High: 53° FAri 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.
Low: 29° F
Conditions: Gloriously sunny and temperate
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.