A History of Snow*

A History of Snow*
Mary di Lucia

What we know of snow comes from the impressions it makes. Over the years, it accumulates with the distinct drawback that the accumulations melt away and hence must be renewed again every season; thus, while they last and are considerable, these impressions are also invisible.

Snow is the great coverer, as well as the great revealer. There are thousands of years beneath its humps, sometimes as many as ten or twenty, dating back to the glaciers. [1]

Modern snow often combines with chemicals such as sodium bisphate or silver nitrate, creating a bath-like effect in which the aforementioned impressions may be preserved in the form of footprints, ghost trees, goose tracks, or the shadows of explorers and tramps, valuable to us due to the scarcity of human witness.

The earliest snow was said to have been “pristine.” Accounts of this are quite primitive and unfortunately, snow has left little record of itself even in terms of oral history, let alone ancient inscriptions, runes, pictograms, petroglyphs, etc.

The white on white nature of snow has not always been the case; surprisingly, it has also been, in the past, white on black, white on grey, and white on a host of other colors now fallen out of fashion, including blue. There are also artifacts of its past shapes, preceding the hexagonal, which is “traditional” or “classic” but not original, as there has also been the octagonal, tetrahedral, and duodecagonhedral, quite beautiful, the size ranging from the pebble to the boulder: considerable of substance, but proportionately lethal due to its heft.

Deep in the snow, in the hintermost lands where it has been permitted to remain, year after year, air bubbles may become trapped. Fortunately for the natural historian of meteorology, these stratigraphic phenomena make it possible to construct a history of atmosphere, oxygen, and of a range of weathers. At times, these bubbles have been revealed to be breaths, gasps, small sounds, even vowels or consonants. When this atypical data is encountered, it is immediately referred to the appropriate linguist, psychologist, or philosopher.

The crucial significance of snow, however, over aeons, is not geographic, meteorologic, atmospheric, or even geologic or archeologic, but aesthetic. It has provided a paradigm for how to frame, how to highlight, how to capture, how to freeze even a fraction of a second and create a static though not artificial moment of time sensitive to light impressions, shadows, shadings of deeper shadows, and an illusion that the dance of time has paused.

Will snow ever be studied for its own sake? Will it ever be justly historicized? Will there ever be a literary tradition—the epic, the saga, the ode, the madrigal, the jeremiad? Visually, poetically, snow can only be elegy. It blankets the past; it vanishes; it is a relational self which does not last, as it is trodden and stamped to nothing by the interactive other, who can then experience, in its absence, abandonment succeeded by nostalgia.

If snow were a baby, surely someone would blanket it; paradoxically, we do not know if this act of blanketing would nurture and preserve or damage and destroy the blanket of snow beneath the blanket. Were it truly valued more, snow would have been wholly mined and consumed and burned up centuries ago.

Look up. It is one o’clock, two o’clock. The snow is falling. It is not extinct or dying. It is not even dead. It is busily trying to create its own history, and again and again we try to record and document it, hastily, light of heart, protected in our parkas, safe from its playful but too-hard peltings, behind the bravest of our windows, from which we see only nothing vanishing. Indeed, the history of snow is one of a war against time and against history.

∗  Note that snow cannot be included in a history of portraiture as it has no face.

[ 1 ] Glaciers do make “impressions” on the landscape literally, by scouring and pulverizing it beneath the tumblers of ice, rubble, moraine, etc...(resulting in dramatic features such as the kettle pond, Mont Blanc, Mont St. Michel, the Sublime). However, these are not the kinds of “impressions” meant here. Furthermore, glaciers, known to have been made of snow, and covered by snow, are not to be confused with snow itself, as they are technically: ice. Due to their photogenic nature, glaciers are too uni-dimensional to be the subjects of contemplation in a work exploring unexplored and non-photogenic domains of knowledge.

< previous | next >