Words for Winter

Photo by Jessica Becker

I recently read a description of the way air sparkles with crystallized moisture and the sky beams blue in the low morning sunlight during the winter in Wisconsin. It was spot on. The passage was written by David Rhodes in his book “Driftless” a collection of intertwining stories set in a small, rural town in southwestern Wisconsin. I’ve returned the book to the library so I cannot provide the exact quote. You’ll have to read the book yourself. I do highly recommend it.

The quality of light in winter is one of my favorite things about living in Wisconsin. I also love the feathery patterns in ice that decorate my bathroom window. It’s on the second story facing east and is the perfect spot to watch the sun rise in the winter. This morning, my daughter and I greeted the day by watching shades of purple, pink, and orange wash through the sparkling swirls on the glass. The simple phenomenon thrills my daughter. At her age, both early morning hours and shiny things are particularly exciting.

Yes, I actually like winter quite a bit, which is something many folks who don’t live here are surprised by. Many of us love winter, even if we grumble about the cold or the blizzard forecasted to hit soon.

Last week a poet friend emailed to say that the dry snow blizzard the day before was called Agniqsuq in Inupiaq. Inupiaq is an Inuit dialect, one of the Eskimo languages spoken in northwestern Alaska. As you may have heard, they have really specific ways of describing different snowy and wintry conditions. The diamond dust, or ice crystals in the air, that I am so fond of are called irriqutit. I wonder why we Wisconites haven’t adopted or created more specific terms? Are we satisfied to leave it up to the poets and weather reporters?

Other people who enjoy the winter, and outdoor winter pursuits, must have a bunch of words they use amongst their cliques to discuss the specifics that matter to them. My husband, a dedicated pond hockey player, says you “snow” someone when ice sprays during a hockey stop.  I’m sure the ice fishermen have words. Folks training for the Birkie must have words.

Winter snow drift

Photo by Jessica Becker

There is a beautiful, short (4 minute) film on the Climate Wisconsin Website about the American Birkebeiner. Drawing 8,000 people to Sawyer County every February, it is North America’s largest cross-country ski race. Watch the film and you’ll hear from one of the co-founders of the race, a man who has skied every single one since 1973. Obviously, snow is important in the success of the event. It has only been cancelled once, though it has been shortened six times, due to inadequate conditions. The Inupiaq word for the problem is augniqsraq: a patch of tundra from which snow has melted.

That shouldn’t be a problem today. My husband has just stated, as he bundles himself beneath countless layers in preparation for his bike ride to work, that today is the coldest day of the year. He is not a poet or a weather forecaster, but he doesn’t mince words. My daughter and I will enjoy the fresh layer of powder outside (nutagaq in Inupiaq) from the cozy living room.

By Jessica Becker, Director of Public Programs, Wisconsin Humanities Council

3 Responses to Words for Winter

  1. twinboyzma says:

    Gorgeous photos!!

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Portal Wisconsin, Finn Ryan. Finn Ryan said: Words for Winter from @PortalWisconsin https://portalwisconsin.wordpress.com/2011/02/08/words-for-winter/ […]

  3. Lee Becker says:

    Very nicely written and illustrated.

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