“So what’s the big deal about snow? What’s so wonderful about a White Christmas? Isn’t snow really cold and wet and you have to shovel it and you can slip on it and break your neck?”
That was the gist of what a good family friend asked my wife Laurie a few years ago when we were about to move back to New England from Louisiana, albeit our friend asked it with the sweet sugary twang of a native southerner. My wife had been waxing sentimental about having snow again at Christmastime, describing a snowstorm she’d enjoyed as a child visiting Manhattan that featured fat flakes fluttering down like a ticker-tape parade for every street, boulevard, and alley in the Big Apple. I’d joined in, recalling Vermont winter nights where moonlight pulled an ethereal blue out of sparkling snow drifts while casting black twisted shadows of leafless trees. Dawn would introduce a regal gold glow to this that, as it brightened, would pale and produce a scene where every natural thing, even evergreens, was reduced to a charcoal sketch of black and white. Laurie also recalled skaters at Rockefeller Center with the wind spinning snow around them like spectral skating partners. I remembered valiant snowball fights and tobogganing with friends down too-steep hills like Eskimo kamikazes. Our southern friend, who had never seen a single snowflake in person, was skeptical.
Snow can get annoying. While the first snowstorms are a refreshing novelty, late in winter, after you’ve shoveled 16 tons of the stuff out of your driveway and your knees are poking through worn out holes in your long johns and months of cold have instilled the most misanthropic hermit with so much cabin fever that his heart leaps with joy when a Jehovah’s Witness rings his doorbell, winter can become a grind. But spring does come.
For denizens of the north, the seasons come and go from the cold of winter, to the greening and blossoming of Spring, to summer’s languid warmth, and then back to ice, wind and snow. In A Christmas Carol, Dickens called it “the rolling year.” For the southerner, the year is more of a wobble, leaning from cooler days when nature is in a brown mood to bone-melting hot days when nature seems to have gone nuts with greenery. The northern cycle is like a great clock turning through the year, marking time with seasonal change, while the southern cycle seems more a change of moods. Our friend preferred the southern cycle. southerners are a bit prickly about their homeland’s virtues but all Americans are proud of their home regions, no matter how inhospitable others may find them.
One classic anecdote of American regional pride centers on Gen. Philip H. Sheridan (1831-1888), who hadn’t enjoyed a tour of duty with the U.S. Army in Texas. Sheridan complained of the heat and said, “If I owned hell and Texas, I’d rent out Texas and live in hell.” To this, a Texan newspaper pugnaciously replied: “Bully, for Sheridan! God damn a man who doesn’t love his own country.”
Love of country also plays a role in the northerner’s pride in snow. It’s a bit silly, since, aside from ski areas, snow is made by nature and not human beings, northern or otherwise. Still, northerners feel they have at least a partial copyright on snow even though it is a worldwide phenomenon in cold latitudes. The natives of the far North, commonly called Eskimos, but better identified by their specific tribal names such as Inuit and Yup’ik, might better claim ownership. It has been said that, because snow is so much a part of their everyday life, they have as many as 400 words for various kinds of snow. Linguists dispute this, countering that Eskimo languages are polysynthetic, meaning they tag phonemes, the sounds that make up words, upon a root, a bit like plugging together Lego blocks, and the resulting “word” is actually more of a phrase and nearly a sentence. Complicating the situation, there are regional differences in the way identical kinds of snow are described and even differences between the words used by men and women to describe snow. The experts have compiled lists of Eskimo snow word “roots” but these all fall far short of 400, coming in at 50 words or less. English actually provides a similar number of snow words. Still, the snow words attributed to the Eskimo are quite interesting. One list of words used by the native people in West Greenland includes “apirlaat,” meaning new, fallen snow, “qaniit,” falling snow, and “qanipalaat,” to label feathery clumps of falling snow.
Despite the now common debunking of the 400 Eskimo snow words claim, the myth remains popular with non-linguists, non-Eskimos, and non-Eskimo linguists, especially those over-anxious to appear extra-sensitive to native cultures. Their earnest repetition of the myth has produced a comic reaction. A search of the Internet, which hosts innumerable parodies, yields a decidedly irreverent list of phony Eskimo snow words written by a Phil James. It includes “hiryla,” for snow in beards, “hahatla,” small packages of snow given as gag gifts, “mextla,” snow used by Eskimos to make margaritas, “wa-ter,” for melted snow, and many other amusing but less printable faux Eskimo. Unfortunately, but predictably, not everyone recognizes the humor. The James list includes “talini,” which is said to mean snow angel. Since angels aren’t a traditional part of Eskimo culture, it would be odd for them to have a word describing this children’s winter activity, but this escaped one reader of the list. In 2004, when a female polar-bear cub was born at the Detroit Zoo, zoo officials held a contest to name the bear. They specified that the name had to an Inuit word and, sure enough, someone submitted Talini. The zoo placed the word and four other suggested names on their website and invited the public to vote for their favorite. The fake word won.
Snow produces more than linguistic scholarship. Meteorologists study the mechanisms of its formation and its crystalline structure. The later study can trace its roots to Wilson Alwyn “Snowflake” Bentley, a farm boy born in 1865 in the tiny town of Jericho, Vermont. Like many farm boys, Bentley found farm life tedious and his search for novelty caused him to become interested in snowflakes. Their structure tantalized his unaided eye. He asked his parents to buy him a microscope but his father, who saw little utility in a microscope around the farm–cows aren’t microscopic–refused. Eventually, Bentley’s mother bought him the device and he turned it upon snowflakes. He was amazed at their varied, intricate beauty.
With no scientific training, Bentley studied meteorology and photography. Because of their fragility and sensitivity to the slightest warmth, no one had ever produced detailed, close-up photographs of snowflakes. After two years of experimentation, when he was just 19 years old, Bentley succeeded. Using chilled black surfaces and powerful lens, he took hundreds of snowflake photos. Every snowstorm would find him running across pastures catching snowflakes to photograph. He was a great amusement to his more pragmatically oriented neighbors and received an equally unsympathetic reception from scientists and professional photographers, who doubted his work. It wasn’t till 1898, when Bentley was 33, that he managed to get his photos and writings published. The beauty of his photos won him fame and the self-taught scientist became the leading expert on snowflakes. Scientific authorities continued to ignore Bentley’s work, however, and it took another two decades for it to be accepted by the scientific community. In 1931, in his 66th year, Bentley died of pneumonia in the farmhouse where he had been born and lived his entire life. Ironically, he had caught a chill walking home through a blizzard.
It is a characteristic of beauty that those who see it have an urge to share it. Bentley felt that impulse when he looked at his snowflakes and I think many northerners feel a similar itch to share the ordinary but sublime splendor of snow. And so, it was a small disappointment when our southern friend didn’t understand. We left Louisiana very late in November and, when we arrived in Vermont, were welcomed by an early dusting of snow. It was wonderful-we would have a white Christmas–but more wonderful was a call we got from our Louisianan friend the night after we left. For the first time in many years, it had snowed there. Our friend was giddy with it. She told us how the whole town had shut down and the schools had closed. The streets were silent and filling with a carpet of snow. She and her children had gone outside and were struck by how the snow whirled like moths around streetlights. They made snow angels and a snowman and had a snowball fight. “It’s so beautiful,” she told us. It was beautiful. Both for her and for us.