The Tao of snow shoveling

Friday December 28, 2012

Telly Halkias

Several years ago on this page I poked fun at myself over an obsession for shoveling snow, specifically the messes which accumulate in my driveway following storms. But in taking self-effacement to the nth degree I let some thoughts slip by. This is a chance to make up that ground.

More than a ritual to give my neighbors limitless opportunities to declare me insane, shoveling snow is a personal and therapeutic exercise, one to relish for several reasons.

The first, and probably most obvious, is exercise. Calorie burning is at a premium during vigorous shoveling; by keeping the breaks to a minimum, cardiovascular fitness can be a real benefit. Not to mention the near full-body workout achieved as a result of a prolonged job with lots of snow to move. In favor of some ibuprofen, I'll omit mention of the sore lower back.

Past that, though, shoveling can also be a social practice. From the neighborly perspective, as well as from total strangers, the person out toiling in snow deserves some kind of salutation, if not an excuse to rest every now and then.

Neighbors coming and going are quick to wave, and sometimes even slow their cars, roll down their windows, and chat for a bit.

The content of these conversations can range from the ridiculous to the sublime. Yes, comments and chuckles abound on the futility of my efforts, and are good natured. They're also a reminder I'm out there by way of fixation, and not to take my motives too seriously. We can all use a moment to look in the mirror and stick out our tongues.

Other times, though, someone will pull over their car and have a serious conversation, from the obvious weather discussion to politics, religion, family, business and the like.

It's never escaped me that these chats -- sometimes even with strangers -- maintain a considerable level of gravitas despite the shovel resting between us, or the town plow's approaching yellow light beckoning us to get off the street.

But the final advantage realized from shoveling is that of solitude, and a heightened sense of observation. The shoveler is remarkably alone, and herein lies the heart, perhaps even the Tao, of snow shoveling.

With this week's storm, I had to go out early and clear what had fallen to date, because the precipitation wasn't stopping until later in the day. Waiting for the end would have required a Herculean effort, even with the help of my son Jason, who is home for a holiday visit.

So in staying ahead of one giant day-long clearing, tackling it in small bites opened up another reality. Shoveling while snow falls might seem futile, but it's actually one of the nature's most beautiful milieus in which to work, backbreaking task or not.

In falling snow there is silence. Occasional vehicles pass with only a muffle. People go by, but you can't hear a sound from them -- no voice, no boots in the snow, nothing. Even the shovel itself barely makes a thud or a scrape as it does its work.

This is my favorite time to take a breather, and look around. During the day the snow blurs the background so that anything of color -- such as my favorite cardinal at the driveway feeder - stands out in sharp contrast. At night, the effect is different but remains surreal. Flakes descending through streetlight beams look like feathers settling into a down comforter, blanketing the earth below.

Sometimes those images make me want to stop, sit on my porch, and absorb. But reality calls for my car to be out in the morning, and the paper and mail delivered easily. So I strike at the drifts, sometimes up to my knees. Occasionally, I'll wipe away a flake from my cheek, much as I would a teardrop.

Telly Halkias is an award-winning freelance journalist. You may e-mail him at:


If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.

Powered by Creative Circle Media Solutions