This week brought in the birds to us, made bold in numbers and cheek by the short arctic visitation, just when we were expecting spring to start murmuring from below ground. Snow had come overnight and the first morning filled our room with a brilliancy of light that seemed like snow itself. The world was distilled, snow perfecting light to the very tip of purest white.
If there is anything that can intensify such whiteness further, it’s the male blackbird that is here each time I come to the window to show our five-week-old daughter the hushed and strange outside. In truth it is one of several nearby, but it’s always a single bird that comes to our balcony. The utter blackness of its plumage is both a sharp presence and absence in the snow. For long periods of time he seems to stare intently at us, snow-light reflected in his black eye.
In the American poet Wallace Stevens’ famous ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird‘, the final image depicts the onset of snow one evening, and a blackbird in a cedar tree. Our blackbird comes next, the morning after, when the snow has fallen thick, and the bird perches in the stuff itself. Another way to look at a blackbird. And snow.
Beneath this monochrome beauty, though, lies a stark reality. What brings the blackbird to us, and its cousins the redwings and fieldfares, is thrush hunger for easy pickings in these suddenly cold days. In the nonhuman world, snow means tough living, and very possibly, death.
It’s different for most of us, of course, particularly here in southern Britain where heavy snow fall is a scarce and magnificent event, short-lived and affording quick pleasures whilst it lasts. There’s a carnival aspect to snow days—approved topsy-turvy misrule in a fleeting interlude between usual routines. I suspect this accounts for much of the fascination and excitement that goes with snow in a country where by and large there is none. Unless we are travelling, or obliged to work whatever the conditions, most of us thrill to the fact that just sometimes our lives are ‘gloriously disrupted’, as a friend recently put it.
The delights and obstacles of niveous mayhem remind us that the natural world can and does call the shots, even if most of our lives are spent smugly believing otherwise. The remarkable trick of snow, in fact, is even more absolute. It performs a dissolution, smothering time and place so that the world appears ageless, our traces erased. In the fields beyond our town where the expanse of snow goes out to sky, broken only by blackbird tree-lines, the whiteness is everything and nothing.