When Man was still very young he had already come aware that certain elemental forces dominated the world womb. Embedded on the shores of their warm sea, the Greeks defined these as Fire and Earth and Air and Water. But at first the Greek sphere was small and circumscribed and the Greeks did not recognize the fifth elemental.
About 330 B.C., a peripatetic Greek mathematician named Pytheas made a fantastic voyage northward to Iceland and on into the Greenland Sea. Here he encountered the fifth elemental in all of its white and frigid majesty, and when he returned to the warm blue Mediterranean, he described what he had seen as best he could. His fellow countrymen concluded he must be a liar since even their vivid imaginationscould not conceive of the splendor and power inherent in the white substance that sometimes lightly cloaked the mountainhomes of their high-dwelling Gods.
Their failure to recognize the immense power of snow was not entirely their fault. We who are the Greeks' inheritors have much the same trouble comprehending its essential magnitude.
How do we envisage snow?
It is he fragility of Christmas dreams sintering through azure darkness to the accompaniment of the sound of sleigh bells.
It is the bleak reality of a stalled car and spinning wheels impinging on the neat time schedule of our self-importance.
It is the invitation that glows ephemeral on a woman’s lashes on a winter night.
It is the resignation of suburban housewives as they skin wet snowsuits from runny-nosed progeny.
It is the sweet gloss of memory in the failing eyes of the old as they recall the white days of childhood.
It is the banality of a TV advertisement pimping Coca Cola on a snow bank at Sun Valley.
It is the gentility of utter silence in the muffled heart of a snow-clad forest.
It is the brittle wind-rush of skis; and the bellicose chatter of snowmobiles.
Snow is these things to us, together with many related images; yet all deal only with obvious aspects of a multifaceted, kaleidoscopic and protean element.
Snow, which on our planet is a phoenix continually born again from its own dissolution, is also a galactic and immortal presence. In the nullity of outer space, clouds of snow crystals, immeasurably vast, drift with time, unchanged since long before our world was born, unchangeable when it will be gone. For all that the best brains of science and the sharpest of the cyclopean eyes of astronomers can tell, the glittering crystals flecking the illimitable void are as one with those that settle on our hands and faces out of the still skies of a December night.
Snow is a single flake caught for an instant on a windowpane. But it is also a signboard in the solar system. When astronomers peer up at Mars they see the Red Planet as a monochromatic globe-except for its polar caps from which gleaming mantles spread toward the equatorial regions. As the antelope flashes its white rump on the dun prairies, so does Mars signal to worlds beyond it with the brilliance of our common sun reflected from its plains of snow.
And so does Earth.
When the first star voyager arcs into deep space, he will watch the greens and blues of our seas and lands dissolve and fade as the globe diminishes until the last thing to beacon the disappearing Earth will be the glare of our own polar heliographs. Snow will be the lastof the elementals in his distant eye. Snow may provide the first shining glimpse of our world to inbound aliens … if they have eyes with which to see.
Snow is crystalline dust, tenuous amongst the stars; but on Earth it is, in yet another guise, the Master Titan. To the south it holds the entire continent of Antarctica in absolute thrall. To the north it crouches heavily upon mountain ranges; and the is land subcontinent of Greenland literally sags and sinks beneath its weight. For glaciers are but another guise of snow.
Glaciers are born while the snow falls; fragile, soft and almost disembodied . . . but falling steadily without a thawing time. Years pass, decades, centuries, and the snow falls. Now there is weight where there
was none. At the surface of an undulating white waste, there seems to be no alteration, but in the frigid depths the crystals are deformed; they change in structure, interlock with increasing intimacy and eventually meld into black, lightless ice.
Four times during Earth's most recent geological age snow fell like this across much of the northern half of our continent and in Europe and Asia too. Each time, snow altered the face of almost
half a world. A creeping glacial nemesis as much as two miles thick oozed outward from vast central domes, excoriating the planet's face, stripping it of life and soil, ripping deep wounds into the primordial rock and literally depressing Earth’s stone mantel hundreds of feet below it’s formal level. The snow fell, softly, steadily, until countless millions of tons of water had vanished from the seas, locked up within the glaciers; and the seas themselves withdrew from the edges of the continents.
There is no natural phenomenon known to us that can surpass the dispassionate power of a great glacier. The rupturing of Earth during its most appalling earthquake cannot compare with it. The raging water of the seas in their most violent moments cannot begin
to match it. Air, howling in the dementia of hurricanes, is nothing beside it. The inner fire that blows a mountain to pieces and inundates the surrounding plains with floods of flaming lava is weak by comparison.
A glacier is the macrocosmic form of snow. But in its microscopic forms, snow epitomizes ethereal beauty. It is a cliché to say that no two snowflakes are identical, but it is a fact that each single snowflake that has fallen throughout all of time, and that will fall through what remains of time, has been-will be-a unique creation in symmetry and form.
I know of one man who has devoted most of his adult life to the study of this transient miracle. He has built a special house fitted with a freezing system, instead of heating equipment.. It is a house with a gaping hole in its roof. On snowy days and nights he sits in icy solitude catching the falling flakes on plates of pre-chilled glass and hurriedly photographing them through an enlarging lens. For him the fifth elemental in its infinite diversity and singularity is beauty incarnate, and a thing to worship.
Few of us would be of a mind to share his almost medieval passion. In truth, modern man has insensibly begun to develop a schizophrenic attitude toward the fifth elemental. Although we may remember our childhood experience of it with nostalgia, more and more we have begun to think of snow with enmity. We cannot control snow, nor bend it to our will. The snow that fell harmlessly and beneficently upon the natural world our forefathers lived in has the power to inflict chaos on the mechanical new world we have been building. A heavy snowfall in New York, Montreal, Chicago, produces a paralytic stroke. Beyond the congealed cities it chokes the arteries of our highways, blocks trains, grounds aircraft, fells power and telephone cables. Even a moderate snowfall causes heavy inconvenience if smashed cars; broken bodies, and customers for the undertakers are only inconveniences.
We will probably come to like snow even less. Stories about the good old-fashioned winters when snow mounted to the eaves of houses and horses hauled sleighs were galloped over drifts at tree top level are not just old 'wives' tales. A hundred years ago such happenings were commonplace. However during the past century our climate has experienced a warming trend, an upswing (from our point of view) in the erratic cyclic variations of the weather. It has probably been a short-term swing and the downswing may soon be upon us. And where will we be then, poor things, in our delicately structured artificial world? Will we still admire snow? More likely we will curse the very word.
However, when that time comes there may still be men alive who will be unperturbed by the gentle, implacable downward drift. They are the true people of the snows.
They live only in the northern hemisphere because the realm of snow in the southern hemisphere - Antartica - will not permit the existence of human life unless equipped with a panoply ofprotective devices not far short of what a spaceman needs. The snow people ring the North Pole. They are the Aleuts, Eskimos and Athapascan Indians of North America; the Greenlanders; the Lapps, Nensi, Chuk chee, Yakuts, Yukagirs and related peoples of Eurasia and Siberia.
Cocooned in the machine age, we smugly assume that because these people live unarmored by our ornate technology; they must lead the most marginal kind of existence, faced with so fierce a battle to survive that the have no chance to realize the “human
potential." Hard as it may strike into our dogmatic belief that technology offers the only valid way of life, I can testify from my own experiences with many of the snow people that this assumption is wrong. They mostly lived good lives, before our greed and our megalomaniac arrogance impelled us to meddle in their affairs. That is, if it be good to live at peace with oneself and one's fellowmen, to be in harmony with ones environment, to laugh and love without restraint, to know fulfillment in one's daily life, and to rest from birth to death upon a sure and certain pride.
Snow was these people's ally. It was their protection and their shelter from abysmal cold. Eskimos built complete houses of snow blocks. When heated only with simple animal-oil lamps, these had comfortable interior temperatures, while outside the wind screamed unheard and the mercury dropped to fifty degrees or more below zero. Compacted snow provides nearly perfect insulation. It can be cut and shaped much more easily ·than wood. It is light to handle and strong, if properly used, a snow house with an inner diameter of twenty feet and a height of ten feet can be built by two men in two hours. On special occasions Eskimos used to build snow houses fifty feet in diameter and, by linking several such together, formed veritable snow mansions.
All of the snow people use snow for shelter in one way or another. If they are sedentary folk possessing wooden houses, they bank their homes with thick snow walls in wintertime. Some dig a basement in a snowdrift and roof it with reindeer skins. As long as snow is plentiful, the peoples of the far north seldom suffer serious discomfort from the cold.
Snow also makes possible their transportation system. With dog sleds and reindeer sleds; or afoot on snowshoes or trail skis, they can travel almost any where. The whole of the snow world becomes a high- way. They can travel at speed, too. A dog or reindeer team can move at twenty miles an hour and easily cover a hundred miles a day.
The mobility snow gives them, combined with the way snow modifies the behavior of game animals, ensures that other things being equal – the snow people need not go hungry. Out on the arctic ice a covering of snow gives the seals a sense of false security. They make breathing holes in the ice, roofed by a layer of snow. The Chukchee or Eskimo hunter finds these places and waits beside them until, at a signal from a tell-tale wand of ivory or wood inserted in the roof, he plunges his spear down into the unseen animal below.
In wooded country, moose, elk and deer are forced by deep snow to "yard" in constricted areas where they can be killed nearly as easily as cattle in a pen. Most important of all, every animal, save those with wings and those who live beneath the snow, leaves tracks upon its surface. From bears to hares they become more vulnerable to the human hunter as soon as the first snow coats the land.
The snow people know snow as they know themselves. In these days our scientists are busy studying the fifth elemental, not so much out ·of scientific curiosity but because we are anxious to hasten the rape of the north or fear we may have to fight wars in the lands of snow. With vast expenditures of time and money the scientists have begun to separate the innumerable varieties of snow and to give them names. They could have saved themselves the trouble. Eskimos have more than a hundred compound words to express different varieties and conditions of snow. The Lapps have almost as many. Yukagir reindeer herdsmen on the arctic coast of Siberia can tell the depth of snow cover, its degree of compactness, and the amount of internal ice crystallization it contains simply by glancing at the surface.
The northern people are happy when snow lies heavy on the land. They welcome the first snow in autumn, and often regret its passing in the spring. Snow is their friend. Without it they would have perished or - almost worse from their point of view - they would long since ·have been driven south to join us in our frenetic rush to wherever it is that we are bound.
Somewhere, on this day, the snow is falling. It may be sifting thinly on the cold sands of a desert, spreading a strange pallidity and flecking the dark, upturned faces of a band of Semitic nomads. For them it is in the nature of a miracle; and it is certainly an omen and they are filled with awe and chilled with apprehension.
It may be whirling fiercely over the naked sweep of frozen plain in the Siberian steppe, or on the Canadian prairies, obliterating summer landmarks, climbing in scimitar drifts to wall up doors and windows of farmhouses. Inside, the people wait in patience. While the blizzard blows, they rest; when it is over, work will begin again. And in the spring the melted snows will water the new growth springing out of the black earth.
It may be settling in great flakes on a calm night over a vast city; spinning cones of distorted vision the headlights of creeping cars and covering the wounds softening the suppurating ugliness inflicted on the earth by modern man. Children hope it will continue all night long so th.at no buses, street cars or family automobiles will be able to carry the victims off to school in the morning. But adult men and women wait impatiently, for if it does not stop soon the snow will smother the intricate designs that have been ordained for the next day's pattern of existence
Or the snow may be slanting swiftly down across a cluster of tents huddled below a rock ridge on the artic tundra. Gradually it enfolds a pack of dogs who noses thrust under bushy tails, until the snow covers them completely and they sleep warm. Inside the men and women smile. Tomorrow the snow may be deep enough and hard enough so that the tents can be abandoned and the welcome domes of snow houses can rise again to turn winter into a time of gaiety, of songs, of leisure ·and lovemaking.
Somewhere the snow is falling.