Dear Umbra,

Being a new homeowner, I’ve realized the responsibility of keeping the sidewalk slip-proof during the winter months. Of course, shoveling will be the first line of defense, but that never seems to do the trick, often leaving that thin layer of slippery snow. And then there is the ice. I know that salt and sand can be fairly nasty to local rivers and streams (not to mention the white stains on my floors). So what are the best alternatives? Everything I have been able to find seems to contain something equally scary. Am I doomed to slippery sidewalks? I need your help — it’s snowing as I type!

Flint, Mich.

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Dearest Katie,

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Elbow grease and inexpensive chunky stuff is the sage advice of my source in snowy Vermont. In other words, go with the tried and true.

There’s nothing environmentally problematic about hard work. As for cheap chunky stuff: Salt is a magic bullet, busting up the bonds between old and new ice — but as you noted, the runoff is not kind to the animals and plants downstream, so you should try to get by without it, especially if you live near a waterway. The trouble with sand on roadways is that it either remains at the side of the road come spring, to be scooped up and disposed of as solid waste, or it blows off in the winter wind and becomes general pollution. It can also run down storm drains and add sediment to waterways. But, unlike the sand used on roads, the amount you would use at home is fairly insignificant. A better option, if you happen to be both industrious and reasonably well-off, would be to try crushed rock or gravel, then shovel or rake it up again in May and store it for the summer. Wood shavings, available free of charge at many carpentry shops, are an excellent foot-gripper, and will eventually decay. Another free possibility is ash from your fireplace or wood stove.

One final note: Pa Fisk and Frere Fisk have apparently collaborated on a rooftop snow removal device which you could attempt on the sidewalk. To wit: Cover the sidewalk with a tarp, let the snow fall on the tarp, and then whisk the tarp and snow away. As someone who endures the substantial winter of Michigan, you, too, I trust, can see folly in this type of Yankee ingenuity, but I am duty-bound to report all options. Have you considered staying indoors all winter and living off Chef Boyardee?


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