Snow, by Marcus Sedgewick (Little Toller)
I must come clean here at the start and declare myself a huge fan of snow. I become giddy at the thought of it, watching the forecast like a hawk, feeling genuine disappointment when the clock ticks round and no snow arrives. As I write this*, in Oxfordshire in early February, the last little clumps of snowman are melting after the fall we had that weekend. Snow alters the landscape, makes it magical, I know I’m not alone in feeling this – just as I know there are some folks who find snow a nuisance and annoyance! – as soon as I saw this book I knew I had to read it. That I got to do so while the world was briefly white and sparkly is an added bonus.
‘Snow’ is packed with snow-stuff. As a winter person I’ve collected a fair bit of snow related writing around me. I became obsessed with the Arctic at one point – the result of an anthropology module during my archaeology degree. This book reminded me of all the reading I did back then. I became as immersed as you can in a library in the lives of the Inupiaq of Alaska. My interest began to expand – I knew about Scott and Amundsen, but became fascinated by the Franklin Expedition; how can you possibly survive in the snow? Perhaps you can’t unless you’re born there – it turns out the Arctic metabolism is slightly different to those of us from further south – or take the advice of its people.
Within these pages we also meet the fictional and folk characters born of cold, snowy lands. The ‘Snow Queens’ get their own chapter, a wide-ranging summary of icy folklore which includes the Norse myths and Native American tales of the Snow Boy . We meet the Snow Child (from Russia, via Old Peter’s Tales), Andersen’s cold-hearted Snow Queen, and C.S. Lewis’s manipulative Jadis. I tend to conflate ‘snow’ with ‘northern’, but this is of course not the case, and here is a ‘snow queen’ I had never heard of, the Japanese Yuki Onna. Yuki Onna – a snow spirit, or maybe a ghost – lives on. She’s escaped the folk tales and is a star of Manga, video games and comics – the icy and powerful, mysterious woman never seems to lose her appeal.
One thing I did find out – and it was reassuring as we’re so often told it’s imagination – is that it did snow more often when we were kids. Sedgewick looked into the records for Manston weather station in Kent and found that yes, the average snowfall has dropped hugely – from an average 29 days/yer in 1960 to just nine in 2000. Although I grew up at the other end of the country I’m about the same age as the writer. I remember snow falling for hours, and settling to depths up to and over my knees, blown into drifts as tall as me. I recall my Dad having to sleep at work because he couldn’t get home the eight miles from Bradford as the roads were too bad (and what an adventure I thought that must be!). We didn’t imagine it, and we did build back garden ‘igloos’ big enough to sit in during the winters of the late 1970s.
The book concludes with a note of the research which shows we humans experience a positive endorphin rush on seeing a beautiful view – a glimpse of alpine landscape, or the wonder we feel on opening the curtains in the morning to a newly snowy scene is a natural high. More and more research shows that encountering nature is good for us, and I think the sight of snow in particular, with its sparkly light reflecting beauty, can only be a boost during dark winter months.
This is a short book – just over 132 pages – but that doesn’t mean it’s a skim over the snow. It covers the science – matters of climate change, snowflake formation, conditions in which snow will fall, as well as the history, folklore, etymology and linguistics of snow. There is a section simply on the colour of it, the uncommon experience we have following a snowfall of seeing so much white; how a landscape can be transformed almost instantly by this natural phenomenon. What this book is, I felt, is a song of praise in six verses (six chapters – six sides of the snowflake) on the sheer wonder of snow. I absolutely loved it.
*and as I pressed post, it was suddenly spring!