Snow is not actually white. It's clear, like glass; look at an individual snowflake and you will see that. But being complicated, clear surfaces, snowflakes scatter light in all directions, and as anyone who has ever spun a multicolored wheel knows, the result looks white—or under some conditions blueish, since the snow tends to absorb red light more than blue.
It's certainly lovely to behold. "I doubt if any object can be found more perfectly beautiful than a fresh, deep snowdrift," wrote Victorian art critic John Ruskin. "Its curves are inconceivable perfection."
Optics and aesthetics aside, there is something freeing about snow. Snow blankets our world, disguises it, interrupts our usual routines. The important appointments are scrapped, the airplanes stay on the ground. By interrupting society, snow liberates us. Snow almost begs you to go play in it. No less of a thinker than Ralph Waldo Emerson noted a connection between snow and our democracy, "wherever snow falls there is usually civil freedom," he wrote in 1870.
More or less correct. He probably wasn't thinking of Russia.
Like freedom, snow is rarer than we think. Most places on earth don't get snow. It's something of a privilege really -- about 75 percent of the globe is almost always snowless, and Emerson has a point that the worst dictatorships—North Korean notwithstanding—tend to be sunny. Cairo had its first snowfall in over a century last month; it lasted about as long as the reforms that seemed possible in 2011 during the rebellion on Tahir Square. (Not only is snow rare, but so is atmospheric moisture. We live on a watery planet, true, but all the water in the air, condensed, would cover the surface of the earth to the thickness of an inch).
A little can seem like a lot, though. It didn't really snow that much over New Year's -- some eight inches, beginning Tuesday afternoon, as we were hurrying home to get ready for our New Year's Eve festivities, then steadily Wednesday, with an inch or two to come Thursday. Not much compared to the epic snows of yesteryear -- 1967's 18.1 inches in one day. Because much of the city was shut down anyway, there was no need to worry much about getting around in the snow. So the snow could be simply enjoyed, even by us suburbanites who had to shovel it. I have a long driveway, but don't own a snowblower, since it seems stupid to belong to a gym and do aerobic exercise there, to lift weights and run, only to shuck actual productive effort when nature serves up a manageable physical task to be performed now and again.
The snow was pretty fluffy, the weather not too cold, and while I wouldn't describe shoveling as "fun," it wasn't so bad either. The dog was certainly delighted, crashing through drifts as tall as herself, bounding like a porpoise. It seemed for a while she wouldn't come in at all, but rocketed around the yard, chasing squirrels that weren't there, cutting a furrow through the perfect whiteness, raising clouds of fresh snow. I like to let her run, and worry less when there's snow, because I can always track her through neighbors' backyards, though toward the end we looked like a silent movie comedy act, Kitty threading the snow between the trees, me puffing through the frosty landscape after her, calling her name with decreasing good humor, scattering snowflakes uncounted.
Looking at a flake of snow, by the way, is like looking at a giant molecule. The basic shape of a snowflake is six-sided because when oxygen bonds with hydrogen to create a water molecule, the molecule is a hexagon which, growing on all sides and crystallizing into a snowflake, maintains its shape.
I don't expect an argument over this. It is worth noting that religious sorts do not insist God creates each individual snowflake, despite their complexity, perfection. beauty and abundance, . Because the science behind snowflakes is so simple and clear, they don't waste their time challenging them, saving their energy for what they perceive as the shadows of science, where they expect more results, and indeed get them. A recent poll showed that about a 1/3 of Americans believe that evolution, a science as certain as the crystallography behind snowflakes, is a fiction, and instead that God Almighty created man fully-formed, and about 10,000 years ago yet.
Their religion teaches them this and they feel strongly enough to tell it to pollsters and insist it be taught in supposedly public schools, to children whose parents might not believe it at all. As to why they would not add, "God creates snowflakes too, designing each one with a No. 2 pencil" and oppose teaching of crystallography and chemistry, well, that is just one of those mysteries -- actually, it isn't.
The disappearance of human origins into time immemorial creates an opportunity, to the faithful, to impose their fanciful tale of divine will, and dismiss the careful proof plain in the fossil records. Dragging in snowflakes -- which they should do, if they sincerely believed God designed this world; in for a dime, in for a dollar -- would just be dumb. What they don't realize is that limiting your fantasizing to the creation of animal life and the Earth is also dumb -- well, "dumb" is a harsh word to apply to faiths not one's own. How about "presumptuous"? You may of course entertain yourself by playing with whatever ball of nonsense looks pretty to you. It's when you push your fairy tale upon the unwilling that it becomes dumb, since it insults others and distracts society from things that matter. So maybe "dumb" is apt — when you insult people, they get to insult you back.
But we've drifted, blown a long way from snowflakes. The snow was very soft and quiet and wonderful Wednesday, and I hope you got out and enjoyed it.