Evan Burnett-Snow: More Than Just White Stuff

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As it suggests visually, snow can be thought of as a rather plain product of nature. The majority of the time, snow seems static and obtrusive into everyday life. It falls from the sky at the whim of the weather. Cold, hard winter is signaled by snow. Snow means that plants are in a transitional state; not really dead but not really alive either. The infinitely colorful canvas of the earth is whitewashed by snow. For most humans, snow means danger: dangerous cold, dangerous car accidents from reckless driving, and dangerously high energy bills. Looking deeper into snow, however, it can be found that there is more to snow than these negative connotations.
Dr. Ed Adams, a Montana State University professor, has described snow as “black” and a liquid. Black because of its actual color when examined a special way in the light spectrum and a liquid because of the way it moves. By Dr. Adam’s description, snow has more depth than initially surmised. When I took a walk into a recent snowstorm, I took note of Dr. Adams’s snow descriptors as proof that things are not always as they seem. 

My walk began in the early afternoon the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. I had just consumed a delicious lunch consisting of a peanut butter sandwich, an apple, and couple spoonfuls of homemade bread pudding. Lunch was eaten as the snow fell. The snowfall was not strong, initially, but it eventually yielded a couple of hearty inches. When I began my walk along the bike path near my place of residence, the snow beneath my feet was not yet heavy and crystalline. It was instead soft and plush and easily turned to slush. A soppy sound extruded from the bottom of my boots. At that point, movement of my body was easy. The cold air hit me hard, though. It was a nasty, biting cold that molded in between the snowflakes and cut right through my good Columbia winter jacket. Each individual flake was tiny. The flakes fell with extraordinary grace. The flakes seemed to caress the surrounding air and eventually laid upon the ground. As I moved along, I was stricken with the thought that in flight each snowflake was aloof and individualistic, but when it hit the ground, it formed bonds with other snowflakes. Upon the return to my place of residence, the cohesive nature of snow became increasingly apparent as my once easy movement had become slightly challenging.
From my window, I viewed the snowfall. It fell silently. The accumulation was solid the way a strong army might be: many parts constituting a whole. Cars on the road and people on the sidewalks melted tracks within the snow. Where vehicles and people less frequently travelled, the snow was compacted instead of liquefied. Eventually, the sun showed itself and warmed the snow enough to cause a little melting. Over time, the snow darkened as it condensed, thus showing buildup of dust and dirt and other particles from the earth. By the next morning, the snow had formed layers within itself. With the sharpness of a small shovel, I peeled away some of the accumulation and revealed, in section, the dynamic resultants of the previous night’s frigidity. On the very top there was a layer of fresh accumulation that must have occurred sometime in the night. Barely detectable below the fresh accumulation was a layer of the previous day’s snow that had become ice-like with the thawing and then re-freezing. On the very bottom, there was something curious indeed: another ice-like snow layer. However, in between the two hard layers of snow was softer snow. From logic, it seemed that the initial snow from the previous day had melted when it came in contact with the slightly warmer earth, causing this other thin, ice-like layer on the bottom.
Upon further exploration of the day old snow, I discovered animal tracks. I suspected that they were some sort of mouse track because the tracks were small, occurred in pairs (one pair smaller than the other), and there was a long linear trail carved in between the pairs of tracks. And where the tracks ended, a hole began. The two holes were no more than one to one and a half inches in diameter. Investigation on the government website called the Montana Field Guide showed that there were two very probable candidates: one being the house mouse, Mus musculus, and the second being the deer mouse, Peromyscus maniculatus. These two were the leading candidates because of their very small stature (for fitting inside the hole) and because of their descriptive habitats. Among the two, I thought the deer mouse was the most probable because its tail drags behind it (a house mouse’s tail is rather poignant) and it is described as being nocturnal and living under the snow (which explains why I have not seen it during the day time). The detection of a deer mouse burrow revealed, contrary to human belief, snow as something warm, inviting, and protective. All of this is well and good, but why are these observations important?
Interestingly, the walk I took observing snow and the subsequent discoveries about it give new meaning to the word. Plain, dangerous, and obstructionist as descriptors are now accompanied by strong, cohesive, dynamic, and protective. The strength and the cohesion of snow relate the power of nature. Each flake of snow falling from the sky is graceful, but the snow does not fall beautifully for beauty’s sake; it is indifferent to beauty. Its indifference is its power. The dynamic qualities of snow after passage of time relate snow as a picture. It can encapsulate history just as the saw, wedge, and axe form “an allegory for historians” (Leopold 16) when acting upon the growth rings of an oak, “three tools . . . requisite to good oak, and to good history” (17). Existing within the layers of snow is information about the present and the past, just as Leopold’s oak holds annals within its growth rings. The layers therefore act as an instructional device. Instead of a saw, wedge, and axe to access it, though, only a simple shovel is necessary. The snow can also then be utilized by those around it. Nature makes use of snow as a protective device. It serves, willingly and unquestioning, as a formable material for whatever purpose a creature needs it for. Snow needs no prompting or exchange for a creature to employ it. Snow only needs to be there; it only needs to exist. From these new qualities of snow, valuable lessons can be learned.
Humility and being humbled comes to mind. We humans believe ourselves the holders of a destiny to own all and tame all. Alas, however, the snow proves us wrong. The snow shows indifference to us: falling whether we will it or not, obstructing our vision when driving, or being slick to our feet and wheels. It cannot be tamed by a plow or a shovel or any other tool. William Cronon in Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Wilderness alludes to accepting the indifference of nature. Cronon recounts a brief history of man’s view towards nature and describes a distinct shift from nature as evil to nature as divine. From Cronon’s description and the knowledge of snow, it seems the acceptance and submission to the powers of nature made being in nature divine and enjoyable. The snow furthermore teaches that we need to understand history and learn from it. Within snow is the history of humankind and of nature itself. Understanding each will allow for a more profitable future as Leopold relates with the good oak, “Those ashes [of the oak], come spring, I will return to the orchard at the foot of the sandhill. They will come back to me again” (17). Finally, within nature we can find valuable solutions to current problems. Just as the snow offered a solution of shelter for the deer mouse, humans can look to nature to solve many societal issues. For example, certain bioremediation techniques utilize the processes of nature to remove pollution from the soil that we depend on for food and space.
Ultimately what is meant by this observation of and postulating on snow is that things are not always as they seem. Snow is not just something plain and uninteresting; it is something complicated and vibrant. Looking at snow beyond its superficial qualities and investigating it as Dr. Adams has done, gives us insights into our own hubristic lives. Snow shows we must embrace nature rather than fight it; we must be humbled by it. Embracing nature then grants us the privilege to enjoy it and to learn history from it and to find solutions within it.