Susan Elsley

Susan Elsley

Snow Drought

I’m looking out of the window. It’s the end of January. The trees and bushes are dancing to a wind that’s hung around for days. The birds are hiding in the innards of hedges. It’s another named storm, the sixth of the winter. 

I am at the edge of Edinburgh, a city known for its east coast winter days where a January breath used to be an intake of frosted air. Sometimes, in those old winters, snow brought the city to a peeved halt. Even though bursts of central belt snow were rare, they were an anchor of the four-part harmony of the year.  

After a winter, in which I have only seen snow as patches in the distance, those old winters seem like a dream. Nature writer, Jim Crumley, says that winter is ‘in the throes of becoming something other,’ and at this time of year, with the wind and rain a buffeting constant, it feels as if change is already here. The blow-by bins on the streets, the flooded fields with their islands of sodden grass, and the trees lying across our roads are the physical signs of this slither towards old winter’s end. We are losing the contrast between the denseness of winter whiteness and the liming of spring.   

The research on climate change shows that we will increasingly experience the absence of snow. It may still appear, but the days of snow will be fewer, and this will happen sooner than we expect. With that loss will go the benefits that snow brings. The warm, protective cover for plants at their most vulnerable. The reflection of the brilliance of snow back into our solar system. The tracts of global snow which keep our planet cooler. Our alpine plants will sink into themselves, and our mountain hares will be confused. We will be left with warmer, wetter, and windier winters. There will be snow drought.

For those of us who love snow, the loss is visceral. We will lose the glare of snow light on the darkest of days. We will lose the rest that snow gives us when we curtail our plans, or the energy needed for rescuing and warming others. We will lose the excitement of opening our doors and seeing snowflakes fall and drape our gardens, fields, forests, and hills. We will lose the joy of winter play and the snow chatter that comes with dark season days. 

Perhaps, then, we will mourn snow’s disappearance. 

We might develop new habits, flocking to places where snow is an occasional visitor. Seeking the remnants of old winter in museums which display sledges, skis, ice axes and snow chains. Listening to audio recordings of people who remember four-foot drifts and farmers who tell of dragging ice-tangled sheep out of snow-bound fields.  We will relive the childhood joy of sledging in parks, and in forbidden places that become winter playgrounds when the snow falls. On the mountain tops, there may still be days like our old winters, but they will appear less often. Climbers will abandon their rocks and cling to walls in ice-packed buildings and snow will be sprayed like winter splutter on slopes for skiers and snowboarders. 

If the land isn’t frosted, we will find ourselves living with uncertainty, watching the confusion play out in our natural spaces. Our language will change. Words in English, Scots and Gaelic for snow, ice and everything in-between may go the way of quaintness and be spoken on rare occasions – in poetry readings, reminiscence studies and history lessons. And if our old winter words are obsolete, what words will we use to describe these windy, soaking, sometimes temperate days that become commonplace? Our winter words will need to mutate and reflect noisy arrivals from elsewhere. Winds from the Sahara, the fading-out of the Gulf stream, and seas that are pushed into rolling ever higher. 

The death of old winter is about more than the faltering of this weighty season.  It’s also about the erosion of spring into confused budding. It’s about what will grow in the summer and what will fold back into the autumn. It’s about whether the earth will be rested and allowed to breathe deeply.  As we move into this spring, winter follows us as a memory. But if we only look forward toward the benign months, then we will forget snow until next winter when its passing will come again, and again.

Susan Elsley
Susan Elsley

Susan Elsley writes short and long fiction with recent work published in Crannóg, The Storms, Fictive Dream, Postbox, Northwords Now, and Northern Gravy.  She won the Ennis Book Club Festival prize in 2024 and was shortlisted for the Alpine Fellowship Writing Award in 2023. She is chair of Craigmillar Literacy Trust and has a background in human rights.