When I was a boy, now more than half a century ago, there was a lot of snow. When I’ve said that, I’ve had people say but, Bill, you were a lot shorter then. However, I have markers from that time, the most obvious one being the caragana hedge that grew along the front of the yard. The hedge grew well over my head. In summer, it was clothed in green leaves and when the yellow blooms were out, it was abuzz with bumble bees gathering nectar. I know the nectar was sweet because we plucked the flowers and tasted the nectar. Occasionally, the hedge hid a sparrow’s nest with tiny eggs.
In fall, the leaves turned yellow and fell off the hedge. When the wind blew down from Hudson Bay, driving bitter rain, then snow, the orioles and robins fled south (sensible birds that they were) the caragana hedge grew dark, gathered shadows. Nearby, the mountain ash, planted close to the front door to bring good luck, drooped with clusters of red berries.
Slowly, slowly, as snow fell, as it stopped melting during the day, it began piling up, and the caragana hedge now collected the beginning of drifts. The wind swept the snow over open fields, along Third Avenue, filled the ditches, piled snow against cottages and trees.
Although I earned a quarter or even fifty cents for shoveling snow from people’s sidewalks, no one shoveled the public walk in front of the caragana hedge, the walk that led to school, to Centre Street with its grocery store and post office. People walked where the sidewalk had been, fences and hedges, their guide. They wore a trail on top of the drifts but still the drifts grew until they overreached of the caragana hedge and only a few dark ends revealed where the hedge of summer housed its bees and birds and butterflies. We drank no nectar as the wind whirled snow around us. The mountain ash still held clusters of berries topped with crowns of snow and the occasional small bird would bravely venture out and sit there, dining on frozen berries.
There are no days to match the days during a Manitoba winter when the wind drops, the sky is pale blue, the sun, although weakened, is bright and the snow reflecting the sun dazzles the eyes.
It is these days–the days of skating on the glare ice of Lake Winnipeg, sledding, snowshoeing, chasing a soccer ball over the field–that released us from the house into the blue and white world of friendly winter that we waited for at the window. Days spent playing road hockey, often with frozen horse turds, for horses still pulled sleighs to town from farms to the west. Our goals were blocks of firewood, our sticks patched together from ones that had been broken during a hockey game and thrown over the boards. These were days when we went back inside, red cheeked and ravenous, pulling off moccasins and heavy jackets and pants, ready for soup and sandwiches, for peanut butter cookies, for steaming mugs of cocoa.
These days released us from days of bitter cold and wind, when ice formed on the windows and I hunched deep inside my parka as I trudged along the road to the train station to wait for the daily newspaper. In summer, I carried the papers in a canvas bag over my shoulder or in the basket of my bike but now, my head covered in a leather helmet with ear flaps tied tight under my chin, my face wrapped around with a red knitted scarf tied at the back of my head, my hands in gloves, inside mittens, my body layered with long wool underwear, with a pair of pants and then wool over pants, a shirt and sweater and over everything my parka. I towed a sledge behind me and on it, a box filled with newspapers. Often I struggled against hard, icy granules driven by a hard wind. Sometimes, I’d turn my back to the wind and walk backwards and, when I had to turn into the wind, I’d bend forward, my head deep in my fringed hood.
The packed snow on the roads turned to ice and many times I slipped and slid and caught my balance but other times, I fell to one knee or onto my hands. Many homes never shovelled a path from the road to their gate and it meant wading through deep snow in the ditch, over the boulevard, awkwardly opening a gate because of my mittens, opening a storm door and putting the paper between the two doors, then shouting, “Paper.” , then clambering back out to my sleigh.
When I went out to deliver papers or walk the five blocks to the skating rink, I wrapped a wool scarf around my face to protect my lungs. I breathed into the scarf and it was soon thick with my frozen breath. When I got to my destination, I hung up the scarf in the hope that the ice would melt and that the scarf would dry out before I had to put it back on for my return journey. That seldom happened and when I put it back on, it was still wet and the moment I went outside, the wet wool froze stiff
In recent years when I’ve een in Manitoba in winter, I’ve driven through puddles in January, slogged through slush on city streets. Something like this was inconceivable during my childhood. The first time there was melting was in early spring when, during the day, the top of the snow would warm and would freeze at night so a fine glaze settled over the snow. The snow banks began to shrink and, for me, the progress of spring was the gradual reappearance of the caragana hedge until, finally, in late spring, all that was left of winter, were the stubborn, hard crusted small drifts that lingered in the hedge’s shade.
I have no idea what Victoria was like when I was a child. During my time here, 1974-present, there has been little winter. Occasionally, we have blizzards, I got caught in one on Salt Spring Island shortly after the first time I went there to visit. I was trapped for four days. The power was out. It was cold, miserable, and by the end of the ordeal, I valued heat, light and hot water more than ever but it wasn’t Manitoba in winter with no heat, light or hot water.
It is not just that the weather is different but the landscape changes everything. Gimli is flat. Victoria is hilly, I now live on a ridge and the road down is steep. Even a small amount of snow or ice can create a dangerous, uncontrollable skid. Ice or snow appears and the city comes to a standstill. For two or three days after a snowtorm, the people revel in taking out toboggans and sleds that have sat unused in garages and basements for years. They slide down the roads, in the parks, for wherever there are slopes, and they are endless, the possibility of swooshing down, squealing, laughing, tipping over, having winter fun, creates images usually only seen on Christmas cards. Here, a snowfall is not about winter drudgery but a chance, once in a long while, to recreate Christmas scenes.
Here, people wrap their palm trees in sacking against the cold and drying wind. Here, we get drenching rains. Everything is wet during the winter. Instead of cold proof, clothes are water proof. Hypothermia is a problem. I cover my plants with mulch. As spring approaches and the rains of winter ease, the temperature goes up and spring is here with the sudden appearance of snowdrops. Patches of white flowers with their light green leaves, the snowdrops appear everywhere, in gardens, lawns, boulevards, in crevices, for flowers grow here rampant and then appear spring crocuses in clusters and the grape hyacinth in great swaths of colour. My first house came with a small tree that bloomed just after New Years every year, bright pink. No leaves. Just flowers flaming against the still dull yard. I worshipped it.
Palm trees here are a braggart’s tree. We are too far north for palms but in Victoria’s micro climates, protected from wind, they survive. People grow them as an act of defiance. However, I prefer the Garry Oaks, the arbutus, the Douglas firs. They do not defy the landscape.
Do I prefer the stately firs of Victoria to the dark spruce hunched against winter in Manitoba? Or the blue camas on the sunny slopes to the shy yellow lady slipper in its boggy shade? Why should I choose? Wherever I am, I hold the other in my memory.
The cargana hedge is gone now. They grow old, as we all do, and die. I thought caragana were immortal but they, too, come to an end. My memories survive, caragana hedge leafing out, its flowers blooming, shedding its leaves, turning dark with cold and disappearing beneath the snow only to appear again with the warming of the sun.
Perhaps, some people say, you exaggerate, winters were never so cold, the snow never so deep, the wind never so strong. There are photographs and records to prove them wrong, of course, those people not capable of understanding anything but their momentary experience. But for me, the best proof of all is my memory of that caragana hedge, higher than the gate, higher than my head, overtopped with drifted snow.