In the morning, the house was warm from the stove, but when Laura looked out of the window, she saw that the ground was covered with soft, thick snow. All along the branches of the trees, the snow was piled like feathers, and it lay in mounds along the top of the rail fence, and stood up in great, white balls on top of the gate-posts.
Pa came in, shaking the soft snow from his shoulders and stamping it from his boots.
"It's a sugar snow," he said.
Laura put her tongue quickly to a little bit of the white snow that lay in a fold of his sleeve. It was nothing but wet on her tongue, like any snow. She was glad that nobody had seen her taste it.
- Little House in the Big Woods - Chapter 7, The Sugar Snow
"The Sugar Snow" is my favorite chapter in one of my favorite books. It's late spring in Wisconsin and all the snow has been melting as the weather warms up. Laura learns later in the chapter that this spring snowfall is called the "sugar snow" because it signifies the best time to make maple sugar, from the sap collected from tapped maple trees as winter draws to a close. Grandpa, Pa's father, has been gathering the sap in buckets and pouring it into a huge cauldron where it boils over a bonfire, with lots of skimming, until it becomes syrup. Pa goes to visit him and brings home maple sugar for his family. In the next chapter, which happens to be my second-favorite chapter in the book, they all go to Grandpa's house for a maple-sugaring dance. The family dances all night while they make, and feast on, maple sugar, and the children make candy by pouring hot syrup onto pans of snow, something I have fantasized about doing since I was nine years old.
We had this kind of snow on Sunday night, into Monday morning. We woke up to a few inches of thick, wet snow on the grass and trees, clinging to patio furniture and cars and fences, the streets and pavements wet but completely clear of snow. The temperature was just above freezing, which meant the snow fell off the branches quickly, hitting the ground with soft plopping sounds that we could hear all around us from inside the house. We aren't in late spring yet, of course, but this was just like the sugar snow as I have always pictured it.
I love a really cold, fine snow that covers everything and keeps you indoors for a day or two. But a snow like this - a wet, heavy one - draws me outside to look around. I think it has a lot to do with my imagining of a sugar snow in the Big Woods. I think of a deep forest draped with this kind of snow, all the trees coated in feathery white, the animals scurrying beneath to avoid the falling clumps. I remember snow like this in my New York childhood, usually occurring in March. We had lots of maple trees there and quite a bit of syrup-making. My favorite field trip in my elementary school years was to a state park which had an environmental education program; they gave a demonstration and we tasted real maple syrup on a little piece of Eggo waffle. We went a few times; I thought a lot about the sugar snow chapter while I was there, even if there was no snow to be found.
My children are growing up in a place where snow is relatively rare, and can shut down the city for a day with only a few inches. Snowmen and sledding happen roughly every other winter. One thing is for sure, though: the impulse to taste this kind of snow must be inborn - not to mention timeless and universal - because both of my children do it every single time. On Monday, we stayed in the house most of the day because it was so damp and chilly outside. We went out for the GB's ballet class in the late afternoon. By then, the snow on the ground was almost all melted and only a little remained on bushes. We walked past a big juniper and both of them grabbed some snow to eat. The GB, who has not read this book yet, knows I think of it as sugar snow. She said it was "like cotton candy with no flavor," a reaction not unlike Laura's ideas about fluffy clouds of snow.