‘Cold snow’ is the small, fine, dry snow that comes with a protracted deep chill, like we’re having now. Some, like Western skiers, call it ‘powder,’ but the cold, lake-effect snow we get here isn’t the same as the high altitude powder I know from my California days. Our snowflakes are tinier, icier and more wind blown. It’s the kind of snow that can deliver a white-out with even a light wind on an open field or roadway. People will ask, “Is it snow, or blow?” distinguishing new-fall from mobile. Sometimes, you’ll see cold snow falling on a partly sunny day, and it takes your breath away, its icy flakes catching the light and sparkling like an engulfing swirl of glitter.

If there’s a driving wind, this fine stuff can pack together, creating the kind of rigid solid snow, that was my favorite as a kid. Not a crusted top, but a thick layer of dense pack snow that you could ‘saw’ into shapes using the back side of your mittened hand as a cutting edge. We’d cut blocks, and stack them for the walls of our snow forts. I suppose we could have arched them, to make igloos, but either our climate or our attention spans wouldn’t support that kind of architecture. It’s an entirely different animal than the wetter, kind of ‘packing’ snow, good for snowball fights, sculptures and snowmen.

As an adult, I’m further north than I was as a kid. Maybe far enough that, with the right conditions, could make for an igloo. But I am no longer inclined to build more than a couple of snowmen each season. I know that, even further north than here, friends of my Mum’s used to gather for the holidays each year, and, if there was enough of the right kind of snow, they’d build a big igloo for their winter partying. I think it’s something that lends itself to a group activity…and alcohol…and only if you have the right kind of snow.

Despite growing up in the north, I find that there’s a paucity of snow language in English. We were always told that the Inuit had over fifty words to describe different kinds of snow, and that turns out to be true, if you count all of the different dialects, and the fact that their language creates new words out of compounded descriptors. None of that specificity has crossed over into English.

We’ve reduced the myriad forms of snow conditions to a few well-worn phrases, designed mostly to warn of hazardous driving–winter mix, blizzard, sleet, slippery conditions, white-out, icy roads and slush. There’s so much more to it, rich, specific words, but they’re not well known. Rick and I used to describe a particular type of snow as ‘styrofoam pellets,’ (which everyone understood) until we found that there was a perfectly good, accurate word that describes those little, soft, round-ball snow pellets, ‘graupel.’ But who ever heard of graupel? We now use it–but nobody I know knows what we’re talking about. It’s our secret language. We make up new words all the time…most recently, bough-bombs, to describe chunks of snow caught in the tree limbs, that drop on you when the wind picks up.

Snow separates people into those that like it, and those it repels. Our state has an entire demographic that runs south each winter–Snowbirds. My own sister, the nomad, falls into this group. Just as I have my own limits (I’m not crazy about outdoor recreation in single digits) she doesn’t want to be anywhere that she cannot comfortably wear flip-flops! They’re in for a big surprise this year, this particular sub-zero, winter front extends all the way to Texas, where they have neither the experience, nor infrastructure to deal with it. Already I’ve seen photos of snowbirds, blanket-huddled in their winter RVs. There are reports of rotating power-outages and burst plumbing. We try not to be smug about it.

It may be that the muffled beauty of snow leaves many speechless. We’re left with long inept descriptions of particular conditions, leaving only the scientists and poets qualified to wrestle out the true language of snow.