Web Conjunctions: The Twenty-Four Words for Snow, by Brian Richardson

From The Twenty-Four Words for Snow
Brian Richardson

First Snow

Above the Arctic Circle the sun sets and does not rise again for weeks. The ever lengthening nights are depressing as each successive sunrise comes closer to noon, the sun stays in the sky more briefly, and its height above the horizon at noon is ever lower. Then the one long night falls, the cold is unrelieved, and a grim resignation spreads everywhere. As days and weeks pass, however, the glow that is both twilight and dawn grows brighter until the blue snow yields to the first dawn that signals the return of the sun. The first patch of land touched by the new sun is called “first snow,” and is the signal for celebration. Some families travel south to greet the first patch of sunlit snow a few days early. Psychologically, the people experience a powerful wave of generalized pleasure that in English (which generally lacks terms to differentiate the multiple forms of bodily joy) might be called “well being,” though this phrase is too weak to describe the somewhat manic state (this word now is too strong) of pervasive happiness and sexual arousal brought by the return of the light. In the native language, it is simply called “first snow joy.”

Sharp Snow

Some words have layers of meaning. You learn that “sharp snow” originally referred to jagged crusts of ice and snow caused by ruptures or collisions, which are then iced over in sharp, irregular shapes. They are painful and may be dangerous to encounter, since they are both pointed and, approached from some angles, liable to collapse. It is known that one must walk through pain to reach one’s goal; “sharp snow” thus also means “a difficult but worthy undertaking” as well as the searing pain when the blood returns to frostbitten fingers. It also means life.
     The term is carefully distinguished from a partial synonym, “cruel ice.” The latter refers to ice shards that can cut an exposed hand and, by extension, the claws of the wolverine. In the colder regions, it is a synonym for a life that lasts too long.


In this part of the globe, snow is revered. It is a source of water, the stuff of shelter, and a means of hunting prey. It is an endless page on which can be read the movement of every animal, its size, direction, speed, and, if the sun is up, how recently it passed by. The fresh snow soothes the eye in the day by covering up the depressing tundra, and reflects the moonlight at night, enhancing the natives’ safety, whether they are traveling late or in camp, looking out for possible predators. Sleeping within a tiny cavern of snow is a refreshing experience, and you will never forget the strange joy you felt the first time you made love in the snow.
      Of course, not all kinds of snow are equally admired. “Sharp snow,” as we have seen, is a type acknowledged and endured. Powder snow, though beautiful to look at, provides no grip and is awkward and difficult to walk on for more than a few steps; this is no doubt why it is occasionally called “cheat-snow” here. Slush, or “failed snow,” is understandably despised: It is heavy and hard to walk on, it is ugly to look at, and its wetness invariably seeps into boots, no matter how tightly they are laced. “Ancient snow,” or the surface of a glacier, is likewise very difficult to maneuver on: Snowshoes slip on it and the texture is so hard that not even sharpened steel can dig into it quickly enough to avert a fall. When the clouds grow darker, the wind subsides, and one can feel the humidity increase, a happiness pervades the group, since this means that “bird-snow,” huge dry flakes with baroque designs, is about to fall. The travel will be good for several days.
      Other names require more explanation. “Snow-on-snow” is a particularly revealing term, and clarifies key aspects of the culture’s way of seeing, and also suggests some of the reasons behind our culture’s fascination with theirs. In this part of the North, the landscape is constantly changing. Rivers are easily diverted or can vanish entirely, the sea freezes to the land and when covered by snow looks like a steppe; large hills of snow can move thousands of feet or disappear altogether. Given these conditions, along with the fact that a group may take ten years to return to a former site, identification can be very problematic. You are sure you remember those hills, that rise, the little ravine, the M-shaped mountain in the distance, and the cluster of stunted fir trees—all slightly changed, of course, but only in comprehensible ways. Until you stroll past the edge of the mound, suddenly see the cliff face behind, and lurch back, having nearly fallen to your death. Then you realize you have superimposed a landscape from memory onto an utterly different one in another part of the world: snow-on-snow.
      Other times you determine it is, without any doubt, the place you all remember, but it has altered so much it may as well be a different place: There are no more caribou; the stream has gone underground; the footing is treacherous. And then there are the times when you can never determine whether or not you have been to a specific space before; it both remarkably resembles yet significantly fails to coincide with personal memory and collective narrative. Even after a week in the vicinity no one is sure. This too is called “snow-on-snow.” Revealingly, in all the major dialects, there is a word for truth, a word for untruth, and another word that we might call “the verisimilar,” most scrupulously translated as a plausible approximation of the truth whose ultimate status is inherently indeterminate. And when the group enters the mouth of a large river that leads to an ocean of ice, the old tell the young to remember it, since that is the same sight they will have when they enter the kingdom of the dead. Now, they will be able to recognize the other world by its pale imitation of our own.
      The malicious youths and the older women in this culture also use this term to refer to successive lovers—different individuals who color both your memory and anticipation until they seem as if they were the same person. I believe the term is also applied to a single individual who takes on a second, different personality toward the lover. The discovery of such concepts clearly show the value of anthropological research. I can now make better sense of the way one woman colored (or rather saturated) my experience of others, the way a pink sky or black cloud transforms all that is around or beneath it.

Empty Snow

Among the people of the North the most bitter privation is expressed in terms of emptiness. It is not the cold that kills, as people from more temperate climates usually imagine. Neither is it the dark, the isolation, the predators, or confusion produced by a landscape that always alters yet always appears the same, wherever you may be. Those who grew up here know that the greatest danger is emptiness: the vacant depression in the snow, from which no small mammal will emerge; the abandoned ice hole, which fish avoid and seal no longer visit; worst of all, the empty lean-to or igloo, from which your family has vanished in despair or terror or disgust.
      Naturally, this idea is embodied in the language of social relations. In a culture where hospitality is essential for survival, there is no term expressing greater contempt than the phrase, “He offers only an empty bowl.” This is an especially cutting remark since in many dialects it also carries a secondary, sexual innuendo.
      There is, in addition, a metaphysical void, where the world spirit seems to have abandoned the earth, leaving the startled people to wander the empty landscape alone, frigid, confused. Worst of all is the inner emptiness this feeling produces, the void at the center of the self which pulls your body into its black hole. The same word is used to designate the feeling produced by the sudden loss of a lover. There is some dispute which is the greater emptiness, or whether they are even different events at all. Surely, they reason, the one void creates and merges with the other.
      At its most literal, “empty snow” refers to that period in spring when the year’s snow has melted, and man and woman walk for weeks above the endless, barren tundra in search of anything, any bit of snow or stick or grass, with which to make a partial shelter. In this landscape, to be without snow is to be without love.

Distant Snow

When your eyes search the horizon, looking eagerly for any sign that the quest for food, shelter, or the end of this part of the journey may be successful, you sometimes see a segment of the sky distorted beneath a thick cloud. You smile. In most cases this means you are observing a snowstorm in the distance; by the time you reach that point the storm will have passed and fresh snow will assuage your various needs. But occasionally, as you arrive at that space you find there is no snow; what you thought you saw was merely the interplay of light and moisture. It is the arctic equivalent of a mirage. The odd thing about it is that no one can tell from a distance whether it is real or an illusion; you must come close to it to determine if it’s real. Interestingly, the term “distant snow” (which may not be snow at all) is homonymous with the term for history, which in turn is the same word for story. When the elders are unsure what course to follow, they invoke this word, saying, “We must follow the distant snow.” When a seeming fish or seal is revealed to be merely a bit of ice or wood, the term is also used. The same is true for an exquisite but unobtainable lover.

Ever Snow

It should be pointed out that in the dominant language of these regions there is no past or future tense; all verbs are, as it were, timeless. The statement “Go to the sunrise” could be a plan for tomorrow, the journey you’re on right now, or a tale from the days of your grandfather. Of course temporal indicators provide the necessary specifics (“Yesterday, go to the sunrise”), but the language itself tends to suggest a static, even fatalistic world. You always are, and always have been, going to the sunrise. This oddity of grammar necessarily produces some unusual concepts. To love, for example, seems to be the continuation of an invariant state; you are always in love, you will always be in love. So strong is the implicit continuity that the fact that “the loved one” was actually two or three different people in an irregular succession does not matter much. A new lover is thus like a new winter.

Flesh Snow

The people of the temperate zones believe that snow has no taste. Here, however, the locals have twelve words to depict its various flavors, many of which correspond to metaphorical and emotive kinds of snow. Thus, blue snow is said to have an austere, glacial flavor, while pink snow tastes like river water at dawn. Lily snow has a faint, sweet, green flavor, not unlike a honeydew, and light gray snow tastes vaguely dusty due to the fine glacial silt that gives it its color. Empty snow leaves a bitter taste.
      But not all the tastes match up with comparable qualities. One of the more elusive is the experience of flesh snow. It describes the taste of ice passed from the mouth of one lover to another, along with the residual flavor or berries or aromatic drink. It also refers more generally to that moment of crystallization when new lovers’ bodies first move as one. This term is not known in all the dialects, and some individuals who have described that experience are, years later, unable to remember it. You are convinced you will always retain this memory, even if you forget its name.

Opposed Snow

Familiar land boundaries merge in the North. At their furthest tip, Canada nearly touches Greenland; you can cross from the New to the Old World in pursuit of a hare. From that point, Siberia, the other side of the world, is only a thousand miles away—a few weeks’ journey by dogsled. And Alaska is only half again as far. The opposite ends of the earth come together in the arctic. From any spot, Ultima Thule could be just beyond the line of the horizon.
      What is still more strange is the fact that if you stand at the North Pole, every direction is South. The same compass direction is both in front of you and behind you. It suggests a lexicographer’s nightmare, in which antonyms have the same meaning, or the same word has contradictory meanings (for example, our word “cleave,” that means either hold together or rend apart). This seemingly impossible situation is nevertheless familiar to you, who have often observed the fusion of opposites: water and fire, beauty and terror, sea and sky, hunger and disgust. This idea is not strange here; when you fall through the ice, the immediate danger is not the cold but the light: By the time you are able to see underwater, you are usually under the sheet of ice. Though easy to fall through, it is nearly impossible to break apart from below. You must look for the darkest patch and swim toward it, hoping it is the image of the hole you fell through—and not a log or a seal stretched out the ice, blocking the sun. Once you climb out of the water, the light and dark may reverse themselves; the water is pale blue, the old ice a dull gray.
      You are not cold; you feel fine. This is an illusion of the sense of feeling. Instead, your body is going into shock. You must remove the freezing clothes immediately or you will die quickly. A quiet, painless death, a calm death, almost a soothing death, as ordinary as the snow.

Foreigners might well assume that this condition, called “confused snow,” is often applied to the more vertiginous aspects of love relations. But this is not so: In the far North, love and sex, to endure, must always battle against their opposites. Any fusion of love and hate, pleasure and pain, or sex and death would mean annihilation here. Such sickly conflations are the exclusive luxury of the temperate nations.

Invisible Snow

The cosmology of the native people is governed by three seemingly incompatible precepts: “All is one,” “Everything alters,” and “All things are made of snow.” Though everyone affirms each thesis, few can explain how they all cohere. Even the sagest of the village elders grow vague when attempting to elucidate the mysteries of this union. “All is one” points to the fundamental unity of existence, a generous pantheism that denies the apparent boundaries between man and woman, human and animal, living and dead, land and water, perceiver and perceived, past and future. By implication (and aided by the tenseless verbs of their language) it encourages all to look behind seeming divisions and seek instead the fundamental essence that pervades that which exists. “Everything alters” seems to point in the opposite direction, naming the constant mutability of all that is, its lack of any fixed essence, the ceaseless process of transformation that all things undergo until they no longer have anything in common with their former selves. The grub becomes a fly which is food for a bird whose dung nurtures a plant whose flowers are eaten by bears. Nothing—and no one—stays the same. Everything alters.
      Such concepts form primal oppositions in the philosophies of the temperate peoples, with each school determined to show that the opposing group is utterly mistaken. But the arctic landscape and its curious geography suggest ways that these two positions reflect different aspects of the same reality. If you walk north and continue in a straight line you will be heading south; if you keep heading east you will eventually return to your point of origin; to get from the magnetic north Pole to the geographic North Pole you must head north north east, which is also south. This state of things is perhaps best expressed by the term, “snow-on-snow” which, as we have seen, indicates both identity and difference as well as the fact that there may be no practical difference between the two.
      To claim that all things are composed of snow is a different kind of assertion, one that must be taken metaphorically or supernaturally. It either means that snow, as the source of all life, is the primal element in the animate world; or it could mean that snow is always everywhere, falling or frozen, visible or invisible. Where does the snow come from, small children often ask. Before it becomes itself the snow is hidden in the clouds, waiting to be impregnated by the wind. Invisible snow thus stands for both incipient precipitation as well as for all potentiality, from the approaching storm to the hunger of a wolf to the fate of a human.

Midnight Snow

As the summer solstice approaches, nature is inverted. Snow melts, large rivers appear, the ice shelf breaks up and floats away, and green vegetation can be seen in most directions. Color makes its fullest appearance of the year: The landscape is saturated with primal blues, dark reds, full whites, and stark yellows, in flowers that are petite, bowed, profuse, or scandalously broad. The tundra sports new lichens in a range of pastels: lavender, ochre, and cinnabar. It is even warm in the afternoon sunlight. The sun is always up; late at night, it arches low in the sky as if about to set but then at midnight, pulls back up into the sky to traverse again its vast daily ellipse, and the long twilight gives way to day. Nocturnal creatures grow confused, and humans lose their character, becoming silly, laughing and cavorting uncontrollably. No one wants to eat or sleep, all become devoted to play, and lovers copulate compulsively.
      In many parts, snow is scarce; youths run to sheltered spots high on hills to find the last patches of snow. A few grind them into the mud, or proclaim the death of the snow. Most, however, look on with longing or respect, reassured by the knowledge that the cold will soon start return, and with it the thick, rich autumn snow and the old strength of the tribe.

Secret Snow

Among many tribes it is said that once a child reaches puberty, it is their right or duty to choose a form of snow and identify with it in silence. It is like a spirit of health, or token of good luck. It is not normally a specific, material bit of snow, but rather an unusual shaping that one might see in several landscapes, such as first snow or blood snow, or the mass of snow that holds the glistening fragments of a broken icicle, or the snow that frames a frozen waterfall, or the waterfall itself. The talismanic power of this most personal bit of snow is thought to be lost once others share in its knowledge.
      With a topic so private, it should be no surprise that all statements about it are highly contested. Most say that no such entity exists, or that it has been long abandoned, or that it was only true of the notorious people of the northeast, whose shamans converse with demons. Others insist you have to earn your snow: Only after completing a long journey alone or giving birth to a child do you receive your secret. Certain elders denounce the idea of private snow and state it is both contrary to the communal spirit of the people and impossible to contemplate. Still others insist it is not a bit of snow but a bit of carved stone, braided hair, or wrought bone; anything more substantial than a transitory substance that can melt, evaporate, or be blown away. To be sure, such items are valued among the Sami of Lapland, who possess natural objects that, molded by water, have taken on curious shapes. These sacred stones or “seides” are indeed a kind of ready-made art assumed to possess preternatural powers. Unusually formed wooden objects are likewise valued by Siberian nomads. But to say that these people cannot also carry within their minds a precious image, or rather, an archetype of an image, seems both false and insulting. Finally, it is worth recording that at least one bard has insisted that such a subjective snow certainly exists, but only in one’s dreams.
      All agree, however, that it is folly to share this knowledge. Brothers and close friends have been shocked and disgusted at each other’s choice, and lovers who confide this secret to each other rarely remain as close as they were before the knowledge was shared; some are known to have parted forever.
      I don’t know which is more intriguing: the existence of such an idea, or the vigor with which it is denied.

Floating Snow

First you hear the loud crack—a vast sound that splits the night—then comes the long, horrid moan that sounds both savage and mechanical. Immediately, you run away from the direction of the sea. Usually, it is too late; the firm ground you were sleeping on has broken off from the mainland and is floating out to sea. The ice floe is a large one, perhaps ten square miles, and dwarfs the whales that will swim past this undulating landscape. For now, it looks solid: The many little hills make it seem like real land; there was no way you could have known last night in the darkness that it was only ice. You now experience the ultimate form of separation.
      You move toward the center of the floating island as the older members inspect the snow. You watch as the edges of the ice either melt or break off and float away. You see what looks like a snowstorm in the distance; you hope it will approach and provide another layer of material to keep your feet another inch above the surface of the sea. Once again, snow is life: It will fall from the sky faster than it can melt into the sea. You hope the winds are not too severe, or they will bring waves that break down ever more of the floe you stand on.
      The experienced ones return; they have found the blue ice that indicates the snow that is more than a year old; it will last the longest and bear the greatest weight. You all head to those patches to watch and wait. You hope the southern current does not send you in a deadly arc to the empty ocean; with any luck, you’ll just move slowly east, be spotted in a day or two, and brought back to firm land or solid ice. In the meantime, you watch for seal: Just one will keep you all alive for a week, or until the floe breaks up. You burn the few possessions you can spare in order to draw attention to your plight. You keep a look out for the polar bears: They swim easily from floe to floe and kill and eat whatever they find. They are the only remaining animal that will hunt down humans.
      As the days pass, you watch the snow beneath you get thinner. Your feet can feel waves strike beneath them. One morning, you notice a large section of the floe has broken off and drifted away; far away, the others are barely visible. Irrationally, you feel you have been abandoned. You are more alone than if you were buried in an ice cave, or had fallen deep into the earth. Nevertheless, you steel your emotions, though you know you must be spotted soon or you will not survive. After standing upright for so many hours, your legs ache. Now you imagine that moment when, alone on the last miniature piece of ice, you will scan the huge horizon for the last time. You will not wait to lose your balance and slide off the final irregular sliver of ice that remains. Instead, you will lie down and take off your anorak. It will be awkward, uncomfortable; you will let the water soak into your skin. You know it is better to die from exposure than to drown.

Story Snow

Among the northernmost peoples, every story has one of two beginnings: “It is snowing” or “There is a pause in the snowing.” The small group pulls together to share their warmth, lowering their heads to elude the icy wind. The breath freezes, partially melts, and freezes again in a thicker crust on the whiskers that circle the mouth of the storyteller. Once more it is growing cold, the caribou have grown scarce, the nights are getting longer again.
      The story will be a familiar one (all the stories are), though it will be different from all the others—every form of snow contains its own story. The setting is always changed. The tale may be differently modulated, as an old, sad story is now told for satiric effect. Its basic elements may be entirely rearranged: the heroic journey across the dark ice is made not by the brave young man but by a tough grandfather, a desperate mother, or a precocious child. It may even map familiar situations onto unusual forms, like a tale of loss or betrayal told in the form of directions to the autumn hunting grounds. The stories seamlessly weave together what we call history, legend, myth, and fiction into a single tale which is judged solely on whether it “sounds right.” Another interesting feature is that the stories never end, they merely come to momentary rest and can be returned to on any night. Technically, there is no word for “end” in the language, only one for “pause.”
      The most prized literary values are invention (which is overvalued in the southern countries), and ingenuity (which is undervalued). Indeed, the two concepts are not thought to be contraries in the polar zone, where origins are irrelevant and every story begins and ends in medias res. Here, storytellers frequently take a long pause between episodes; the audience must determine whether what follows is a continuation of the previous story, an independent one, a different branch which will join up with the main story, or a transformation that will retell the first work in an entirely novel manner. Every story is always different, yet all stories divulge the same underlying narrative.
      Unlike other aboriginal storytellers, these bards are not primarily concerned with passing on important information or maintaining the cultural heritage of the people. They know that much of the information will be inaccurate before it can be used, and that the cultural heritage is constantly evolving and can be trusted to preserve whatever it needs to. All learn early on how to read the snow. As for morality, the only ethic in this land is summarized in two stark apothegms: “Live as well as you can until you die” and “Share or die alone.” Further elaboration is unnecessary. The storyteller’s function then is to help the group through the times of cold, the days of hunger, the endless night, the periods when all must eat bitter snow.

Dream Snow

There is the snow you see, the snow you remember, and the snow you dream. The last of course is the most perplexing. You think of the black snow, the fiery snow, the exploding snow, or the vanishing snow in your dreams, and wonder whether it is a distillation or strange amalgam of previous experience, or whether it is an oblique foreshadowing of events to come. Are these new things then actions that can be named, that are waiting for a name, or do they exceed any possible words, are they an unspeakable snow, a snow that can have no name? There will always be new perceptions that require new words, as well as old ones whose meanings are forgotten. Those who insist on an equivalence between a term and an idea will always work in vain; even if the two complete sets of words and things were ever perfectly matched, the union could not endure: with the first loquacious voyager out of the northwest who describes new, unnamed sorts, or the first woman to put two ordinary words into an unexpected sequence and thus invoke an unprecedented class (e.g. “black snow”), the ideal pairing would be thrown off and begin to collapse. And then there are often two terms that refer to the same thing. With this thought you realize you will never finish understanding all the types of snow, or even learning all the words for snow. There will always be new forms, new dialects, new dreams. Years later, you will discover again a type you had forgotten; if you are aware this is in fact a rediscovery, you might call it the “snow of oblivion.”
      You turn back to your lover. It is cold; you embrace her body, kiss her face, inhale her breath. It smells of berries. The snow beneath you returns your bodies’ warmth. It is already dark; you will celebrate the last memory of the midnight snow tonight. Outside there is a noise—what seems to be a large animal. You hope it is only a moose. All you have is a knife and a long piece of bone. You step out and see the eye high in the darkness, then you make out the shape of the bear. You try to ward it off, but only succeed in enraging it. Soon you are running away, far away, but you can hear it steadily gaining on you; you think you feel its hot breath on your exposed neck. Then all is dark: you have fallen into a crevasse. Strangely, you are not hurt: you can slowly climb with your knees and elbows back up to the surface. You look around, and see that the bear has gone. You head back, following the trail of prints on the ground. It is snowing again. The snow becomes unreadable; clouds cover the entire sky. You head into the wind, which is fairly constant most of the time. After more walking, you look around: the scene looks fairly familiar, but you’re not sure you recognize it. You take another step and fall, cutting your wrist on the sharp ice. You get up and walk, but you fall through the surface of the snow again and feel wet. You are still alive: fortunately, you have only broken through the surface of a frozen brook, not a lake. You will suffer, but you will survive. The clouds begin to part. You keep walking, but your pace is slower. To the left, you think you see a band of blue emerging out of the black on the horizon. The wind has increased; the hill is long and steep. You are tired. You want to sleep. You must sleep.
      You awaken, having just seen all the events of your life pass suddenly through your mind. But it is not your life, it is someone else’s. You turn back to embrace your lover again. She is not there. You feel that she is far away. You imagine her as a man in a desert might imagine the snow. You lie back down and try to dream again.

Memory Snow

If I were to invent a type of snow to add to the aboriginal vocabulary, I would suggest “memory snow.” It would designate the simple totality into which we package the past, with all the illusory clarity of repeated memory. It would apply to the general features of snow—the way it tends to grow, the way it always melts—and also to specific snowscapes distantly recalled. But of course such a concept of a fixed yet retrievable past is foreign to the mind that sees everything as process.
      How could I articulate something even as simple as the one within these sentences: We spent one cold night in a lodge on the solitary mountain. I thought you would find it exciting, memorable, erotic. That afternoon we climbed the glacier and entered the ice cave near the summit. The intense glacial blue of the sky next to the opaque white ice within the cave was the most intense visual experience of my life. You were only vaguely impressed. You were cold; you wanted to leave. That night, you would talk about swimming in a blue grotto in a hot country with another man.
      Is it possible that, born into another language, I would not be able to think these thoughts?