Snowfall in Belmont, Massachusetts (February 18, 2014)

Central Question: How can we keep liking snow?

Snowfall in Belmont, Massachusetts (February 18, 2014)

Stephanie Burt
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Most sequels disappoint. The further into the sequence we get, the worse they can be. Parts three or four of a film series (Godfathers, Star Warses), presidents’ second terms, mayors’ fourth terms: all strike us at best as slight letdowns, at worst as betrayals.

So the eleventh snowstorm we had this winter, the fourth this February, came to us with low expectations indeed. Its predecessors had already given rise to more than enough clichés about Christmas, fears about snow days (would school now stretch into July?), apparently futile hours of upper-body exercise (why shovel if the driveway would only fill up again?), repetitive expressions of glee in our children (snowballs!), and equally repetitive yet comical exclamations of childish discomfort (snow pants!). The last ten-odd storms had already left behind toothy mountain ranges carved by the sides of the plows, along with a block-long series of mounds in front yards, as if advertising (or mocking) the warm, slushy Sochi Olympics. After such snows, what forgiveness? And what else was left for this latest weather to do?

It turned out to be a lesson in variety, and in close attention to what lay under our boots. New snow in big, wet flakes, piled atop a thin and dirty crust, itself thinly brushed atop the floury stacks left from last week and the week before, interspersed with ice-core slabs packed down by passing cars: it took all of these snows, one after the other, to make us take a closer look at the snow in the first place, and to drive home how many kinds there were. “Snow is to water what poetry is to prose,” writes the historian Bernard Mergen in Snow in America: it is at once more rare, less useful, more elaborately organized, and harder to describe. Only via snow after snow after another snow, thick enough to blow over itself and shelter some residues from dirt and plows and traffic, could we even visualize an inventory as we dug beside fences and under back stairs.

Given a magnifying glass (or just afflicted with myopia), we could try to distinguish the official classes of snowflake, as Mergen sets them forth: “Plate, stellar, crystal, column, needle, spatial dendrite, capped column, irregular column, irregular crystal, graupel, ice pellet and hail.” Snow on the ground undergoes its own metamorphoses, depending on when and how it melts and refreezes. The National Snow and Ice Data Center recognizes dozens of terms for snow, among them hoarfrost, polycrystals, sastrugi, sun cups, and firn. We coined our own names for this latest snow, too: “#@$%^$,” we called it, and “@#$&#!” (Those are the terms we used in front of our children.)

More than the last ten snowfalls, this snow made us want to escape, and it was the children who figured out how: they took us to Hoth, the one place in the contemporary American imagination that always has more snow than we had this year, a place where nobody swears about having to dig out their cars or about schools that close two hours early. Hoth, if you don’t know, is the winter planet from Star Wars, where our heroes keep warm by avoiding blasters and crawling inside eviscerated tauntauns while the Imperial Stormtroopers, terrible shots to the last, keep warm by trying to track them down. It took just one giant load of sky-borne flakes to get our town to dismiss its schools, but it took nine big snowfalls until we parents agreed to let our kids watch the original Star Wars trilogy, and it took two more for them to reciprocate at last with their own version of escape.

—Stephen Burt

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