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How bad weather brings out the best in us

Sometimes, when the wind hits hard and icicles form on the sea cliffs, we can all come together – and at those times we are at our best. 

There is a red sandy beach in the Minas Basin in Nova Scotia that is unlike any other shore landscape I have ever seen. The world’s highest tides wash its shores and the soft cliffs of Blomidon Provincial Park are constantly crumbling away; whole trees will occasionally slide downto the sea to decay slowly in the wind and brine.

In mid-March this year, as I made my way across the sands with friends, it was the brutal cold that was most striking, the beach blanketed with elegant, mackerel-patterned waves of snow, the wind whipping around the cliff as hard as iron and spotted with flecks of eroded sandblast, so it felt as if someone was throwing tin tacks into our faces whenever we turned to gaze out over the strand. Most impressively of all, huge, silvery icicles, often 20 feet or more in length, hung glittering from the cliff face like the pipes of some great church organ.

I suppose those icicles should have provided fair warning of what was to come but this was my first visit to the area and, forever the optimist, I had forgotten that the weather elsewhere is not always as polite as it tends to be at home. It was not long before more signs and portents cropped up and soon people were speculating how powerful the coming storm would be (not long after my walk at
Blomidon, heavy winds destroyed the 140-year-old lighthouse at Church Point in the south and more than 16,000 Nova Scotians suffered power outages).

What was most interesting was how my friends and their neighbours were so quick to recall the great blizzard of February 2004, nicknamed “White Juan”, when a metre of snow fell on Shearwater in less than two days and the entire province was brought to a standstill – not because they relished the drama of losing heat and light for up to a week but because any reminder of those difficult times also brought back memories of everyday kindnesses and courtesies, extraordinary stories of neighbour rescuing neighbour from potential disaster and, most important of all, that solidly egalitarian frame of mind that arises in times of hardship, bringing people together to work for a common good against a shared threat.

As it happened, this spring’s storm did not emulate White Juan’s fierceness but it did provoke, in one visitor at least, a nostalgia for those values and courtesies that usually go under the name of “community” in places that are close enough to one natural hazard or another to require a genuine communal ethic.

For too long, in my neck of the woods, the word “community” has been a buzzword for politicians and flimflam men, a fraud by which the privileged few openly pretend that the benefits of some dubious development will be available to all. What I heard in Nova Scotia suggested that there are still groups that, in times of hardship or severe unpredictability, worked together in a truly communal manner. But then, perhaps that kind of action defines the limit of community as a way of living: real communities form to guard against hazard or need and, when they work, they include the entire population that is exposed to those hazards.

At less demanding times, however, community may well be no more than a convenient myth, cover for those who would deny the role of society in sustaining an egalitarian, just populace. Sometimes, when the wind hits hard and icicles form on the sea cliffs, we can all come together – and at those times we are at our best. Nobody is at his or her best all the time, though, and after the storm has abated, a little everyday vigilance – and native scepticism – goes a long way in separating the communal from the cynical rhetoric of high-sounding opportunists. 

This article first appeared in the 10 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Tech Issue