Leaves of Snow 

Remembrances of winters past for an ozone-deprived generation

I long for snow in winter, even though I'm not a skier. For the past few years we've suffered from a prolonged drought of the fluffy stuff, so when I've really been jonesing, I've had to turn to books for sustenance.

There's a lot of great winter literature out there, and if you happen to speak Icelandic or Inuit or some other Northern language, I'd bet that you could find even more. Still, either written in English or translated, a survey of my bookshelf brought up the following selections of literary snowiness that have helped me through the driest winter.

Robert Frost, Collected Poems

No one has ever gotten the description of New England seasons better than Frost, and throughout his collected works you find one great snow-filled poem after another. One of the most delightful aspects of his snowy oeuvre is that it covers so much ground. Snow shook down from a crow in a hemlock can bring the joy of life and consciousness to the narrator as in "Dust of Snow," or it can belie desolation as in "Desert Places," with Frost's description: "A blanket whiteness of benighted snow/With no expression, nothing to express."

For the ultimate snow poetry experience, I vote for the knock-your-socks-off poem entitled "Snow." It is a long piece describing a preacher, halfway home, who visits a couple at midnight to take refuge from a snowstorm. Against everyone's advice, the preacher, Meserve, sets back out into the storm after his team has rested, creating a flurry in the lives of everyone involved. Here's how Meserve describes the snow building up against the cabin window:

It looks as if
Some pallid thing had squashed its features flat
And its eyes shut with overeagerness
To see what people found so interesting
In one another, and had gone to sleep
Of its own stupid lack of understanding,
Or broken its white neck of mushroom stuff
Short off, and died against the window-pane.

Many of Frost's poems have an element of threat or sadness or suspense within them, and in "Snow," the snow is downright frightening. For a more subtle application, look to Frost's most famous snow poem, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." No one beats Frost for the beauty and threat of a winter's evening.

Peter Heg, Smilla's Sense of Snow

If you want to talk deep Northern snow, seek out a Nordic type, living months on end in winter darkness. Peter Heg, a Dane with an extraordinary literary reach, hit the best-seller stands a few years back with this mystery-thriller whose physicist protagonist is a Greenland native. Smilla lives in Copenhagen, something of a misfit, but her attempts to uncover the causes of a young neighbor's death take her back across the incredible arctic terrain of her youth. Smilla's knowledge of ice and snow is encyclopedic, intuitive and scientific. Here she describes the formation of the ice cover in the Arctic Ocean:

It was created in beauty. One October day the temperature drops thirty degrees in four hours, and the sea grows as motionless as a mirror. It's waiting to reflect a wonder of creation. The clouds and the sea now glide together in a curtain of heavy grey silk. The water grows viscous and tinged with pink, like a liqueur of wild berries. A blue fog of frost smoke detaches itself from the surface of the water and drifts across the mirror. Then the water solidifies. Out of the dark sea the cold now pulls up a rose garden, a white blanket of ice blossoms formed from salt and frozen drops of water. They may last for four hours or two days.

I was a little disappointed in the ending of Smilla's Sense of Snow, but have reread it nevertheless just for the gorgeous depictions of a land rarely described.

Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji

This is a weird selection to put in a piece about snow, since the 11th-century Japanese tale is no more about winter than it is about spring, summer or fall, all of which are meticulously described. However, when I began thinking about how people respond to the winter, I immediately recalled the denizens of the household of Prince Genji, son of the emperor, responding to the changing landscape by altering their poetry, the paper it is written upon, the ink with which it is written, the colors of their robes, and everything else in their environment over which they have control. Here, Genji wants to stay in the rooms of Murasaki, his favorite, rather than going to the rooms of his childish new wife:

Waking this time in the familiar rooms, he got off another note to the princess. He took great trouble with it, although he was not sure that she would notice. He chose white paper and attached it to a sprig of plum blossom.

"Not heavy enough to block the way between us,

The flurries of snow this morning yet distress me."

He told the messenger that the note was to be delivered at the west gallery.

Dressed in white, a sprig of plum in his hand, he sat near the veranda looking at patches of snow like stragglers waiting for their comrades to return. A warbler called brightly from the rose plum at the eaves. "Still inside my sleeve," he said, sheltering the blossom in his hand and raising a blind for a better look at the snow. He was so youthfully handsome that no one would have taken him for one of the great men of the land and the father of a grown son.

Reading The Tale of Genji is an enormous undertaking, but a great project for a long winter of dark evenings by the fire.


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