Some day I need to write a long piece about snow. Living here in the Canadian snow belt, I’m endlessly fascinated by it. Most of the people I know give little or no thought to the weather; but out here, one needs to pay close attention to it, as it dictates your comings and goings, limits what is possible and safe, and also, on rare and special occasions, makes the impossible possible.
Our lake always freezes in winter, but this year, the conditions were such that a perfect sheet of skating ice was formed. I think that people who don’t live beside bodies of water often imagine that such surfaces are always skatable in winter. I was reflecting last night that in the past decade I can only remember three instances when the lake was like this in winter. It takes a very particular set of natural processes to occur: frozen ice (we have 10 inches at the moment), rain on top, flash freeze, and then heavy wind to polish it, followed by a very light layer of protective snow. You can make a small rink in your backyard, but to have one made for you that is so large you would tire before you could skate the whole thing, that is a gift that needs to be enjoyed when given.
The girls have been out with their cousins and aunts and uncles doing their best to take advantage of this perfect ice. The adults have spent countless hours shoveling it, clearing a large rink in the middle. Yesterday I took my youngest daughter out to skate, and we found that the older cousins had a fast hockey game underway. I noticed that one of the younger cousins was skating on a small patch of ice just off to the side of the main larger rink. We went and joined her, and very quickly hatched a plan: we would make them a house.
With my shovel I carved out hallways, bedrooms, a kitchen, closets, etc. on the ice. Imagine the foundation of a home laid out with a single layer of cinder blocks–an architect’s plans roped off on the ground. The foot of snow covering the ice in every direction provided perfect walls between all the rooms.
As the girls skated around their house, I noticed the hockey game slowly lose players, as more and more people came over to have a tour of the house. It wasn’t long before I was being asked to construct more neighbouring houses, all with many small rooms joined by hallways. Eventually the game was over and the large rink empty, as everyone dispersed within small rooms around its edges.
The experience put me in mind of Christopher Alexander’s great work on architectural patterns, A Pattern Language. The patterns describe ways that people and spaces come together, and are endlessly fascinating to read. I have used them in teaching object oriented design patterns in the past. You can apply them to great buildings, to software construction, but also to snow and ice. Watching the huge rink that the adults had cleared empty of all activity and people, I thought about Small Meeting Rooms and A Room of One’s Own, among others. We think we crave large spaces, but quickly tire of their expanse without also having away space to recover, reflect, and prepare to go out again.