Snow Talk: Elizabeth Loder explores the bright side of all the snow in Massachusetts

Elizabeth LoderHere in Massachusetts we’ve had snowstorm after snowstorm, and the winter of 2010-2011 is on track to be among the three snowiest on record. This record-setting possibility gives perverse satisfaction: at least we’ll be able to mention the award-winning nature of the snow when describing our hardships for future generations. 

It also means that little else is worthy of discussion. Even conversations with patients tend to begin with a description of their snow troubles rather than their medical problems. In the case of falls, chills, and back pain from shoveling, the two are one and the same. This snow talk is for the most part repetitive and banal. We hew to a small number of well-worn, reassuring themes and platitudes that remind us we are not alone and that there is a bright side to all of this.

The not alone discussions center on snow-blowers that don’t work, shovels that break, roofs that buckle, and the heartbreak of having a carefully cleared driveway entrance hemmed in again by the next pass of a town snow plow. And, of course, how discouraging it is to have slothful and perfectly healthy teenaged children who could shovel but don’t. “Yes. Me, too! Isn’t it awful?”

The bright siders are at pains to remind us that, however troublesome, the snow is useful and beautiful!  It is character-building and the cold that comes with it cuts down on vermin. Also, “we can use the moisture” and “at least we won’t have water restrictions this summer.” The beauty conversations center on the loveliness of snow-covered church spires, the way the snow glitters in the sunshine, and the infinite variety of nature as exemplified by snowflakes.

“No two snowflakes are alike!” is a commonplace all the more irritating because it is true, or very near it. See for yourself in the exhibit dedicated to Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley from the Jericho Historical Society in Jericho, Vermont, which is online here. Bentley was an early snow scientist who took over 5000 photomicrographs of individual flakes of snow. He had professional reasons to look forward to snowstorms.

The number of words the Inuit actually have for snow apparently is a matter of some dispute. It’s clear to me, though, having lived up close and personal with this much snow, that the Inuit – and we – really should have 50 or 100 words for the stuff. The two major types are “fluffy dry” and “heavy wet,” but that dichotomization doesn’t do justice to what I’ve seen this year. I’ve seen snow like small bits of Styrofoam, as fake-looking as anything in a low-budget movie. I’ve seen snow onto which freezing rain has fallen, producing fantastic, rhythmic ripple effects. I’ve even seen thundersnow, which is snowfall accompanied by thunder and lightning. Yes, it’s impressive.

One useful English snow word comes from the Minnesota/North Dakota region of the United States where I grew up. “Snirt” is defined by Wiktionary  as “a portmanteau of ‘snow’ and ‘dirt.’” Here’s a picture. The term is in common use in the middle part of the US but not widely heard on the East Coast, at least in my experience.

During snow conversations people who know I grew up in North Dakota often say, “But of course you’re used to this!”  In fact, “deep snow is not commonly found in North Dakota”, according to the US Geological Survey, which further observes that North Dakota’s annual snowfall average is 28-36 inches while “most of the New England states, nearly all of New York, northern Pennsylvania, and about three-fourths of Michigan receive well above 100 inches.”

There are certainly years when North Dakota has much more snow than average, and even in typical years the bitter cold usually ensures that what has fallen is around for the entire winter. The wide open plains and high prairie winds mean that this snow can and does blow about. It can form gigantic drifts where roads, trees, or buildings prevent its wind-borne progress. I have a vivid childhood memory of walking from the top of a crusty snowdrift onto the roof of my grandparents’ house in McClusky.

Never far from the minds of people who live on the prairie, though, is the deadly potential of a blizzard in a rural area. It’s easy to get hopelessly lost and freeze to death just a few feet from your house or barn. This can happen in cities, too, but it’s much less common. Staying indoors to wait out a storm isn’t possible on a farm when there are animals to be fed and cared for. (Hints: If you’re going out to milk the cows, tie a rope to the doorknob of your house before you venture out, and take the other end with you so you can follow it back! If you’re out on the range and can find a nearby cow or horse, grab a tail – they’ll be trying to get back to their barn and might take you with them!)

Blizzards can come up quickly on the Plains. In the days before accurate weather forecasting this was a particular hazard for rural schoolchildren, many of whom traveled long distances to country schools. The tragic story of Hazel Miner was a staple legend of my childhood. Many blizzards are described in the popular Little House on the Prairie series of books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. In one, Pa Ingalls is trapped for four days by a blizzard, unaware of just how close he is to home. He survives by eating the Christmas candy he is bringing home for his daughters.

When it comes to morbid Great Plains blizzard sagas, it’s hard to beat Ole Rölvaag. He’s the author of Giants in the Earth, a story about Norwegian immigrants in Dakota Territory.  The last chapter of the novel describes the death of a main character in a blizzard and is called “The Great Plains Drinks the Blood of Christian Men and Is Satisfied”.  The chapter and its title made a big impression on me when I read the book as a teenager.

Yes, snow is useful and beautiful, but it can also be deadly. The stories of Hazel Miner and Ole Rölvaag are an antidote to all of the perky, glass-half-full snow talk out there. People become quiet and thoughtful as I recount these tales. I find they recover rather quickly, however. That’s because it doesn’t take them long to realize that there’s a Bright Side to all of this: hey, at least we don’t live in a remote little house on the prairie!

Elizabeth Loder is the BMJ’s US based clinical epidemiology editor.