What Is Snow Like?

For starters, it’s cold

Greta Ceresini/Flickr
Greta Ceresini/Flickr


Some years ago when I was in Australia, I met a small girl who told me she had never seen snow, and was quite curious about snow, and while she had read books about snow, and seen snow on television, and seen movies in which snow played a serious part, I was her first chance to talk to someone who had actually been snowed upon, and had forged and tunneled and stumbled and shuffled through snow, and been pelted by snow, and had pelted others with snow. She had about 50 other snowful remarks like this; I never met anyone before or since who knew so much about snow without ever having slogged through it.

Really her question again and again was what is snow like, and I found the question curiously hard to answer. Snow is like when female cottonwood trees let go of vast gentle quantities of fluffy seedpods all at once in spring so that paths and trails and riverbanks and creeks and turtles and benches are covered inches deep in the swirling stuff. Snow is like the earth decided to haul a thin or thick or mammoth white blanket over itself, and while this is happening all sounds are quelled and quenched and everyone huddles in their dens and burrows and watches with childlike amazement. Snow starts out white and then gets grayer and browner and finally sometimes even black as if it rotted, which in a real sense it does. As with many things, a little is delightful and a lot is burdensome. Somehow time slows and even stops when snow begins to swirl. I don’t understand how that can be so but it is certainly so.

Snow is … inarguable, I said. It doesn’t attend to civic authority. It can be lissome or weighty, depending on various factors on which I am by no means an expert. People slide giggling on it in all sorts of ways. People build huts and walls of snow. Snow is weather that you can hold in your hand. Rain is a verb, but snow is a noun. Children love it, and older people are generally leery of it. When I was a boy in New York, it snowed once for two entire days and my brothers and I cut a tunnel from the house to the garage and I still remember how sunlight slid silvery into and through the tunnel as we lay there entranced at the shimmer and glitter and serenity of it. When I was a man in Chicago, it snowed for nine days in a row and when the snow finally stopped and the sun crawled out shy and feeble, people came slowly out of their houses and apartments like bears dazzled and scrawny in spring. I remember an old man across the street who shuffled out onto his porch and descended his steps very carefully and gingerly and slowly, and then he leaned his cane against the porch railing and knelt down in the thick snow and just pawed at it with both hands for a while beaming like he was four years old again, which in a sense he was, wasn’t he?

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Brian Doyle, an essayist and novelist, died on May 27, 2017. To read Epiphanies, his longtime blog for the Scholar, please go here.


Please enter a valid email address
That address is already in use
The security code entered was incorrect
Thanks for signing up