burial; they are not only out of sight but almost out of mind. It takes an effort of the imagination to conjure up a rose. Only an inch or two of the tall stakes that mark the grave is visible. For most of the winter, the highway has resembled an enormous bobsled run: the passage of the plow builds towering walls of snow higher than the roof of your car, so that you travel through a great white trough, sealed against disaster. (Last summer, my car went off the road and I hit a pole and broke it. The accident was six months too soon—I should have waited till January, when a soft cushion of snow surrounded all poles. I passed my pole the other day and noticed that it had recovered fully from the blow, but I haven’t.)

Maine towns take winter seriously. They are ready with money and trucks and men and sand and salt. Derring-do is in good supply, and the roads stay open, no matter what. The things that do not stay open are the driveways of people. Every new swipe of the plow hurls a gift of snow into the mouth of a driveway, so that, in effect, the plowmen, often working while we sleep snug in our beds, create a magnificent smooth, broad highway to which nobody can gain access with his automobile until he has passed a private miracle of snow removal. It is tantalizing to see a fine stretch of well-plowed public road just the other side of a six-foot barricade of private snow. My scheme for town plowing would be to have each big plow attended by a small plow, as a big fish is sometimes attended by a small fish. There would be a pause at each driveway while the little plow removes the snow that the big plow has deposited. But I am just a dreamer. I have two plows of my own—a big V on the pickup and a lift-blade on the little Cub tractor. Even with this equipment, we were licked a lot of the time this winter and had to call for help. It got so there was no place to put the snow even if you were able to push it around. On the day before Christmas, the storm was so great, the wind so high, people were marooned in my house and had to spend the night. And a couple of days later I had to hire a loader to lift the snow from the mouth of the driveway, scurry across the road with it, and drop it into the swamp.

Except for winter’s causing me to become housebound, I like the cold. I like snow. I like the descent to the dark, cold kitchen at six in the morning, to put a fire in the wood stove and listen to weather from Boston. My movements at that hour are ritualistic—they vary hardly at all from morning to morning. I steal down in my wrapper carrying a pair of corduroy pants under one arm and balancing a small tray (by de Miskey) that holds the empty glasses from the night before. The night nurse has preceded me into the living room and has hooked up the thermostat—too high. I nudge it down. As I enter the kitchen, my left hand shoots out and snaps on the largest burner on the electric stove. Then I set the glasses in the sink, snap on the pantry light, start the cold water in the tap, and fill the kettle with fresh spring water, which I then set atop the now red burner. Then comes the real warmup: with a poker I clear the grate in the big black Home Crawford 8-20, roll up two sheets of yesterday’s Bangor Daily News, and lay them in the firebox along with a few sticks of cedar kindling and two sticks of stovewood on top of that. (I always put on my glasses before stuffing the News in, to see who is dead and to find out what’s going on in the world, because I seldom have time in these twilight years to read newspapers—too many other things to tend to. I always check on “Dear Abby” at this dawn hour, finding it a comfort to read about people whose problems are even greater than mine, like the man yesterday who sought Abby’s advice because his wife would sleep with him only on Thursday nights, which was all right until his bowling club changed its nights to Thursday, and by the time the man got home his wife was far gone in shut-eye.) I drop the match, open the flue to “Kindle,” open the bottom draft, and wait a few seconds to catch the first reassuring sound of snap-and-crackle. (That’s the phrase around here for a wood fire—always “snap-and-crackle.”) As the first light of day filters into the kitchen, I set out the juicer, set out the coffeepot and coffee, set out the pitchers for milk and cream, and, if it’s a Tuesday or a Thursday or a Saturday, solemnly mark the milk order blank and tuck it in the milk box in the entryway while the subzero draft creeps in around my ankles. A good beginning for the day. Then I pull my trousers on over my pajama bottoms, pull on my barn boots, drape myself in a wool shirt and a down jacket, and pay a call in the barn, where the geese give me a tumultuous reception, one of them imitating Bert Lahr’s vibrato gargle.

The guard changes here at seven: the night nurse goes off (if her car will start) and the housekeeper comes on (if her brother-in-law’s truck has started). I observe all this from an upstairs window. It is less splendid than the change at Buckingham Palace but somehow more impressive, the palace guard never having been dependent on the vagaries of the internal-combustion engine in a subzero wintertime.

The chief topics of conversation this winter have been the weather, the schools, and the shadow of oil. Quarreling over the schools has split the town wide open, as it has neighboring towns here on the mainland and over on Deer Isle. Feeling ran so high some people stopped speaking to each other—which is one form of discourse. Forty years ago, when I landed here, we had five one-room or two-room schoolhouses scattered at strategic points. The scholars walked to school. We also had our high school, which was a cultural monument in the town along with the two stores, the Baptist church, the Beth-Eden chapel, and the Rockbound chapel. Times have changed. All through New England, the little red schoolhouse is on the skids, and the small high school that graduates only four or five seniors in June, in a gymnasium decked with lilac and apple blossoms, is doomed. The State Board of Education withholds its blessing from high schools that enroll fewer than three hundred students. Under mounting pressure from the state, the towns organized a school administrative district, usually referred to as SAD. Sad is the word for it. A plan was drawn for an area schoolhouse at a central point near the Deer Isle Bridge, but it was voted down. Too much money and too many frills. Another plan was drawn and failed. Meanwhile, schoolchildren were shuttled around, here and there, in an attempt to close the gap. We no longer have a high school in town; the building is used for the junior-high grades. Most of the children in the ninth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth grades are carried by bus across to the high school in the town of Deer Isle. A few travel in the opposite direction to a nearby academy. Sending their children over to an island irritated a lot of parents; some disapproved of the building, some had a deep feeling that when you leave the mainland and head for an island in the sea you are headed in the wrong direction—back toward primitivism. Other parents were violently opposed to dispatching their offspring to the academy town, on the score that the place was a citadel of evil, just one step short of Gomorrah. (There was also an ancient athletic rivalry, which left scars that have never healed.) The closing of our high school caused an acute pain in the hearts of most of the townsfolk, to whom the building was a symbol of their own cultural life and a place where one’s loyalty was real, lasting, and sustaining. All in all, the schools are a mess.

Feeling about oil is now running high, but it lacks the acute pain of nostalgia that characterizes the school controversy. Oil is the pain of the future. A company called Maine Clean Fuels wants to build a refinery on Sears Island, at the head of Penobscot Bay, bringing barges and 200,000-ton tankers slithering through the fog-draped, ledge-encrusted, tide-ripped waters of one of the most beautiful bodies of water in Maine or anywhere. The proposal sticks in all our crops. Battle lines have been drawn, public meetings have been held. On one side, or in one corner, are Maine’s Department of Economic Development, the executives of the oil company (full of joyous promises and glad tidings of a better life and a cheaper fuel), and some people in Searsport who hope that oil will bring jobs and elevate the economy of the town. On the other side, or in the other corner, are Ossie Beal and his Maine Lobstermen’s Association, the Audubon Society, the Sierra Club, various conservation groups, the Maine Times, several action groups hastily formed for the purpose of beating oil, and thousands of property owners (usually described as “rich” property owners) who just have a feeling in their bones that oil is bad news any way you look at it. A 200,000-ton tanker makes an aircraft carrier look like a dory, and if there were to be a bad spill, it could mean the end of marine life and bird life in the bay.

Searsport was host to a public meeting last week to give the oilmen a chance to present their case. It must have been a barrel of fun. The constabulary was out in full force, CBS News turned up with its cameras, and a carefully selected group of concerned citizens was admitted. The meeting was set up in such a way as to prevent the anti-oil people from releasing their wrath when they rose to speak. It was a powder-keg meeting that failed to explode. Week after next, a hearing is scheduled at which the state’s Environmental Improvement Commission will listen to testimony. This body, I believe, now has kingmaking authority and can turn thumbs down on an industrial newcomer if he looks and smells like a pollutant.

Pollution stirred our town a couple of years ago when our harbor became filthy as a result of sewage discharged from a school of theology that had magically turned up in our midst. The school had inherited a big old pipe when it bought the property; at low water the pipe lay on the stinking flats, exposed, broken in three places, and discharging. The town was powerless to act, having no ordinance on the books covering any nuisance of the sort. So the Environmental people were called and came over from Augusta. Testimony was offered by clamdiggers, boat owners, the health officer of the town, and concerned citizens. It took a long while, but the nuisance was finally abated and theology acquired a long-overdue septic tank. (The waste had been backing up into the school’s swimming pool, it turned out, making the pool probably the largest and most spectacular tank in the whole county—a real tomato surprise.) Anyway, the water of the harbor is clear again, a classic case of cleanliness next to godliness. Clamming is still restricted.

Town Meeting came early this year—March 1st. I wasn’t able to attend but have studied the report. One birth was reported in 1970, and twelve deaths. It would appear from this that although the population explosion is still an issue worldwide, we have it licked locally. The town appropriated $7,000 for snow removal and sanding, in addition to $3,000 for unappropriated surplus—a total of $10,000 to get the snow removed. There was no argument. If there’s one thing people are agreed on, it’s this: the snow must get removed. A century ago in New England, the approach to snow was quite different. When snow began to fly, people switched to runners. Roads were not plowed out, they were rolled down. A giant roller pulled by horses packed the surface to a fine, smooth glaze. Then the sleighs came out, with their bells. And sleds, to haul wood out from the woodlots. Wheels were laid away for the season. The old pleasure in runners hasn’t died, though. The snowmobile is the big new thing—life on runners. It pollutes in two ways: with its exhaust fumes and with its noise.

The town voted to enact an ordinance regulating the taking of shellfish. It is now illegal for a nonresident to dig clams, except that he may dig not more than a peck in any one day for the use of himself and his family. A year ago, the town voted to enact an ordinance regulating the use of the town dump. At that meeting, I suggested an ordinance prohibited the discharge of human waste into ponds and salt water, but it got laid to rest. The selectmen investigated the matter and reported that such an ordinance would be “very complex, extremely difficult to enforce, and possibly declared to be unconstitutional.” It seems sad that the town can regulate the taking of shellfish but can’t regulate the discharge of the waste that makes the shellfish inedible. But that’s the way it is. Years ago, I was sized up as a man who was amiable, honest, and impractical, and I’ve always agreed with that estimate. Now, I’m not just impractical, I’m unconstitutional.

And I still don’t know whether a gull will eat a smelt.
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  • 来源:Sigi 2018-06-26