Snowing today. The plows are out, scraping and salting. The temperature hovers near freezing in a Halifax snowstorm and salt melts the snow into slush that spatters loudly with each passing car. An army of different-sized trucks with blades on their prows confront every snowfall here. Men earn money to make payments on their F-150s in a few hours of concentrated work, radios blasting, Tim Horton’s coffee cups stacked in the console. They cut furrows in parking lots and driveways, channels down which money will flow to them, a complex assembly of agreements that clear snow. And clear it fast.
As someone interested in learning and its relationship to society and culture, I always wonder about the origin and development of collective social practices like snow removal. I am intrigued, for instance, in how big collective practices manage to stitch together an array of much smaller actions, many of them conducted by very small groups or individuals.
From a learning perspective, these small actions are often exceedingly interesting in themselves. When it comes right down to it, something simple like hand shoveling snow from a driveway, is not something that just comes naturally. Mostly through engaging with the task, a person must, for example, learn the futility of taking too much snow on his or her shovel at once or how much easier it is to work systematically to move snow from the middle to the edges of a driveway. A person learns the challenges of different kinds of snow, wet heavy snow that can barely be lifted or fluffy light snow that blows back in one’s face when tossed into the wind. Individual learning takes place here not so much from being taught by anyone but through simple trial and error. We weave the powers and potentials of our bodies and minds into the properties and powers of the varied substances we encounter in the act (the varying properties of snow, wind, shovels, substrate, and so on).
Certainly, individual actions like these (and a wide range of others) are what ultimately cleans up the snow, but for a massive clean up to take place, collective action is required. Complex collective practices, like snow clearing in a city, are often an amalgam of several smaller regimes of practice that have been built up and connected together over reaches of time into an assemblage that eludes easy understanding. For the most part, we take for granted the accumulated knowledge and skills that contribute to snow clearing. We forget, for instance, how the development of the simple shovel was only achieved over many millennia in the Paleolithic and Neolithic eras, moving from simple scooping devices and carrying containers fashioned from bark or wood to shovels that could effect more serious digging often made of bone (the scapula of large game was common) or antler. The Inuit often carried small snow shovels to help in the construction of igloos. Neolithic agriculture spurred the further development of shovels with a longer handle for leverage for moving dirt or grain.
For the most part, before the rise of northern cities, the use of sleighs and walking aids like skis and showshoes obviated the need for large scale snow removal. People could simply shovel doorways clear and tromp down or shovel pathways in the snow. By the 19th Century, however, larger cities began to require larger and more concerted means for snow removal. As with most things, tools for larger scale snow removal were mostly adapted from other established practices. Agricultural field preparation methods (various kinds of horse drawn plows) were modified to move snow. Industrialization ushered in more mechanized means of snow removal. Plows fastened on the front of trains enabled the clearing of railways. In the early decades of the 20th Century, plows were mounted on the front of trucks.
Each of these steps was accomplished through considerable learning. Rather than great leaps of inventiveness, however, the development of tools and systems for snow removal simply elaborated, blended, adapted, and assembled preexisting techniques. Snow removal, like other complex assemblages in our world grew incrementally. Inventors advanced practices one step at a time. Some elaborations resulted in the development of ever larger machines and complex bureaucracies to coordinate the clearing of major urban road arteries. Other elaborations produced smaller, mobile, and relatively affordable technologies (like the plow on my neighbor’s half ton).
I am impressed by phenomena that seem to self-assemble. True, one of the main forces for snow removal in Halifax is municipal operations. This group plans and organizes snow removal activities, drawing on a long heritage of municipal service. Like most organizations, municipal operations is tasked, year to year, with the reproduction of previous services or the elaboration of new services. Snow clearing in my city isn’t just a city thing. These big centrally planned operations are hitched up to an even bigger diffusely organized snow clearing operation. Parking lots, driveways, sidewalks and so on are cleared by a veritable horde of guys with trucks and other smaller equipment working on contract for various commercial and residential organizations.
And then there are the even larger hordes of ordinary citizens wielding shovels and snow blowers who clean their own an maybe a neighbor’s walks and driveways.
When the snow falls in Halifax, it initiates a flurry of activity diversely organized at multiple scales. Thinking about snow clearing provides interesting insights into the nature of collective social action.