I feel grateful to have been asked, a handful of times in my life, “What is snow like?”
The gratefulness I feel because it means I’ve traveled, traveled very far; have talked with strange, foreign peoples, people living in exotic places. I feel lucky for that. Although the near people who have loved me and provided so much of my luck would give me strokes and say it was so very much from my own spunk and grit and learning and sacrifice.
What a strange question – “What is snow like?”– for us Minnesotans. And what a problem to answer.
We may not have 50 words to suggest snow as the Eskimos are said to have. But if you sit on a night at the window inside in the warmth with the warm December lights and everything outside is the black void of a December night, if you apply your imagination as a poet or painter would or focus your thoughts as a writer or philosopher might, I think you as a Minnesotan could come up with some dozens of snows that you know. You may not be able to portray them in words, but you know them. They are familiar.
Tonight, I stepped out of a warm and electrically– lit and –heated cabin into the darkness. I have not spent a winter warm in this way in 10 years. Without the ability to maintain a viable core temperature, you never get to warm.
If you wake in the morning to dead stoves, you will be cold all day. If you are diseased and need to go to the outhouse 10 times a day and night, your feet and hands will never come around. If you exert yourself – either to get the blood going and warm up, to drill holes in the ice, to move wood and water, or to do the little things that just maintain one’s life (lay up the firewood, shovel, snowblow, maintain the truck and generator and pump) – you will sweat, and sweat is the enemy in winter.
Tonight, we went out to stretch our legs, to smoke and to do our business. Just off the stoop I put my boot toe into the fresh-fallen snow to judge its depth: two inches. The air is around “thawing” (that is, 32°F [I don’t see “freezing”]), and the snow beneath my boots crunches at the bottom, not at the top, and quietly. You know the snow: snowball snow. April snow. Hollywood snow. Robert Frost snow.
You and I, we Minnesotans, are lucky, in a sense. It doesn’t take much for us to picture the wintriness of Valley Forge, or Wounded Knee, or Stalingrad, or Shackleton’s slog, or the Ardennes, or the Armistice Day Blizzard.
In that sense we are helped to imagine. But nothing does those experiences justice. That’s only visual. It doesn’t approach fathoming the depth. Not of the cold, wet snow of Valley Forge, or the desolate, cloudy whiteness branded black in 300 places at Wounded Knee, or the haunted fir and spruce forests of the Bulge, or the sooty ice of Stalingrad that melted with a numbing metallic taste in one’s mouth.
Tonight, I’m lucky to be out under a black sky behind blacker balsams and spruce, with the damp and crunching snow.
Inside I’m reading Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. The political prisoners wore rags in winter. Ate one bowl of gruel a day. Drank a bowl of tea a day. On this foundation they built their own death camps outside at -34°C (look that temperature up).
Every Christmas I’ll read Tolstoy’s “Master and Man”. A horse, and its sleigh, with the peasant driver (freezing), and bourgeois landowner (bundled in furs and straw), sledding into a blizzard – actually cutting into the wind and snow. In the dark night in the snowstorm the horse loses the highway, and they are onto the rye fields and then lost forever. Stuck. Buried dead by morning.
In the morning, blue and bright and white, all that is visible is the horse, frozen standing, snow up to its withers. Like a hoarfrosted horse-head that you’d mount on the wall, if you’d ever mount a horse’s head on a wall.
I know about as much of that horse’s snow as he does of mine tonight. It’s so strange. What is it like?