Downtown View Snow in America

February 21, 2014
By

Some Bostonians are tired of the stuff by now.  I have to shovel only 17 feet, I don’t have to drive in it, and my electricity never goes off because of it. So I don’t complain.

Instead I treat myself to another read of “Snow in America,” by Bernard Mergen. It’s billed as a cultural history of snow, showing how “Americans have loved, hated, measured depicted and frolicked in snow for over three hundred years, attaching to it a host of shifting meanings and metaphors,” according to the book jacket, which sums it up well.

It’s an academic’s book that’s well-written for a start. And it gives you a sense of the pervasiveness of snow on America’s sense of itself that may make the next swirling snowstorm more interesting to you.

In case you decide not to read it, I’ll sum up the book for you.

Early New Englanders saw the heavy snows this region endures as tests of their character. That they could deal with the snow and keep themselves and their animals alive throughout such a challenging season showed their moral superiority. These Americans were admired by their English brothers and sisters for succeeding in the kind of struggles rarely faced in the mother country. Americans were tough, was the message.

Snow played a role in the American Revolution when a “motley rabble” started throwing snowballs at a group of British soldiers and the Boston Massacre ensued. And, of course, we have Valley Forge, where the snowfall was too shallow to be used for drinking water.

During the 19th century, prose, songs, verses and illustrations cast a romantic sense on snow. Maidens and mothers were caught in storms and died. Tales of snow disasters were eagerly repeated. In fact, one of the most famous, that of the immigrants who perished in the Donner Pass still fascinates people today. America’s writers saw in snow beauty, strength and peril, but also evidence of a natural order.

The Victorians loved scientific description of all material objects, and snow was fair game. Amateur and professional observers described and counted snowflakes, determined the age of snow piles and measured snow depths as well as the rates at which snow fell. They devised different names for different snow events.

As snow observers continued their study a bigger vocabulary sprang up around snow beyond the light “powder” that describes snow in Utah and the wet, heavy “sugar” snow New Englanders get in March.

As railroads were built and city traffic grew busier, snow removal became an obsession. Snow got in the way of trains, and hindered movement on city streets. It was considered refuse in the same way as trash. This winter, you’ve probably seen front-end loaders dumping snow into trucks to be hauled away, so it is still refuse.

Farmers and ranchers learned how to protect their animals and how not to get lost in storms.

During the late 19th century, snow recreation was increasingly valued. Children must have built snowmen and slid down hills in earlier times, but in the 19th century, better sleds, skates, shovels and cameras to capture all the fun increased the enjoyment. Winter began to be celebrated with carnivals in Montreal in 1883 and St. Paul in 1886 and Dartmouth College in 1910.  About the turn of that century American skiing began.

During the early 20th century, snow was an increasingly valuable resource for the Great Plains and the southwest, since almost all of the water for farming and cities comes from the snow on the Rockies and the Sierra Nevadas. Without snow, our food supply would shrink and Los Angeles would be uninhabitable.

Studies show that snow cover has been shrinking in the northern hemisphere for more than 30 years. Maybe this isn’t the best time to consider a move to LA.

“Snow is an unwanted reminder of the limits of human mastery of nature,” the author quotes. But it also has an esthetic value. It softens sound, transforms a landscape and “is beautiful beyond compare.”

Bostonians are divided into chionophiles (snow lovers) and chionophobes (snow haters). After reading this book you may become part of the loving bunch.

Karen Cord Taylor is a newspaperwoman who now works from her home. Past columns are posted on www.bostoncolumn.com. You can reach Karen at karen@bostoncolumn.com