By Charlie English
The early 20th-century Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson relates a salutory technique used by the Inuit to deal with a blizzard, a common phenomenon in the Canadian north. When an Inuit becomes lost, he will make himself comfortable and conserve energy, perhaps building an igloo, perhaps sitting with his back to the wind, moving around only occasionally to keep himself from freezing, sleeping if possible. Then, when the storm has passed and he can see again, he will carry on to his destination.
A European, by contrast, will instinctively thrash on, building up a sweat with his exertions. As he exhausts himself, the sweat generated will turn to ice, which in all likelihood will kill him.
I like Stefansson's story for what it says about the Inuit, but also because the blizzard reveals something of the nature of the person stuck within it. I think of it often when a snowstorm strikes Britain, when there is chaos on the railways and the roads, a shortage of salt and grit and gas, and a lack of foresight by whomever it was. As schools shut, the recriminations begin about slack attitudes, the cost to society and things not being what they were.
In the long history in which humans have been getting caught in snowstorms, the way we have reacted to snow and interpreted it has shifted radically from place to place and era to era. For the Impressionists and the Japanese ukiyo-e artists, it was a force for beauty and contemplation. For the inhabitants of the Alps in the middle ages and after, it was associated with evil and witchcraft. Each society has interpreted the unusual and often spectacular event of a snowfall in a different way.
Perhaps the best way to track the cultural significance of snow is through art. Until the 16th century, artists showed little interest except where it had a religious context. Then came the shocking winter of 1564-5, the longest and most severe for more than a hundred years, and the first great winter of the intensely cold period in northern Europe that we now call the Little Ice Age.
For the next 150 years, the winters in Europe were extremely cold. It was the most sustained period of low temperatures in Europe since the last major ice age: crops failed, winter snowfall increased and Alpine glaciers advanced down the mountain sides, swallowing pastures, eradicating communities and gouging ever deeper features in the landscape.
The inhabitants of the Alpine Chamonix valley petitioned their lords to do something to alleviate the effects of the climate: "We are terrified of the glaciers . . . which are moving forward all the time and have just buried two of our villages and destroyed a third." The talk in the inns and the pulpits and the government would have been of the changing climate.
It was early in this exceptional winter of 1565 that Pieter Bruegel the Elder created what is regarded as the first winter landscape painting, The Hunters in the Snow. What did he see in this, the earliest detailed account of people's reaction to snow?
He saw the pleasure of snow as much as the pain. These are lean days, as the huntsmen's meagre bag attests, but they are also days of fun and leisure. Apart from the business of hunting and gathering wood, work has largely stopped. People have come out to enjoy themselves on this clear, special day, when snowfall has made the landscape new; they are skating and playing a precursor of ice hockey. It is also a time for children, for innocence and play, romance and games.
Once Bruegel had found snow as a subject, he couldn't stop. Among a number of paintings of ice and snow that survive, he created the first scene with falling snow and the first nativity scene to include snow, The Adoration of the Magi. He also started a vogue for Netherlandish snow painting that endured for a century and a half.
But the largely benign manifestation of snow was not to last. In the growing romantic tradition of the late 18th century, in which nature was employed to dramatise and heighten human emotions, snow was assigned a range of sinister and dangerous roles. No longer suitable for children to be seen playing with, it was more likely to be shown freezing people to death, crushing them under its weight, or drowning horse-drawn carriages in its hungry depths.
In part, this reinterpretation of snow was the result of a new period of extremely cold weather. After a relatively warm period that coincided with the end of the Dutch Golden Age, the temperature began to dip after 1775, heading for a trough that bottomed out in the second decade of the 19th century. In 1809, a series of major volcanic eruptions heralded the arrival of a particularly cold period as the clouds of ash partially blocked out the sun. The decade from 1810 to 1819 was the coldest in England since the 17th century. In 1812, the French Grand Armée was chased from Moscow by the advancing winter – known to the Russians as General Snow.
The new coldness seeped into literature and music as well as art. Dickens experienced six white Christmases in the first nine years of his life (he was born in 1812), which may account for the vivid snowscapes in Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol. The snow in Franz Schubert's Winterreise is the symbol of misery and heartbreak. For the painter Caspar David Friedrich, snow symbolized death. JMW Turner, meanwhile, painted some of snow's most terrifying images. He had witnessed the full violence of snow and ice in his journeys to the Alps: at least twice his carriage was overturned by snow. In 1810, he painted The Fall of an Avalanche in the Grisons, in which a chalet is obliterated by a white wave of snow.
Avalanches are the most extreme manifestations of terrifying snow, but in the early 19th century they were little understood even in the Alps. A mythology had grown up around them: they were widely believed to be the result of witchcraft. A Swiss legend told of an old woman dressed in black who was seen riding the first wave of an avalanche while quietly turning her spinning wheel. She was grabbed by four men and burned alive.
Alpine residents would protect themselves by burying eggs marked with the sign of a cross at the foot of known avalanche slopes. The avalanche historian Colin Fraser recounts an Alpine adage that sums up the mountain-dwellers' fear of snow: "What flies without wings, strikes without hand and sees without eyes? The avalanche beast!"
Britain's most disastrous avalanche occurred in 1836 in the unlikely town of Lewes in East Sussex, after a phenomenal Christmas storm. It is recounted in a painting by Thomas Henwood now held by the Lewes museum; the Snowdrop Inn stands at the scene of the tragedy.
A violent gale on Christmas night blew the snowfall into a cornice on a cliff's edge 100m above Boulder Row, which had been built for the families of poor workers. The heavy snow and strong winds left the streets 10ft deep, with drifts up to 20ft deep. However, even when a portion of the snow fell from the clifftop into a nearby timber yard, the cottages' transfixed residents refused to leave their homes, and on 27 December, the cornice dropped.
One eyewitness said the snow appeared to hit the houses at the base, heaving them upwards, then breaking over them like a gigantic wave to dash them bodily into the road. When the mist cleared off, there was nothing to see but an enormous mound of pure white. Eight people were killed.
The lesson of the Lewes snow drop, and of other great snowstorms in history, is that the human desire to carry on is foolish. As urban societies grew increasingly complex during the 19th century, they became more vulnerable to snow. Nowhere was this more evident than in New York in March 1888.
The Blizzard of 1888 ranks among the most notorious snowstorms in history. It struck on a Monday – crucially, as cities are always most vulnerable during the working week. The storm dropped 50in in all, but instead of staying at home and sitting out the storm, New Yorkers jumped out of their windows into the drifts in order to get to work. This was later interpreted as hubris.
The result is the stuff of New York folklore. The elevated railways, a new innovation, became blocked with snow and the telegraph cables that kept the stations in contact with controllers broke down. The trains crashed into one another and passengers were stranded. Despite the strong winds, some tried to crawl along the tracks.
The railroads leading into the city were blocked by drifts that were sometimes deeper than the trains were high. Commuters, who were trapped for days, were forced to chop up the train seats and tables to use as firewood while the wind whistled through the cracks in the coachwork. Those who abandoned the trains to walk home found themselves struggling for hours through drifts up to their armpits and suffered frostbite.
In the city center, the horse-cars found the drifts impassable, and many were abandoned by their drivers. People came across horses that had frozen solid in their harnesses and whose heads stuck up out of the drifting snow. The wind was so strong that unlucky pedestrians were blown into the drifts and found they couldn't dig themselves out. Women, in billowing dresses and high heels, were particularly susceptible. The bodies of men and women who had been pushed by the wind into drifts were discovered hours or days later by an arm or leg protruding from the snow.
At the end of the week 400 people had been killed, 198 ships sunk or damaged in or around New York harbor, and 800 bodies were waiting to be buried in the city's cemeteries.
The newspapers blamed late 19th-century New York's advances in infrastructure and engineering for the city's catastrophic exposure to the weather: the city's transport system simply hadn't been designed to function in the extreme conditions of the storm. One newspaper, the Hartford Courant, ran an editorial that captured the public mood: "It is the boasting and progressive 19th century that is paralyzed, while the slow-going 18th would have taken such an experience without a ruffle . . . There comes a snowstorm – there is no railroad, no telegraph, no horse-car, no milk, no delivery of food at the door. We starve in the midst of plenty . . . it is only a snowstorm, but it has downed us."
Britain has had its deep-frozen winters in the last 100 years – 1940, 1947, 1963 and 1979 among them. In 1979, I recall being driven through the Scottish borders and seeing the drifts left by the snow plough stretch way above our heads. At the start of the 21st century, however, the principal meaning of the succession of paltry British snowfalls has been as an indicator of the warming climate.
Not long ago, in early summer, I walked deep into the Cairngorm mountains on the shoulder of Braeriach to see the last patches of perennial snow in the country. Here, in a secluded gully, lie two very special snow patches, known by the rock formations above them: Pinnacles and Sphinx. These patches contain the longest-lasting snow in Britain, with the Sphinx patch having melted completely just five times since the mid-1800s. Three of those occasions were after 1995: in 1996, 2003 and 2006. Perhaps this year we will be lucky, and the Sphinx patch will last through to next winter – as it used to.
But this week, with Basingstoke cut off and our motorways turning into car parks, it is perhaps worth reflecting on New York's experience in 1888 – as it is on Stefansson's story about the Inuit in the blizzard. We have become accustomed, in our millions, to traveling long distances each day in cars and trains and planes, come rain or shine or snow. It is only a snowstorm, but we should not be surprised that it has downed us again.
Article published by Guardian on January 7, 2010