Snow: the edge of terror

Strange thing, snow.

Not scientifically, of course: it’s quite easily explainable in terms of how it happens and where it comes from, if you stick to the realms of physics and chemistry.

But looked at in a different way, it’s totally mysterious.

We all know it’s unpredictable, and that meteorologists have difficulty knowing exactly how much, exactly where and for how long. But then so is rain.

What makes snow different is that it’s beautiful. A sprinkling of the white stuff sends us dashing for our cameras or reaching for our phones. We love the way it improves the landscape, making it softer and cleaner.

So what’s mysterious about that?

The fact that as well as being beautiful, it also makes life extremely difficult. Travelling becomes problematical. Snow is dangerous because it’s cold, and as well as freezing you, it can bury you.

We use up huge amounts of energy – our own and the national grid’s – combating its effects. Vehicles slide into each other; people break bones. Businesses lose money.

Logically, we should hate the stuff. So why do we find it beautiful? If we simply evolved from nothingness, we would expect to like what’s good for us – what makes it easier for us to survive. Moderate rainfall, sufficient warmth, enough food: a smooth ride, gradually improving.

But in fact we’re beings who have a capacity for wonder, particularly at things that are dangerous, risky and on the edge. On the edge of what? We don’t know, but something that we really want. Something we can’t control.

Poet Rainer Maria Rilke said that beauty is the edge of terror that we’re just able to bear. In other words, there is something out there that we couldn’t survive in our current state, but we desperately want it. Beauty is the nearest we can get.

Snow is like that. So are mountains, storm-tossed seas and killer deserts. Touch and see, but don’t get too close, or stay too long.