Caught by the River

Snow reflects all the light

Kerri ní Dochartaigh | 2nd December 2020

Nancy Campbell’s Fifty Words for Snow — an examination of what snow means to different cultures around the world — is our Book of the Month for December. Kerri ní Dochartaigh reviews.

‘Nothing is too harsh,
When you are accustomed to it.’
[‘Epilogue/ Words spoken by a hunter who can no longer hear the question’, Nancy Campbell]

‘The earth lay white under the night sky…the figures…and the background…melted together into a sort of symbolic world not of this world…Shimamura felt his chest rise at the inexpressible beauty of it.’
[‘Snow Country’, Yasunari Kawabata trans EG Seidensticker]

When Nancy Campbell touches something, the object becomes an almost mythical thing: a glimmer, a ghost-child, a glacier suspended in the bills of hooded crows; in a dreamed and gorgeous world. Her work is like the mountains, ice and bodies of water she is so drawn to – varied, but with sculpted contours that run through each piece – a map by which we may navigate her vision. 

What is it about snow that gets in so deep beneath our skin? So many folk seem to have begun having much more exquisite, haunting dreams since the pandemic hit, and it seems like quite a lot of those nightly visions have been covered in a beautiful blanket of snow, for some reason. It is the stuff of myth and our ancient past, revery and ghost tale; it is both all that we know and do not know in equal measure. 

In ‘How to say ‘I love you’ in Greenlandic’ – a special edition artist’s creation born from Campbell’s residency at Upernavik Museum in Greenland – she writes about her lifelong love of language, and of how that led her to unearth; to go beneath the surface of the near absence in Greenlandic of some words. She was, in her own words, ‘longing to makes sense of these silences’… 

In Fifty Words for Snow, I see her as journeying on this same path. However, due to the form she has chosen for this her most recent book – an exquisite, lyrical blend of nature writing, mythical story-telling and poetic elegy – she is able to more fully lead us along with her: lantern in her hand, fire in her belly, secrets on her tongue. 

The format is so fantastic – chapters are short and focus on a single word from a particular place; ‘Words – like those who use them – can travel home as well as out into the world.’

Content-wise we are given such variety for a book focused on one single thing: from invented languages to Icelandic music, red apples to snow leopards, the Moomins to Hans Christian Andersen’s most lyrical fairytale; from Aristotle to the light spectrum, watermelons to pollutants, the discovery of electricity to papermaking; from observatories to solitude, the science of silence to sign language, a Lutheran minister to nomadic herders; from stolen babies to tectonic plates, ostrich feathers to arrogant gods – there is something to draw a multitude of readers in close.

There is music in this book, language too, and an openness towards the concept of silence, which I was incredibly moved by. In the song ‘Hundslappadrifa’, by the Icelandic artist Jonsi, a ‘delicate, otherworldly orchestra fades to a soft and duty patter, which can only be a real field recording of snowfall…and then there is silence.’ Any book which asks the reader, albeit softy, to play an Icelandic song in the background whilst reading, is a book I will read over and over, joyfully. I will share only one sentence from the excellent chapter on Ireland, as I want you to read it for yourself – but these words have echoed inside me for weeks now, and mean so much more than the sum of their parts: ‘Snow, too, sounds different in Irish.’

The chapter about snow in Korea is only two lines long but is the one that affected me most deeply, and perhaps it will you, too. Anyone who’s stood with the love of their life, before they were ‘doing a steady line’, watching white feathery flakes swirl down from a yellow-grey sky (Christmas lights and the Free Derry Wall are, in my experience, a fairly fine addition but you can insert your own backdrop) might read the following line and – as well as nostalgia – begin to feel the ache of climate loss in ways they have not before: ‘if you experience the first snowfall of the year – cheotnum – with someone you have eyes for, it is said that true love will drift into your arms.’ I’m not sure Nancy Campbell could have chosen a more impactful sentence to convey the varied, unimaginable nuances of the void that will be created if snow fades from our lives. The most detrimental impact, of course, will be physical – the ripples of which will be felt in a plethora of areas of both human and non-human lives. But loss is always more complicated than hard, recordable statistics. I want the wains in my life to know how it feels to stand – caught out and tongue-tied – beneath a snowfall that stole upon them like a fox in the half-light; to take their place in the long line of humans who have been moved beyond words by the emotions that the snow carried in its ancient, white silence. To feel both utterly inside of their body and equally outwith it; tied to the world – to all the worlds that there might be – floating, ethereal, timeless 

We are told that in Latvia, the gorgeous phrase ‘a blizzard of skylarks’ is used ‘to evoke the enchantment of a surprise snowfall in springtime – whether the snowflakes fall…as deliriously light and silver as the notes of the skylark’s song, or beat the air as powerfully as their wings.’ I challenge anyone – poet or other – to describe this weather phenomenon with more finely sculpted grace.

There is such beauty, too, in the description of the Chinese character for snow; ‘whose image brings to mind a scene of deep snow lying over a forest.’ This chapter is full of that empathic, quiet way Campbell gives the reader information; imbued with her feeling, still leaving room for our own. Of the Sino-Japanese war she shares words on boy soldiers, and children even younger than them, through describing photographs where they are playing in the snow: ‘What would happen to these children, who even in war carried on their games?’  I don’t imagine I’m alone in feeling such resonance in these words, as children all around the world continue to play, on our burning, melting, aching planet. 

In the chapter about Sweden, we read of one of the most exquisite snow activities imaginable; the sculpting – through the movement of one’s own human body – of a snow angel: ‘The shape of the human body is remade as divine just by moving our limbs…Will it be there in the morning? This time, the marks we humans leave behind will last only as long as the snow itself.’ This line has moved me in innumerable, reverberating ways, I’ll tell you. 

Conservation and respect – the need for us to make drastic and lasting changes in how we treat the beings and things with which we share this planet – are some of the most critical and affecting threads tying this exceptional book together. There is a description, in the chapter on Tibet, about the snow lotus that is so simple yet so impacting. Campbell speaks of profit plant-hunters, and summarises that this increasingly threatened plant holds a much deeper story for us than its ancient symbolism of purity and rebirth: ‘it counsels humans to learn to take only what they need from nature, so that no one will lack its benefits in the seasons to come.’  As messages go, you would be hard pushed to find one more vital these days, and it’s born – as all the gently communicated messages in this book are – out of snow. 

There is, alongside beauty in this book, the inevitable loss and grief that we surely know must live below the surface of a book about words for snow. The impact of climate emergency is documented quietly; not just on humans but on all with which we inhabit this planet. Reindeer are being just as impacted on, if not more, than language in the Tundra, and the ‘Nenets’ characteristic resilience is being tested in new and rapidly changing ways.’ Here, as in other places in the book, it is the silence that lingers after such sentences that has the deepest impact; what Campbell does not say ripples inside, long after we have left this touching work. 

The tale of human migration is partly hidden inside the heart of a pair of skis in this book, sitting alongside bird migration, and the inequality faced by countless members of society peeks out at us; nestled in amongst recollections of ‘Miss Snow’ competitions in Moroccan resort towns.  

‘Zud’ – a word that means severe winter in Mongolia, is explored as a means to put across the potentially devastating impacts snow can have on an entire community economically. The relationship between weather (a thing human beings are having a direct impact on through their mistreatment of the planet) and survival is made crystal clear here. And – on the other hand of survival, when all begins to fail, we find, instead – poverty. 

We see, laid bare, ‘the retreating glaciers and the drifting snow, the whole kaleidoscopic play of illusion that creates life in the world below’ and we are changed by it. Shelter is a recurring theme in this book – from the harsh weather, from the harrowing situations humans find themselves in as refugees –  but also from the future towards which the planet is hurtling. The need for safe shelter feels never to have been more relevant for our world, and ‘the only thing more miraculous than snow in summer…is shelter from the storm in a time of need.’

I love knowing that the word for snow in Máori imagines it as a child ‘of rain and wind’. In this section we read of Polynesian explorers during the last millennia crossing 1000’s of miles of waves in wooden waka. ‘In the hull…lay a ‘wave pilot’ [who] held the pattern of the seas in their memory’. There is an incredible discussion on clouds and creation myths in this chapter, too, and the names of children ring out over a battle scene, filmic and haunting. The cold has never felt more steeped in tradition than in such writing, and this is one of many sections in the book that made me fiercely grateful for my bookshelves as we journey into a winter quite unlike any other many of us may have ever known…Words are given to us in this book as a form of protection, an armour, a glistening cloak with which to keep ourselves on the track; no matter how cold it may be.   

This stunning book, on first read, made me want to pack all my woolies, candles, ample firewood and enough books for a year – and head to as northerly a location as I could find – like the pattern of a suncup; ‘gradually migrat[ing] north-ward, as if lured by colder places.’

I returned to Fifty Words, a handful of weeks later, now locked down to a 5-kilometre radius of a stormy laneway in the very middle of Ireland, and experienced something I had not been in the slightest bit prepared for. Coming back to this book I realised that places are so much more than their geographical, visible form. They live in spaces that are, in fact, so much more than purely physical; places that may, in actual fact, be invisible. There is a section in the book describing the ritual around the annual launching of umiak – traditional hunting boats in a small Arctic village: ‘it was traditional for a graphite boundary to be drawn around the boat’s waterline before it was set on the water, delineating realms of land and sea…much more than a boat, the umiak is also a place of shelter’and I wonder if this book is, in a way, a umiak. I wonder if this book, and others alike, might become vessels through which we may journey out, without having to step over the boundaries drawn for us this particular winter; places of shelter, in a changed world, that as Nancy Campbell reminds us, is still as beautiful as freshly fallen snow.


Fifty Words for Snow is out now and available here, published by Elliott & Thompson and priced £12.99.

Kerri ní Dochartaigh’s first book, Thin Places, will be published by Canongate in January 2021. You can preorder a copy here.