Here is William Diaper in 1722, translating Oppian’s Halieuticks (a Greek epic poem on the loves of the fishes):
As when soft Snows, brought down by
Silent descend and spread on all the Vales . . .
Nature bears all one Face, looks coldly bright,
And mourns her lost Variety in White.
Unlike themselves the Objects glare around,
And with false Rays the dazzled Sight
Lost variety is the nub: before it is anything else, snow is Nature’s alienation-effect, making all things look the same and ‘unlike themselves’ — even while we watch, or else behind our backs, noiselessly. But snow also carries contrary meanings: an image of sameness, and equally of variousness and flux, of a reality that is ‘incorrigibly plural’ in the words of Louis MacNeice’s ‘Snow’.
Marcus Sedgwick has written a memoir of snow, touching on aspects of its glittering dualism. He should know, for he inhabits the Haute Savoie, in the French Alps, where the snow can arrive in October and still be falling in May. His book is short and surprisingly digressive, partly because Sedgwick is a presence at many of its turns. His approach is personal. This is a difficulty, because snow refuses to be rallied under any other banner than its own. It resists thought, while seeming like a figure of thought in action. We watch snow as we watch no other natural event, and it feels like looking inwards, as contentless as introspection. Snow makes us think of nothing but snow, even if this nothing can seem like everything. Think of Robert Frost’s solitary figure stopping on his way home, on the darkest evening of the year, to stare motivelessly at his neighbour’s field: ‘He will not see me stopping here/ To watch his woods fill up with snow.’
Sedgwick’s most selfless pages are on the natural history of the snowflake. Snow is one of the forms taken by water. A flake is a crystal of ice, and being heavier than air it falls to earth. As it falls it changes shape, vaulting the prison of its hexagon and sprouting arms like a Buddha. Aside from the ubiquitous star-shapes (‘dendrites’), snowflakes can also descend ‘as needles, columns, hollow columns, six-sided prisms and plates’, and the dendrites can have up to 12 arms. Since each flake falls differently, no two are alike: to each its quiddity. But the paradoxes multiply, for if the individual flake differs from all others it is also self-identical — ‘this idiotically symmetrical crystal geometry’, as Hans Castorp puts it in The Magic Mountain, while he drifts off, caught in a snowstorm and raging in some remote and inaccessible part of his being at the prospect of imminent extinction.
The call of the snow has fuelled many fictions of disappearance, catering uniquely to the exploration of nether states of mind, regions of will-lessness and anomie. Sedgwick mentions Die Winter-reise and Thomas Mann, though not the snow chapter in Women in Love, with its desire for oblivion, nor Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, which draws irresistibly closer to annihilation in the southern seas, before the mysteriously abrupt ending, confronted by a larger-than-life figure whose skin is ‘of the perfect whiteness of the snow’.
As well as death by lassitude, snow has provided our classic narratives of resistance and endurance (‘I am just going outside, and may be some time’). Even here, the heroics and altruism of Arctic and Antarctic adventure — Amundsen, Nansen, Franklin — are shadowed by their polar opposite: by what Poe called the ‘exquisite horror’ of cannibalism, a topic which furnishes Sedgwick’s most arresting pages.
It would have been instructive to have had an idea of what snow has meant to non-western cultures (other than dismantling the familar trope about the Inuit vocabulary of snow). Not least Heian Japan, which valued snow precisely for its frivolity, as the reflection of a court obsessed by appearances. Referred to as ichigo ichie (‘one time, one meeting’), the imprompu tea ceremony was held while snow was falling, as an unrepeatable coming together of weather, time of day and guests. But the attachment to trivia and preoccupation with the transitory as an aesthetic category — remote from our western need for permanence in our objects of contemplation — also faced directly into questions of human transience.
Snow is part of a series ‘dedicated to new writing attuned to the natural world’, but like many examples of a genre which looks to nature for lessons, it is oddly self-preoccupied. At times the prose reads as if it might die of self-exposure, placing its footprints at random in this most trackless of subjects. Wallace Stevens, on the other hand, recommended ‘a mind of winter’ for ‘the listener who listens in the snow’:
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing