SOMETHING IN THE AIR
It’s been said that the Inuit language has scores of different words for snow. While most linguists dispute this, wouldn’t it make sense for a culture in which snow is such a constant, intimate presence? I suppose we’d have lots of words too if snow were more than an inconvenience to us—or if we paid more attention to its sublime beauty.
No matter how well equipped you are to describe snow, the stuff has many amazing qualities. Its sheer whiteness; its power and beauty as a reflector of the sun, from enchanting sparkle to blinding glare; the incredible designs of its flakes, shards and pellets; the range of textures those particles create en masse—from powder to “corn,” to snowball-able, to slush; the graceful shapes it assumes when sculpted by the wind; and its ability to record everything from the passing of a vole to the progression of climate change over millennia.
An airplane, sounding so close it must be coming
in for a landing, is really a speck, still three or
four miles up.
One of the silver linings of those crystal clear 20-below-zero nights we have up here is the sounds. When it gets that cold, the air’s usually so dry that the snow sounds like Styrofoam when you walk or drive on it. As a January evening’s concert lets out, the hall’s yet-unplowed parking lot becomes its own musical postlude, a chorus of squeaks, crunches and groans from scores of tires compressing tiny crystals.
Extreme winter temperatures also do amazing things to the atmosphere. You can almost feel the molecules of subzero air huddling closer together. The world seems to compress around you. Sound carries differently too, as if you were inside a big box.
Music, kids’ laughter and the clatter of hockey sticks, carrying from a rink three blocks away, sound like they’re right next-door. An airplane flies over, sounding so close it must be coming in for a landing. You look up and see that it’s a speck, still three or four miles up.
LESSONS COOL AND CRUEL
There’s a whole library of winter folklore up here on what we call the frozen tundra. One example: when it’s minus 25 or more, you take a pan of boiling water outside and throw the water up into the air. The droplets freeze so fast that they explode into a fine, frozen mist with a loud hiss.
Extreme cold like this exerts a strange attraction on some folks. One night a few years ago, the temperature in Tower MN reached minus 60. (That’s the thermometer temperature, not the wind-chill index.) When the forecast came out, people flocked up there from all over the state to camp out that night. All survived, though many of their cars required defibrillation.
I noticed something on one of the metal posts. I shuddered when, on closer inspection, I discovered the distinct taste buds.
When I was in grade school, I was walking home one January afternoon and came to a chain-link fence I passed nearly every day. This time I noticed something on one of the metal posts. I shuddered when, on closer inspection, I discovered the distinct taste buds. It was a quarter-inch-square piece of some poor kid’s tongue.
Everyone around here knows that story; it’s part of the mythology. But I know—and, more poignantly, that poor, gullible kid knows—it’s true.
Playing hockey outdoors before indoor rinks were common was a lesson in physics. Steel on ice, both of them rock-hard solids, one gliding effortlessly, not on the other, but on a thin film of water. Rubber pucks, their molecular structure transformed by the cold, shattering like glass when they hit the goalpost just right.
Flesh, exposed to minus 50 wind-chill, turning in blotches from red to frostbite white. Capillaries in toes, feeling like a thousand needle stabs, flowing again as they warmed from their pre-frostbite numbness.
HEAT YOUR HEART OUT
All right, I know everyone who lives anywhere has his or her own war stories about their weather. But I say you can have your hurricanes and heat waves, your supercells and sand storms. I’ll take the winter weather wonders of Minnesota any day. C’mon, I know you’re envious!