THE NEW ENGLAND of the history books was a place where the winters were cold and snowy and the inhabitants taciturn and rugged. The adjectives always seemed to belong together. What was there to be other than taciturn and rugged when the winds howled and the snow piled higher and higher? Talking about it didn't help, and being something less than rugged threatened continued existence.

It is that way again in New England this year, but with a difference. In the old days, when Nature dumped a load of snow and unleashed the winds, the problem was to care for the animals and bring in more wood for the fire. Life isn't like that anymore, and it is the dependence each of us has on someone else - for heat, light, food and drink - that makes the winter storms of today so much more devastating and so much more dangerous to human life than the storms of yore. Because of that, comparisons between this week's blizzards, which has paralyzed most of the Northeast, and blizzards of years ago are meaningless. The blizzard of '78 is a disaster as far as hundreds of thousands of people are concerned, regardless of how it compares with other storms.

Those of us in Washinfton can be thankful that we escaped the worst of it. The storm could have stalled off the coast to dump the snow here, rather than stalling farther north. We, rather than those who live in Boston, could be digging out now. And we, no doubt, we have asked for federal help even more quickly than did most of New England. That help is there now (or on its way), and the government should be generous with it.

There are no new lessons to be learned from the storm, but there have been some reminders. New York City has been reminded that it is dangerous to neglect a fleet of aging work vehicles; the city is in worse shape today than it would have been if it had not diverted capital from replacing old trucks to covering costs. Travelers have been reminded that sometimes the weather bureau is right, and ignoring its warnings can be dangerous to your health. All of us have been reminded that Nature is stronger than technology and that many things that make life more comfortable and convenient than it was in old New England - furnances, stoves, lights, automobiles and the rest - hang by a thread that Nature can cut anytime.