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Donald Morrison: The snow piles up in feet. It's just another chapter in the dystopian tale we're writing for our children

mailbox completely covered in snow (copy)

A mailbox in Windsor is barely visible after Tuesday's nor'easter dumped about 3 feet of snow on the community. The staggering snow dump is the latest chapter in a story of a broken planet we're writing for our children, notes columnist Donald Morrison. 

The late Elmore Leonard, who wrote the rollicking 1990 crime novel “Get Shorty” and other classics, once published his tips for aspiring authors. Rule No. 1: Never open a book with the weather.

That subject, Leonard believed, is hackneyed, as well as lazy, boring and certain to make the reader skip ahead for some action or humanity. His novels had plenty of both.

I bring up his literary advice because I really didn’t want to write about the weather this week. Too depressing. The winter started out promisingly mild, but then we got clobbered. My little Berkshires hamlet just received 2 feet of fresh snow, and I’d be surprised if it’s the last of the season.

Speaking of seasons, spring arrives officially on Monday. Let’s hope at least some of our foliage and optimism survive to see it in.

Leonard was right. The weather can be bracing, but it doesn’t always make for interesting reading. England’s Edward George Bulwer-Lytton learned that lesson the hard way with his 1830 novel “Paul Clifford.” The opening, “It was a dark and stormy night,” has become a cliché.

It also inspired an annual writing contest, named after Bulwer-Lytton, for the year’s most egregious attempt at purple prose.

Recent prize-winning submission: “A lecherous sunrise flaunted itself over a flatulent sea, ripping the obsidian bodice of night asunder with its rapacious fingers of gold, thus exposing her dusky bosom to the dawn’s ogling stare.” (You can enter the contest at bulwer-lytton.com/submit.)

Of course, some great works of fiction do begin with descriptions of the weather. Take Stephen Crane’s 1895 “The Red Badge of Courage”: “The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting.”

Or Virginia Wolf’s cutting-edge 1931 novel “The Waves,” in which weather and water have starring roles: “The sun had not yet risen. The sea was indistinguishable from the sky, except that the sea was slightly creased, as if a cloth had wrinkles in it.”

John Steinbeck was cut from the same wrinkled cloth. Meteorological observations kick off five of his 19 novels, including that 1939 Dust Bowl refugee classic “The Grapes of Wrath”: “To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.”

My favorite opener came a decade later, in George Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece “1984”: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking 13.” See what he did here? Just the right mix of mundane and ominous — much like the world we now inhabit: the world of climate change.

You know the plot. As we go about our mundane lives, we create excessive amounts of greenhouse gases. They, in turn, cause the earth to retain heat. A hotter atmosphere means warmer seas and lakes. Which means more moisture in the air. Which means more and worse storms. Which means, for the northern climes, bigger snow dumps.

It’s our fault, of course. We’re the authors of this tale, too preoccupied with our own narratives to notice the harm we’re doing to the bigger story of human existence.

Novelists have noticed. Climate-themed dystopian fiction, also known as “cli-fi,” is one of the fastest-growing genres in contemporary literature. It dates at least from the early 19th century, with “Darkness,” George Gordon (Lord) Byron’s poetic vamp on the events of 1816 — “the year without a summer,” when dust from a volcanic eruption obscured the sun and sent global temperatures plunging.

The movement is now drawing mainstream authors. Two decades after her iconic 1985 “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Margaret Atwood produced three equally scary novels on environment themes. Other big names — Richard Powers, Cormac McCarthy, Ian McEwen, Barbara Kingsolver, J.G. Ballard, Carl Hiaasen — have also taken up the climate theme.

Interestingly, Hiaasen’s three cli-fi novels were written for children. Book publishing’s booming Young Adult segment is awash in sagas of environmental disaster and the resulting chaos. Our children now realize we’re leaving them a mess.

We’re also bequeathing them a less tangible burden. For years, they and generations of offspring will move through their lives with an ominous suspicion: that they’re living in bad novel.

Donald Morrison is an Eagle columnist and co-chairman of the advisory board. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.

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