Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Sign of Spring #3: Sublime

High: 53° F
Low: 29° F
Conditions: Gloriously sunny and temperate
Ari and I don’t always have shared values when it comes to experiencing the natural world. She, for instance, objects strenuously to the idea of being strapped into a boat and propelled down a raging river. I can’t for the life of me see the appeal for rolling on top of a decomposing snake long enough to make sure it is well insinuated in my hair. Indeed, there are entire days when we seem to be living our own episode of “The Odd Couple,” though with a lot less humor.

And then there are days like today, when the stars align and our preferences become symphonic: we stand on top of a autumnal mountain we’ve just climbed or find a bramble of ripe raspberries warmed by the afternoon sun and marvel in the aesthetics of it all.

Or we walk past a pile of late spring snow and breathe deeply.

That’s right: the smell of snow. Or more specifically, the smell of melting snow, which is everywhere around us this time of year. We both love it. We’re obsessed, really—driven to distraction on walks when the sublime sublimation of ice crystals turning into gas fills our nostrils and clouds our minds.

I’ve tried unsuccessfully for years to match mere words to this phenomenon, sometimes going so far as to even demanding that my students write essays describing the smell of snow: not for their educational benefit, mind you, but rather with the hopes that they might stumble upon some little gem of metaphor or adjective that I can steal and make my own.

Okay, I haven’t really considered plagiarism. At least not yet. But I’m tempted after looking over my hackneyed collection of descriptors: snow smells like warm pewter; it’s what the color cornflower blue would smell like, if colors could smell. It’s the odor of disembodied earth; the chthonic approach of spring.

These are awful, and yet I can’t for the life of me figure out how to improve upon them. Ari knows better than to try. Instead, she contents herself with thrusting her snout deep into a pile of wet, spring snow. Or she lefts her nose towards the sky, sucking in panting breaths of this phenomenon we can only experience and not describe.

People think I’m crazy when I tell them we love this smell. After all, how could evaporating snow possibly smell like anything?

I recently stumbled upon a wonderfully folksy answer to this question.

According to The Dictionary of American Regional English, New Englanders refer to wet spring snow as “poor man’s fertilizer” or “poor man’s manure.” Both expressions were once common in the northeastern U.S., beginning in the late 18th century and continuing well into my lifetime. People in the Canadian Maritimes still refer to wet spring snow as “Farmer’s Fertilizer” or “Million Dollar Rain.” In fact, the residents of Wolfville, Nova Scotia, divide their spring snow into three categories, which are described at a website called “The American Robin.” They write:
“The last three snow storms of the spring are (1) the Robin's Snow just after or when the Robin's are migrating back to us; (2) the Smelt Snow when the smelts are running in the brooks and rivers near the coast such as the Gaspereaux River just south of here over the Ridge; and (3) Poor Man's Fertilizer, which comes on the freshly ploughed soil and brings with it a load of nitrogen as the flakes pass down through the atmosphere.”
Snow—particularly late spring snow—has a high nitrogen content, along with traces of sulfur and other elements. That, along with the microscopic dust particles that bind with the snow as it falls from the sky, is undoubtedly what Ari and I are smelling. Does this scientific explanation take away a little of the whimsy and mystery of our experience? Not really. At least, not enough to stop finding magic in the scent.

Other people are finding dollar signs in this same smell. A perfume company called Demeter recently acknowledged the love that creatures like the caninaturalist and I have for spring scent.
They’re marketing a new fragrance called SNOW, which they describe as “chilling, cool, clean and fresh, with a touch of dust (necessary to form flakes) and earth (upon which to rest).”

I’d be willing to shell out big bucks for this fragrance—especially if I could persuade the caninaturalist that it’s a better signature scent than rotten snake.


jan said...

No matter how many shared experiences I have with my dogs we have never agreed on a scent.

Khyra The Siberian Husky said...

Oh, my mom LOVES khornflower blue!

Her sister's eyes would turn that kholour when she khried as a youngster!!

Poor Ari - so many smells, so few waking hours!!!


PeeEss: I'm the one with the chokholate mud brown eyes!

Kapp pack said...

Ahhhhh....snow.....we can't wait for next winter!

Woo woo, Kelsey Ann

Anonymous said...

Oooh! I love the smell of snow! New snow, old snow, well, some old snow, melting snow, falling snow...

Just not yellow snow.


Me & my puppies said...

Any sign which brings us one step closer to spring is welcome!

Maverick the Pirate said...

Harrrrr Ari
Lisa the Mean and I think wet snow smells like electrisity in the air harrrrr.
Cap'n Maverick the Pirate

Lorenza said...

Rolling over stinky things to get a good scent is great!
Since I've never seen or smell snow in my life I think I'd like to have one of those... just to know how it is like!
Kisses and hugs

Southbay Girl said...

Hmm....snake scent-mom wouldn't be too happy with that either. I think she agrees with Kathryn about shelling out bucks for the SNOW scent!!!


Simba said...

I want it to be summer.

Simba xx

John Theberge said...

I've been enjoying the smell of melting snow lately too, it's about time. I really can't wait for my favorite outdoor smell and thats the scent of a summer meadow during the month of June.

Dmitri said...

Demeter--that sounds like my name! Wasn't she a goddess? Did she like snow or hate it? Did she roll in it and smell it or take a six-month vacation from it?

Hmmmmm and snakes are kind of mythic too but maybe not to Ari...maybe they just stink, whether you see 'em or not ;)

Cheerfully yours (and HAPPY spring!!!)

Blue said...

What an evocative post.
I love that feel of melting snow crystals.
Rare in the UK but have experienced them in Sask, Canada.
And, a favourite book of mine, & the films excellent too, is - wait for it... "Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow" by Danish author Peter Hoeg.
It's an excellent read!

Best wishes, pats& pets

PS - TY for your thoughtful comments yesterday re my late mother.

JB's Big World said...

Thanks for the info on the geese. My mom has to work now so we will take a look this evening!
Snow as a fragrance? That sounds interesting. I am sure it is better than rotten snake!

The Army of Four said...

Our mom and I love different weather smells. I know the smell of snow coming, but I can't teach her that. Spring has many intense smells, as everything comes back to life. The smell of mud, of storms, of plant-life struggling to come alive. Mom even likes the smell of the first grass-cutting of the year. She had to invent a new product one time and do a mock ad campaign for it. She did a new fragrance called "M'Eau de Lawn". Mom's weird sometimes.....

Gunner said...

Hi Ari, I have a Book Meme for you!

Here are the rules:
1. Pick up the nearest book.
2. Open to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people and post a comment to Mickey once you have posted it.

Anonymous said...

Snow is a rarity over here these days (perhaps another sign of global warming?). The next time we do get some, however, I will breathe in deeply!

Sandpiper said...

I'm ready for the fragrance of daffodils. Bye bye snow!! ;-)

YourFireAnt said...

Melting snow smells kind of like dusty wet ozone, doesn't it? a cold wind, dripping and full of death. The upriver version of low tide.


Gus and Louie said...

We sure wish we could smell the snow melting. We have no snow here.. :0(

Big Sloppy Kisses
Gus and Louie

JB's Big World said...

We just looked at the geese links you sent us. It could very well be a greater white front! The greylag looks close too. I guess there are different variations. Thanks for the help!

Kathiesbirds said...

Very well written and fun to read. All things have scents if one cares to stop and breathe. There is magic in everything. Thanks for reminding me!