Fifty Words for Snow by Nancy Campbell

Reviewed by Liz Dexter

I greatly enjoyed reading Nancy Campbell’s meditation on the icy places of the world, The Library of Ice. last year, so when I was alerted that she’d written this gem of a book about snow and its cultural and mythological status I just had to say yes to a copy. I’ve said this before recently, but once again: great Christmas present.

It’s a lovely object, and the contents, fifty words for snow and/or ice from around the world, both fascinating and strangely moving, and with a strong underlying message about climate change, as so many of the snowfields and glaciers mentioned are disappearing with global warming. Campbell also makes it clear in the Prologue that she found a disparity between the cultural trope of “polar purity and silence” and the reality of people’s lives and language when they live there. She honours “their traditional knowledge … often enshrined in highly differentiated vocabularies”, and also the smaller languages that are at risk of getting lost.

With regard to languages, she notes in the Prologue that she stated writing the book in autumn 2019 amid debates around Brexit and climate change and finished it a week before participating in Black Lives Matter protests and has this to say:

The process of tracing a single theme across many languages new to me seemed a powerful way to overcome the borders that were going up around the world.

and she also notes that in a time of pandemic, we can still travel the world through the dictionary. What a lot to pack into a smallish book!

Each short chapter has the same format: a snowflake image on the facing page, the word in the original language, a translation into English and a note of which language it belongs to. Happily, this includes American Sign Language, when it comes to “Snowboarding”. The text below could be anything from an imaginary tale of a cave artist to a discussion of philosophy, climate science or mountaineering. We move from the most traditional craft activities to state-of-the-art mapping of snow leopard populations across borders and we even find places where people haven’t set foot:

The mountaineer Reinhold Messner was given the opportunity to climb Kailash by the Chinese government, having stunned the world by reaching the summit of Everest solo and without oxygen in 1980, but he declined. Messner said, ‘If we conquer this mountain, then we conquer something in people’s souls’.”;././

I did love this theme of respect that resonated through the book.

You learn a lot even in the short texts: did you know that Japan has the highest snowfall and deepest drifts in the world (no) or that parts of the Antarctic are officially desert with no snow falling (actually I did know that but I do read a lot of polar exploration stuff). It was good to come across terms I recognised from other reading – sastrugi for instance, those pesky ridges that form on ice sheets but also help you navigate in poor light conditions.

Not every word about snow describes something that actually happens. The chapter on the Thai word for snow revolves around whether it has actually ever snowed in Thailand or not. And there’s fake snow and a fascinating piece about the company that makes most of it for the world’s film industry.

Campbell is a careful writer, making sure she honours traditional and indigenous people, never drawing amusement where it’s not warranted, and noting the colonial past of Kilimanjaro and other places and the difficulties of indigenous populations in the High Atlas, once kept down by colonialism and now by wealthy pleasure-seekers.

The book is a beautiful hardback with decorated cloth covers rather than a dust jacket. It’s printed in dark blue ink on pristine pages, and every entry is accompanied by a unique, stunning image of a snowflake – these are taken from the first known photographs of snow, by Wilson Bentley, who died in the 1930s. There’s a list of references to back up any assertions made in the text and all in all it’s a lovely production which anyone with a wide range of interests would be pleased to find under the Christmas tree.

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Liz Dexter loves travelling to snowy places from the comfort of a reading nook. She blogs at www.librofulltime.wordpress.com

Nancy Campbell, Fifty Words for Snow (Elliott & Thompson, 2020). 978-1783964987, 218 pp., ill., hardback.

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