Out Divine Corners Way: January 2021

Out Divine Corners Way
by Jonathan Shimkin
Ten days before Christmas, on a Wednesday, the first big storm of the season struck: a nor’easter. “Nor’easter” is one of those windy words, like “sirocco” or “squamish,” that refer to the disposition of vaguely baleful winds, a word I might use without much purchase on what it actually describes. “Oh, yes, there’s a big nor’easter coming our way…” – this would seem to be unwelcome news, generally.
I had to look up “nor’easter” to discover its derivation from the flow of air currents coming down from Canada, bearing an arctic charge of cold; when these cold currents meet air warmed by the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic, climactic mayhem ensues. The two air currents converge and propel one another, spinning like a top, back towards Canada; when the motion is severe enough, bombogenesis may be involved – a force you don’t want to mess with! So the nor’easter is a regional phenomenon, pertaining mostly to the east coast of North America; in New Zealand, the antipodes from here (where Lewis Carroll’s Alice expected to meet “the people that walk with their heads downwards”), they look out, with inverse symmetry, for nor’westers.
There’s some controversy over whether the contraction “nor’easter” represents authentic usage, a genuine spoken idiom, or is a literary affectation of the nineteenth century, contrived for poetic effect. Linguistic battles have been fought over the matter. Historical precedent confirms common usage of the contraction at least as far back as the 16th century. Whether one pronounces it “north” or “nor,” the thing itself is authentic enough in its effects, and its effects are worrisome.
Governor Cuomo, at his press briefing that Wednesday, claimed that this storm would be really bad, folks, and name-checked Monticello as the epicenter. The Governor was prepared to declare a state of emergency in Sullivan County, if conditions warranted. Conditions suggested it might be warranted. By 2:30 p.m. the day was already dusk, the clouds massing and darkening across the horizon; it felt like a dimmer switch was steadily dialing down on the day. By 4:30 p.m. we entered such a deeply empurpled Blue Hour it could have been midnight. By full dark, around 6 p.m., a finely-flaked snowfall was underway. It snowed all night, quietly, and it was still snowing when we woke on Thursday.
I went out first thing to take the measure of the snow on the ground and came up just shy of a foot. Elsewhere in the region they had as much as 18 inches. A grand nor’easter indeed! Thursday morning was lovely: the soft dry snow swelled in wave-like billows across the fields – a landscape softened and turned a bit abstract, like one of those sumi-e drawings in which “reality is expressed by reducing it to its pure, bare form.” It was a day of pure and bare forms, elemental in appearance, with human needs pared down and concentrated on essentials: warmth, food, water, and snow plows.
More snow came down in one night, I was told, than in the entirety of the previous winter, and the sheer mass of it defeated our plow-guy’s truck. This meant we were stuck in place for the morning, until our impassable driveway could be cleared and we be about our business again. For a sweet moment we were suspended within this snow-globe world, the day’s agenda temporarily erased, or whited-out by the snow, and a clean slate given: you can begin anew, the day seemed to say, just look around you and take heart! And if by Thursday evening the world had begun to assume its familiar contours again, there’s always the next nor’easter to look forward to, with as much anticipatory glee or worry as moves you at the prospect.