Russell Hunt

That Wondrous Stuff Called Snow

[as published in New Brunswick WinterGuide '86, ed. David Folster. Sugar Island, N. B.: Sugar Island Writers, January 1986. P. 11]

Two a.m. The clouds have cleared; the snow has ended and the usual northwest wind is clawing at the corners of the house and sounding like the whistle of the teeth around the bar of a chainsaw. A blue-white moon watches the snow devils whipping up from the woods, across the field, piling stiff drifts like beaten eggwhite around behind the barn. The drifting snow is coming from northwest of where I look out the frosty window, on Keswick Ridge: it's coming from Millville, from Plaster Rock, from the Gaspé, from Hudson's Bay, from the far corners of the Arctic dark, and it's all headed for my driveway.

It's cold at the window. I consider putting on my slippers and going to the basement for a couple of sticks of wood for the stove. But I crawl back into bed instead, listening to the house creak at the onslaught of wind, dropping temperatures, and abrasive, hostile snow.

It takes a while for sleep to re-establish itself. The world hangs before my mind's eye in a photograph taken from the moon, a mammoth blue and white jewel. It occurs to me that what makes it blue and white -- what makes it so radically different from all the worlds we know -- is that its surface is virtually all water. Only 70 percent or so is actually liquid that you can wet yourself in, of course, but much of the land is obscured by clouds (water in its gaseous form) or laden with crystals of ice and snow (water in its metallic form). What you see when you look at the earth from that distance is water. And, given the normal temperature of the universe, the natural state of water is frozen. Snow.

A Farmer's Friend

The more urban we are, and the more complicated our lives, the more we think of snow as our enemy, as an abnormal interruption in the pattern of our lives. It's cold, it's sterile, it's inconvenient.

But if it's the natural condition of water to be frozen, and if water is the most typical element of our planet, it can hardly be right to think of it as some sort of unusual phenomenon -- especially, of course, in a place like New Brunswick. And as Ruth Kirk has pointed out in a wonderful book titled simply SNOW, we're wrong on all the other counts as well.

Snow isn't cold, for instance. It's an insulator, and an excellent one, as every farmer knows who hopes for a good snow cover to save his strawberries or roses. A frost which goes more than a foot down into bare fields might penetrate a neighboring field, under a six-inch snow cover, less than an inch. Eskimos, comfortable in igloos warmed by one whale-oil lamp, laugh at Arctic explorers freezing in their kerosene-heated artificial shelters.

Nor is snow sterile. Snowfall delivers nitrates, sulphate calcium, potassium and other trace elements to farmers' fields. French peasants say a snowfall is worth a pile of manure. There is an inch-long worm called mesenchytraeus which lives comfortably in snowdrifts. Snow promotes the growth of various algae and molds. And, of course, snow -- which remains on high ground well into summer, and in some places all year round -- is the most important reservoir of the world's agriculturally necessary running water.

And as to inconvenience -- it may block my driveway, but it gives me access to a world I never see in what the Eskimos call the "times without snow": on cross-country skis I can effortlessly glide though woods summer renders a nightmare of undergrowth and unsure footing. A back road which a rain makes into a quagmire and August turns into a dustbowl, becomes a wide, smooth, pristine white and eminently passable highway. (In some places, snow is used as a roadbuilding material -- just roll down the new snow and presto! a road.) A frozen lake or river is magically made into a roadway for skiers and snowmobilers. Many parts of the world are only conveniently accessible because of snow.

I turn over in bed, snuggling down into the blankets. The driveway in the morning will still be an expanse of Styrofoam-like drift snow which will have to be carved out in blocks. The kids, though, who spent the afternoon cheering about the first "real snow" of the winter, probably have the right idea.