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Skating on thinning ice

By David Wilson

On the eve of the Paris climate talks late last year, a childhood friend posted a black-and-white photograph shot in the late 1950s. It shows her fedora-topped father playing shinny with three youngsters on a rink in front of their home in southwestern Ontario. The long shadows on the ice suggest a sparkling cold winter’s day; you can almost feel your toes tingle.

My friend’s timing was serendipitous. The Paris climate talks began with a consensus that had eluded earlier summits: climate change is real, and we are about to enter a new and perilous relationship with the weather. As if to underscore the point, a strong El Nino system was producing the warmest November and December on record in central Canada — a foretaste, perhaps, of an overheated future when scenes like the one in my friend’s photograph will be fading memories.

As futurist Sanjay Khanna wrote in this magazine last month, we are on the cusp of profound uncertainty. Lives and activities that revolved around predictability will be turned upside down by climate chaos. Seasons will be defined by their extremes, not their norms. Volatile weather will keep us constantly on edge, wondering what’s coming next.

Back when the photograph of my friend’s dad was taken, we generally knew where we stood with the weather — what we got was what we expected. This seasonal certainty made for more certainty in life itself. We were in right relationship with the weather, not at its mercy.

For we northerners, I can think of no expression of that relationship more eloquent than the backyard ice rink. It’s a beautifully simple harmony of natural elements — water and winter. A patch of ground rendered moribund by autumn comes to life again in mid-winter as a sheet of ice that beckons the housebound to lace up and venture outside again. Rinks differ, but as anyone who has ever built one will attest, one thing is true of them all: flood it and they will come.

Like my friend’s dad, my father built a rink for me and my siblings almost every winter. As I grew older, my brother and I collaborated with other neighbourhood kids to create rinks that stretched over two or three backyards. Many years later, my wife and I bought our first (and only) house. For me, the rink-friendly backyard was as much of a selling point as the house itself.

I took great pleasure in building rinks for our kids and their friends. After everyone else had gone to bed, I loved heading outside to scrape and sweep the snow off the ice, then lay down a fresh coat of water with a garden hose run out through a basement window. Afterwards, I would often sit on the back steps just to admire the dark, glistening surface and to drink deeply of the cold, clean air, feeling at one with winter.

As I write this now, a few days before Christmas, people are walking around in light jackets and sneakers. Rinks? Not even the artificially made ones are usable. Few complain about the freakish warmth, but few celebrate it either. El Nino may be the official explanation, but climate change is on the tip of everyone’s tongue. Something is askew in the natural order of things. The weather is getting away on us.

The world leaders who gathered in Paris agreed, finally, on a binding deal that might rein in climate change in a few decades. It’s a global deal, but its success or failure will be measured locally, in how the weather affects people on the ground — or in the case of Canada, on the ice. Let’s pray that the sounds of churning steel blades, of young voices echoing in the frosty air, do not become relics of a paradise we have lost. 

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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