Posted by: ktzefr | March 4, 2014

Snowy Thoughts


Icicles; Photo:KFawcett

Icicles; Photo:KFawcett


I once tasted snow in August…

On Mont Blanc.  We were in the Alps somewhere along the border between Italy and France.  A few hours earlier we’d left a lush green valley with temps in the 70s and headed up the mountains into snow and ice. 

Percy Shelley wrote a poem about this mountain —

“Far, far above, piercing the infinite sky,

Mont Blanc appears – still, snowy, and serene…”

This is one of the most visited tourist destinations in the world with thousands of hikers and skiers making the annual trek.  A few years back they helicoptered a couple of outhouses to the top to accommodate visitors.  Seems a lot of foul stuff was flowing down the mountain in the spring thaw.  Perhaps I wouldn’t have eaten the snow had I known this at the time.

When I was little my mom made snow cream.   A cup of snow, vanilla flavoring, a few spoons of evaporated milk.  We were careful to scoop new snow from clean surfaces right after it fell.  Then one winter we had to stop.  Grownups said the snow could have traces of nuclear fallout.  We saw it on the news, read about it in the papers. 

During the intense nuclear bomb testing from 1961 to 1963 the US and the Soviet Union exploded bombs that injected the same amount of fallout over the Earth as would be created by more than 7,000 Hiroshima bombs.  Earlier, in the 1950s, fallout had amounted to another 5,000 Hiroshima-equivalents.    Hundreds of bombs were tested in the open-air by the U.S., the former Soviet Union, and other rising nuclear powers, sending more than 400 million tons of TNT-equivalent into the atmosphere. 

We had a fallout shelter beneath our school building back then and often played in the concrete “ditch” leading down to it.  At recess we challenged each other to see who could jump across the ditch without falling into it.  We wondered what was inside the shelter and whether everyone in the school could fit.  Was there enough food?  Would there be snacks and a television inside or just healthy stuff and school books?  Sometimes we fussed about these small details, but mostly we were angry at the people who had ruined the snow.

Years later, when I scooped a handful of snow on Mont Blanc, I had forgotten all those fallout warnings.  I was a long way from home and the old shelter beneath my school.  What I didn’t know was that France had not signed the Test Ban Treaty the U.S., U.K., and the Soviet Union had signed in 1963 and was still testing nuclear weapons in the atmosphere.  Who knows what fell with the snow that summer…

I read recently that in the area surrounding the Fukushima power plant in Japan, which was damaged during the earthquake and tsunami in March 2011, scientists have found mutated snowflakes.  Instead of those beautiful hexagonal structures, they are lumpy and malformed.  Don’t know if this is true or not.  There was an interesting piece a few years ago in the New York Times about the existence of giant snowflakes “as big as frisbees” found various places around the globe, with a mission at the cost of $1 billion to locate and study them.

When the heaviest snow was falling Monday morning a grackle flew to the feeder outside my kitchen window.   The bird’s black body and iridescent blue head stood out against all that white stuff.  I grabbed the binoculars for a closer glimpse of the grackle’s bright yellow eyes.   There are, indeed, moments of magic on snowy days.

“Among twenty snowy mountains,

The only moving thing

Was the eye of the blackbird.”

~ Wallace Stevens, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”


Facts about Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Western Europe


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