10 June 2009

Literary Skiers 2

According to scientists who study avalanches for a living, snow has the widest range of physical properties of any known substance. What's amazing is that the Eskimo language doesn't have more words for it. Powder snow, corn snow, sugar snow, windpack. Neve, slab, spring powder, spit, and fluff. Thawing and freezing it changes with every degree of temperature, every passing second. Goose down, ball bearings, broken styrofoam.

Then there are the properties of snow that are not physical, or not exactly physical; its lethal whims, its harmlessness, its delicacy, its power, its relentlessness, its flirtatious disregard, its sublime beauty.

Harmless enough, the season's first flakes arrive in the stubble of the mown field, in the spiked branches of pines. They vanish in the morning sun as though they never meant anything by it. And what do they mean in midwinter when the hard-packed drifts settle in, oppressing the foreseeable future? A little wind and spindrift makes them smolder.

All winter the drifts come and go. They have a sense of direction, but they aren't going anywhere. The flakes come straight down or sideways, fast or slow; sometimes they don't fall but swirl and hover and take off like swallows. The meadow fills, and drifts make bridges over the fences. Everybody waits.

The fences break under the weight of so much beauty. Who does the meadow belong to now? For half the year it belongs to the snow, not a thing you can do with it, and by April no one thinks it's pretty anymore, though it is.


Lyle said, "If you want to know who really owns your land, don't pay the taxes for a while. Then if you want to know who owns it even more, just look out the window in a blizzard. That's the landlord's face looking in, snooping."

Ray, who didn't own any land and never had, outside the lot his doublewide was on in Laramie, thought of snow as a beautiful way to die.

--James Galvin, from The Meadow, 1992

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