"The Snow Tourist" by Charlie English

"The Snow Tourist" cover image

There is nothing that compares to waking in the morning to see that a fresh snowfall has blanketed everything overnight; the landscape becomes clean, soft and quiet and glimmers with a magic quality. It feels like a return to childhood.  Many of us, I’m sure, have memories of those mornings of the first snow, of snow days off from school and snowdrifts up to our waists.  So, now, waking and looking out the window to find grassy fields only weeks from December is a little glum, to say the least. You feel like Calvin & his tiger Hobbes, sitting bundled up on the sled at the top of the hill just waiting for a snowflake, pleading with the heavens and doing a small snow dance.  In that spirit, I’d like to offer a ‘literary snow dance’ of some the best snowy books for the season to tide us over. And, perhaps if we all get our skis tuned up and our sleds out, along with sweaters, layers, mittens and scarves – we can, collectively, will a snowy morning to appear.

In “The Snow Tourist,” we find that it’s not only mountain-dwellers who feel the allure of a wintery landscape.  Charlie English is a lowlander from London who is as spellbound with snow as any genuine ski-bum.  He sets off to explore his interest around the globe, and asks why snow captivates and mystifies us.  It is an enjoyable account that is part personal travelogue and part history. English does find himself out of his element at times, in sub-zero temperatures in Nunavut in Arctic Canada learning the ropes of building an igloo with the Inuit, or following a Chamonix mountain guide to some precipitous ridges in the Alps.  But mostly, he is like a kid waking to the first snow - sledding with his children in Vermont on a visit to the place where Wilson Bentley first photographed snowflakes, or recounting the myths of the snow spirit of Japan (Yuki-onna) or the snow-nymph of Greece (Chione.) We get to see snow through an artist’s perspective, in the paintings of Monet or Bruegel, and also how snow has left its mark in science - from Johannes Kepler cataloguing snowflakes, to one of the more perplexing debates of Victorian science on why a snowball sticks together! English also visits the rapidly retreating glaciers of Alaska, Mt. Rainier, and the highlands of Scotland and asks what modern climate science tells us about the effects of a warming planet.  At the end of “The Snow Tourist” is a handbook, with a glossary of some of the many Yu’pik Eskimo words for snow, illustrations of snow crystals, and instructions for your own igloo.  Until we can go out for a ski, this book is great for anticipation.

For the woodsman, (or woods-woman) in your life, “Norwegian Wood, Chopping, Stacking and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way” is the perfect read, and might provide the best way to prepare for next year’s wood-splitting contest.  Its author Lars Mytting turns the task of splitting logs and winter fires into an art of the utmost degree.  He extols the meditative side of this activity that has been carried on and perfected through centuries, and writes of the pleasures and virtues in the process of the work involved.  The pictures of artistically stacked woodpiles are wonderful on their own, and this book will definitely improve your woodstove fire technique.

Lastly, as the season becomes chillier and we have a warm fire going, we should all reread Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”  Only sixteen lines long, it perfectly captures a blanket of snow over the darkening countryside: “The only other sound’s the sweep, Of easy wind and downy flake.”  Soon, let’s hope.