More than a century ago, the anthropologist Franz Boas reported that the Intuits living in northern Canada had dozens of different words for “snow.” That information has since been used to make a philosophical point: the more you have of something, the greater your need to make fine distinctions.
After living in a variety of locations in the United States over a long life, one can understand the Eskimos’ appreciation for the varieties of snow. Sue and I grew up in Kansas, and we knew snow as a dry powder that seldom remained where it fell. Its lightness, combined with the prairie wind, led to all manner of messes.
You could shovel your walk and then have to do it again the next morning after the wind pushed the snow back into the space you had just cleaned. Farmers erected snow fences to direct the drifts away from their roads and steer the melting runoff to their stock ponds.
Made of wire and vertical wood strips, snow fences reduce the speed of the wind, causing it to drop its load of flakes on the downwind side of the fence. It is a clever way of getting nature to work for you.
The small towns where I lived growing up could not afford snowplows, so drivers put chains on their tires and kept going. The traffic eventually packed the snow down on the streets, leaving them slippery but passable.
Sue and I especially appreciated the regional differences in snow when we spent the 1966-1967 academic year in Arlington, Mass., a suburb of Boston. The first snow of that season startled us because it was accompanied by thunder! To us, that was downright spooky.
The New England snow was moist and heavy, and remained where it fell. When I shoveled the walk, it was good until the next snow fell. I felt compelled to put chains on the tires of our car, but it stayed in the garage as long as snow was on the streets. We could get to Harvard Square by bus and, from there, to downtown Boston by the Massachusetts Transit Authority subway.
Snow also varies across regions by quantity, which seems obvious until you experience it. Our first exposure to southern living was in Chapel Hill the winter of 1956-1957. We had just one snow that year, and it was barely enough to make a snowman. My fellow graduate students and I built it in front of Caldwell Hall, which housed the political science department in that day.
When we lived in Miami, at two widely separated intervals between 1958 and 1981, we never expected to experience snow. It finally happened, but we missed it by a year. That was 1977. The snow melted before it hit the ground, although some citizens reported catching a few flakes on their faces as they stood outdoors and watched it fall. The Miami newspapers normally liked to downplay cold weather, so as not to discourage tourism, but they broke out their Apocalypse-level headline fonts to record that event.
The snows we enjoyed the most were those that fell on Washington, D.C. Some were just severe enough for us to perform heroic acts that we’d never done before. Our third daughter was born in February 1966, and I remember shoveling out a portion of our alley to guarantee an exit route for the car. Fortunately, she waited for the snow to melt before announcing her pending arrival.
In our Washington days, the children were just the right age to enjoy snowmen, snow forts, and family hikes along the snow-covered towpath of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. Sometimes we remember those days with the wistful hope that we’ll get one more chance to build a snowman in Chapel Hill. This year, we almost did. Here is the view from our front door on February 13, 2014. But it was gone too soon. Maybe next year?