Big weather on the Hudson

SEEN FROM the window of the train, the Hudson River has become like flat snow-covered fields, a frozen landscape in which there might as well be no river. In the worst winter for a decade, the Hudson has been covered by a foot and a half of ice. A smudge of grey in the distance where the ice-breakers have made a path is the only sign of water. A local newspaper reports that this channel can refreeze within half an hour of a ship passing. Local papers, in their attempt to come to grips with such extreme conditions, produce excessive lists of statistics, all meaningless, like the fact that New York has had snow 28 times in the last 32 days. Almost identical front-page stories are run by the Hudson Register Star (Keeping River Open Never Ending Task: and the Catskill Daily Mail (Keeping River Flowing A Tricky Task). The Star produces a story about a toll-booth attendant on the Rip Van Winkle Bridge who reported bleeding knuckles from the cold.

For the moment, the weather is news, putting aside other headlines, all of them reduced in significance by what a Hudson local calls, 'a lotta big weather'. Television dwells endlessly on the local freeze and the Los Angeles earthquake. Curiously parochial stories of individual bewilderment are followed by jittery discussions with superstitious pundits. Someone in California says that the next thing will be the rains: mudslide] I idly wonder what insurance premiums are now for Angelenos.

Not to be outdone, the Hudson Register Star has its earthquake headline, which takes priority over local weather stories: 'Ex-Claverack Man Unhurt In Quake; Just Going To Work'. Claverack is a hamlet on route 23B and newsworthy in its own right. The Register reports that during the night of 17 January powerlines were cut by a falling branch, leaving 750 people powerless for several hours.

In the town of Hudson fire sirens are heard several times a day, which seems strange given the climate. The fires, according to the Register, are usually caused by broken powerlines setting trees alight. A more enjoyable local rumour attributes them to arson, the result of boredom at the national retirement home for ex-firemen, which lies on the outskirts of the town.

Even this far north, the river is so broad that it seems imperiously detached from whatever fate is endured by towns like Hudson, fallen on hard times. Local 19th-century painters were drawn to this river landscape by what they considered its Edenic qualities, and, even if the fastness of winter, one can see why. The Hudson seems even more awesome in its frozen state, its width emphasised by the size of the bridges that span it.

In the cusp of jetlag I stay up half the night watching snow fall, a form of reverie in itself. Baudelaire once wrote: 'Isn't it true that a pleasant house makes winter more poetic, and doesn't winter add to the poetry of a house?' But the peace of the image is interrupted by snow trucks grinding their way through town, making the sort of siniter racket associated with military coups. As the trucks move through the white streets, someone on television in Los Angeles sifts through the wreckage of their home, looking for some trace of personal belonging.

Photographs by David Kelley