Theater & art

Sebastian Smee

How to shovel snow and love it at the same time

“The sky was blue, the sun was out, a good cover of snow everywhere. I’ve never seen any of these places look so jaw-to-the-floor lovely,” writes Globe staffer Sebastian Smee.
Sebastian Smee/globe staff
“The sky was blue, the sun was out, a good cover of snow everywhere. I’ve never seen any of these places look so jaw-to-the-floor lovely,” writes Globe staffer Sebastian Smee.

Sebastian Smee/globe staff

If you’ve lived with it all your life — if you’ve had to shovel it, organize last-minute childcare because of it, had trees fall on your house because of it – you can’t possibly appreciate how beautiful it is.

I’m talking about snow. And yes, I’m talking as a foreigner. Someone whose friends and family back home are possibly at this very moment enjoying backyard barbecues or walking barefoot along the soft, hot sand of a beach in Sydney.

But I’m also talking as someone who has lived in Boston for eight years. Someone who still has a sore back from last year’s ridiculous, outlandish, never-ending snow-shoveling nightmare. Someone who by now knows the drill.

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But I want (and I realize it’s controversial as we all hunker down for another storm) to take a moment just to remind anyone who may have forgotten how unbelievably beautiful the suburbs were on Saturday.

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I spent much of the day driving my kids to and from indoor soccer games. Somerville, Arlington, Newton, Watertown, Brighton. The sky was blue, the sun was out, a good cover of snow everywhere. I’ve never seen any of these places look so jaw-to-the-floor lovely.

Sebastian Smee/globe staff

“It’s like the trees are throwing snowballs at us,” said my wife. And she was right: Every few seconds, a crack on the windshield or the roof of the car as the sun melted wet snow clinging to overburdened branches weeping over the road. More than once we shouted out in alarm.

Some of those trees made it look like we had hit upon an early Japanese spring: the quality of the snow – wet, voluptuous, flamboyant – clinging to the tips of branches resembled heavy congregations of white cherry blossoms. Great for snowballs.

As we walked from the car to a school gymnasium, I took a clump of the stuff from the ground and threw it up into a small tree, dislodging wet puffs from a cluster of branches. Cool. I did it again, filming it this time with the slo-mo setting of my iPhone. Even cooler. The camera caught my snowball arcing upward, followed by clumps falling down amid a cloud of scintillating snowdust.

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Snow like this comes along only once in a while. Because it’s wet, it has a special adhesive quality. Seeing its effect on trees, buildings, fences, cars made me think of the whole thing as a giant art school, science, or kitchen experiment, a macro-version of flicking ink onto a page from a toothbrush, toying with magnets and iron filings, or dusting cakes with sugar strained through a sieve.

Sebastian Smee/globe staff

What will happen if . . . let’s see . . . you scatter wet snow evenly, but at an angle, over an entire city, and blast it the next day with some steady heat?

All sorts of amazing things, as it turns out. The ugly tangle of power lines over Somerville will be briefly beautified. Cars will look simultaneously beefed up and blanked out, as homogenized as modern milk.

Little white triangles will form in the bottom half of each diamond-shaped aperture in the chain-link fences around basketball courts. Gobs of snow will cling to the vertical planks of timber fences in random formations.

Random, but weirdly artful, no? Modern art, with its embrace of chance effects and new, impersonal techniques, has prepared us to see beauty in all this. If you’ve seen the textured effects of white in paintings by, for instance, Piero Manzoni, Robert Ryman, or Gerhard Richter, you’ll marvel at the trunks of maples coated in accumulations of flecked white, but only on their windward sides.

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Or at how, higher up, against the open sky, whole networks of slender branches are outlined on both sides by white, as if by an artist wanting to emphasize contour so much that she didn’t mind eating into the surrounding space. The thick-thin dynamic feels like a spiritual tussle between Alberto Giacometti and Fernando Botero.

Sebastian Smee/globe staff

But this was stuff, real stuff – not just visual effects – and of course the weight of it all was no joke. If it was part of an experiment, it was as if cooked up by the same youthful miscreant who loaded a glass table with bricks, one at a time, to find out at what point it would break. Under a soft torture of snow accumulation, trees slumped, wept, crumpled, snapped. Broken, they littered roads, bike paths, roofs, sometimes with disastrous consequences.

Still, being an incurable art critic (and lucky, touch wood; our roof remained intact) I come back to the aesthetics of it all. I notice, for instance, how the white of the snow kills color, for the most part, but whatever localized colors remain stand out against the white-out all the more vividly.

The body of that royal blue car, for instance, in front of the turquoise house, both iced with white. Beautiful. The bright yellows and purples of the rows of clapboard houses. And yes, of course, the intense blue sky.

I have a feeling the storm we are experiencing now won’t be anything like as beautiful. I’m tapping away at my keyboard now, but it will be time, soon, to put on my boots and gloves and get out amongst it, with my bright yellow shovel.

Sebastian Smee/globe staff

More coverage:

Streets become rivers as storm hits coastal towns south of Boston

Winter storm photos

Map: Power outages in Mass.

Snow totals in Mass. as storm hits the state

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.