Idle Days in Patagonia, by W. H. Hudson

Chapter VIII

Snow, and the Quality of Whiteness

In August, the April of the Argentine poets, we had some piercingly cold weather, followed by a fall of snow. Heaven be praised for it! for never again, perhaps, shall I see earth transfigured by the breath of antarctic winter. I had spent the night in the village, and it was a strange and weirdly beautiful sight when, on rising next morning, I beheld roads, housetops, trees, and the adjacent hills white with a surpassing unfamiliar whiteness. The morning was mild, with a dull leaden sky; and suddenly, as I stood in the street, the snow began to fall again, and continued for about an hour. Most of that time I spent standing motionless, gazing up into the air, peopled with innumerable large slow-descending flakes: only those of my English readers who, like Kingsley, have longed for a sight of tropical vegetation and scenery, and have AT LAST had their longing gratified, can appreciate my sensations on first beholding snow.

My visit to Patagonia so far had been rich in experiences. One of the first, just before touching its shores, but after the ship had struck on the hidden rocks, was the effect of whiteness as seen in a tumultuous milky sea; and now, after several months there came this snow-fall, and a vaster and stranger whiteness. My uppermost feeling at the time was one of delight at seeing what I had been hoping for months to see, but had now, when winter was so nearly over, ceased to hope for. This pleasure was purely intellectual; but when I ask myself if there was anything besides, a deeper, undefinable feeling, I can only answer, I think not: my first experience of snow does not lead me to believe that there is any instinctive feeling in us related to it; that the feeling which so many, perhaps a majority of persons, experience on seeing the earth whitened by the breath of winter, must be accounted for in some other way.

In Herman Melville’s romance of ‘Moby Dick, or the White Whale’, there is a long dissertation, perhaps the finest thing in the book, on whiteness in nature, and its effect on the mind. It is an interesting and somewhat obscure subject; and, as Melville is the only writer I know who has dealt with it, and something remains to be said, I may look to be pardoned for dwelling on it at some length in this place.

Melville recalls the fact that in numberless natural objects whiteness enhances beauty, as if it imparted some special virtue of its own, as in marbles, japonicas, pearls; that the quality of whiteness is emblematic of whatever we regard as high and most worthy of reverence; that it has for us innumerable beautiful and kindly associations. “Yet,” he goes on to say, “for all these accumulated associations with whatever is sweet, and honourable, and sublime, there lurks an illusive something in the innermost idea of this hue which strikes more of panic to the soul than the redness which affrights in blood.” He is no doubt right that there is a mysterious illusive SOMETHING affecting us in the thought of whiteness; but, then, so illusive is it, and in most cases so transient in its effect, that only when we are told of it do we look for and recognise its existence in us. And this only with regard to certain things, a distinction which Melville failed to see, this being his first mistake in his attempt to “solve the incantation of whiteness.” His second and greatest error is in the assumption that the quality of whiteness, apart from the object it is associated with, has anything extranatural or supernatural to the mind. There is no “supernaturalism in the hue,” no “spectralness over the fancy,” in the thought of the whiteness of white clouds; of the white horses of the sea; of white sea-birds, and white water-fowl, such as swans, storks, egrets, ibises, and many others; nor in white beasts, not dangerous to us, wild or domestic, nor in white flowers. These may bloom in such profusion as to whiten whole fields, as with snow, and their whiteness yet be no more to the fancy than the yellows, purples, and reds of other kinds. In the same way the whiteness of the largest masses of white clouds has no more of supernaturalness to the mind than the blueness of the sky and the greenness of vegetation. Again, on still hot days on the pampas the level earth is often seen glittering with the silver whiteness of the mirage; and this is also a common natural appearance to the mind, like the whiteness of summer clouds, of sea foam, and of flowers.

From all these examples, and many others might be added, it seems evident that the “illusive something” which Melville found in the innermost idea of this hue — a something that strikes more of panic to the soul than the redness which affrights in blood — does not reside in the quality of whiteness itself.

After making this initial mistake, he proceeds to name all those natural objects which, being white, produce in us the various sensations he mentions, mysterious and ghostly, and in various ways unpleasant and painful. What is it, he asks, that in the albino so peculiarly repels and shocks the eye, as that sometimes he is loathed by his own kith and kin? He has a great deal to say of the polar bear, and the white shark of the tropical seas, and concludes that it is their whiteness that makes them so much more terrible to us than other savage rapacious creatures that are dangerous to man. He speaks of the muffled rolling of a milky sea; the rustlings of the festooned frost of mountains; the desolate shiftings of the windrowed snows of prairies. Finally, he asks, whence, in peculiar moods, comes that gigantic phantom over the soul at the bare mention of a White Sea, a White Squall, White Mountains, etc., etc.?

He assumes all along that the cause of the feeling, however it may differ in degree and otherwise, according to the nature and magnitude of the subject, is one and the same in all cases, that the cause is in the whiteness, and not in the object with which that quality is associated.

The albino case need not detain us long; and here Melville’s seafaring experiences might have suggested a better explanation. Sailors, I am convinced from observation, are very primitive in their impulses, and hate, and often unite in persecuting, a companion who, owing to failing strength or some physical defect, is not able to do his share of the work. Savages and semi-barbarous people often cherish a strong animosity against a constantly ailing, crippled, or otherwise defective member of the community: and albinism is associated with weakness of vision, and other defects, which might be a sufficient cause of the aversion. Even among the highly civilised and humane, the sight of sickness is probably always, in some measure, repulsive and shocking, especially in cases in which the skin loses its natural colour, such as anaemia, consumption, chlorosis, and jaundice. This natural and universal cause of dislike of the albino would be strengthened among pure savages by the superstitious element — the belief that the abnormal paleness of the individual was supernatural, that want of colour signified absence of soul.

As to the white shark of the tropics, the simplest explanation of the greater terror inspired by this creature would be that, being white, and therefore conspicuous above all other dangerous creatures, the sight would be more attracted to it, its image would become more fixed, and look larger and more formidable in the mind, and it would be more often thought about apprehensively, with the result that there would be a predisposition to regard it with a fear exceeding that inspired by other creatures equally or even more dangerous to human life, but inconspicuously coloured, hence not so vividly seen, and creating no such distinct and persistent mental image. Let us consider what would be the effect of the appearance of a warrior, habited in snowy white, or shining gold, or vivid scarlet, or flame-colour, among a host of contending men, fighting in the old fashion with sword and spear and battle-axe, all clothed and armoured in dull neutral or sombre colours. Wherever he appeared every eye would be attracted to him; his movements and actions would be followed with intense interest by all, and by his antagonists with keen apprehension; every time he parried a blow aimed at his life he would appear invulnerable to the lookers-on, and whenever an enemy went down before him it would seem that a supernatural energy nerved his arm, that the gods were fighting on his side. So great is the effect of mere conspicuousness! Any white savage beast would, because of its whiteness, or conspicuousness, seem more dangerous than another; and a Chillingham bull, no doubt, inspires more fear in a person exposed to attack than a red or black bull. On the other hand, sheep and lambs, although their washed fleeces look whiter than snow, are regarded as indifferently as rabbits and fawns, and their whiteness is nothing to us.

Something more remains to be said about whiteness in animals, which must come later. It will be more in order to speak first of the whiteness of snow, and the whiteness of a seething ocean. We are all capable of experiencing something of that feeling, so powerfully described by Melville, at the sight of the muffled rollings of a milky sea, and white mountains, and the desolate shiftings of windrowed snows on vast stretches of level earth. But doubtless in many the feeling would be slight; there is an “illusive something” in us when we behold the earth suddenly whitened with snow; but the feeling does not last, and is speedily forgotten, or else set down as an effect of mere novelty. In Melville it was very strong; it stirred him deeply, and caused him to ponder with awe on its meaning; and the conclusion he came to was that it is an instinct in us — an instinct similar to that of the horse with regard to the smell of some animal which has the effect of violently agitating it. He calls it an inherited experience. “Nor, in some things,” he says, “does the common hereditary experience of all mankind fail to bear witness to the supernaturalism of this hue.” Finally, the feeling speaks to us of appalling things in a remote past, of unimaginable desolations, and stupendous calamities overwhelming the race of man.

It is a sublime conception, adequately expressed; and as we read the imagination pictures to us the terrible struggle of our hardy barbarous progenitors against the bitter killing cold of the last glacial period; but the picture is vague, like striving human figures in a landscape half obliterated by wind-driven snow. It was a struggle that endured for long ages, until the gigantic white phantom, from which men sought everywhere to fly, came to be a phantom of the mind, a spectralness over the fancy, and instinctive horror, which the surviving remnant transmitted by inheritance down to our own distant times.

It is more than likely that cold has been one of the oldest and deadliest enemies to our race; nevertheless, I reject Melville’s explanation in favour of another, which seems more simple and satisfactory — to its author, at all events: which is, that that mysterious something that moves us at the sight of snow springs from the animism that exists in us, and our animistic way of regarding all exceptional phenomena. The mysterious feelings produced in us by the sight of a snow-whitened earth are not singular, but are similar in character to the feelings caused by many other phenomena, and they may be experienced, although in a very slight degree, almost any day of our lives, if we live with nature.

It must be explained that ‘animism’ is not used here in the sense that Tylor gives it in his ‘Primitive Culture’: in that work it signifies a theory of life, a philosophy of primitive man, which has been supplanted among civilised people by a more advanced philosophy. Animism here means not a doctrine of souls that survive the bodies and objects they inhabit, but the mind’s projection of itself into nature, its attribution of its own sentient life and intelligence to all things — that primitive universal faculty on which the animistic philosophy of the savage is founded. When our philosophers tell us that this faculty is obsolete in us, that it is effectually killed by ratiocination, or that it only survives for a period in our children, I believe they are wrong, a fact which they could find out for themselves if, leaving their books and theories, they would take a solitary walk on a moonlit night in the “Woods of Westermain,” or any other woods, since all are enchanted.

Let us remember that our poets, who speak not scientifically but in the language of passion, when they say that the sun rejoices in the sky and laughs at the storm; that the earth is glad with flowers in spring, and the autumn fields happy; that the clouds frown and weep, and the wind sighs and “utters something mournful on its way” — that in all this they speak not in metaphor, as we are taught to say, but that in moments of excitement, when we revert to primitive conditions of mind, the earth and all nature is alive and intelligent, and feels as we feel. When, after a spell of dull weather, the sun unexpectedly shines out warm and brilliant, who has not felt in that first glad instant that all nature shared his conscious gladness? Or, in the first hours of a great bereavement, who has not experienced a feeling of wonder and even resentment at the sight of blue smiling skies and a sun-flushed earth?

“We have all,” says Vignoli, “however unaccustomed to give an account of our acts and functions, found ourselves in circumstances which produced the momentary personification of natural objects. The sight of some extraordinary phenomenon produces a vague sense of someone acting with a given purpose.” Not assuredly of “someone” outside of and above the natural phenomenon, but in and one with it, just as the act of a man proceeds from him, and is the man.

It is doubtless true that we are animistic to this extent only at rare moments, and in exceptional circumstances, and during certain aspects of nature that recur only at long intervals. And of all such aspects of nature and extraordinary phenomena, snow is perhaps the most impressive, and is certainly one of the most widely known on the earth, and most intimately associated in the mind with the yearly suspension of nature’s beneficent activity, and all that this means to the human family — the failure of food and consequent want, and the suffering and danger from intense cold. This traditional knowledge of an inclement period in nature only serves to intensify the animism that finds a given purpose in all natural phenomena, and sees in the whiteness of earth the sign of a great unwelcome change. Change, not death, since nature’s life is eternal; but its sweet friendly warmth and softness have died out of it; there is no longer any recognition, any bond; and if we were to fall down and perish by the wayside, there would be no compassion: it is sitting apart and solitary, cold and repelling, its breath suspended, in a trance of grief or passion; and although it sees us it is as though it saw us not, even as we see pebbles and withered leaves on the ground, when some great sorrow has dazed us, or when some deadly purpose is in our heart.

Just as with regard to snow the animistic feeling is strongest in those who inhabit regions where winter is severe, and who annually see this change in nature, so the “muffled rollings of a milky sea” will strike more of panic to the sailor’s soul than to that of the landsman. Melville relates an anecdote of an old sailor who swooned from terror at the sight of an ocean white with the foam of breakers among which the ship was driven. He afterwards declared that it was not the thought of the danger, for to danger he was accustomed, but the whiteness of the sea that overcame him. And to his animistic mind that whiteness was nothing but the sign of ocean’s wrath — the sight of its tremendous passion and deadly purpose proved too appalling.

There is no doubt that the conditions of the sailor’s life tend to bring out and strengthen the latent animism that is in all of us; the very ship he navigates is to his mind alive and intelligent, how much more the ocean, which, even to landsmen on each return to it after an interval, seems no mere expanse of water, but a living conscious thing. It was only my strangeness to the sea which prevented the sight of its whiteness from affecting me profoundly: animism in me is strongest with regard to terrestrial phenomena, with which I am more familiar.

To return, before concluding this chapter, to the subject of white animals. And first a word or two concerning the great polar bear: is it not probable that the extreme fear it inspires, which is said by those who have encountered this animal to exceed greatly that which is experienced at the sight of other savage beasts that are dangerous to man, is due to its association with the death-like repellent whiteness and desolation of polar scenery?

With regard to abnormal whiteness in animals that are familiar to us, the sight always affects us strangely, even in so innocent and insignificant a creature as a starling, or blackbird, or lapwing. The rarity, conspicuousness, and abnormality in colour of the object are scarcely enough to account for the intensity of the interest excited. Among savages the distinguishing whiteness is sometimes regarded as supernatural: and this fact inclines me to believe that, just as any extraordinary phenomenon produces a vague idea of someone acting with a given purpose, so in the case of the white animal, its whiteness has not come by accident and chance, but is the result of the creature’s volition and the outward sign of some excellence of the intelligent soul distinguishing it from its fellows. In Patagonia I heard of a case bearing on this point. On the plain some thirty miles east of Salinas Grandes, in a small band of ostriches there appeared one pure white individual. Some of the Indians, when out hunting, attempted its capture, but they soon ceased to chase it, and it was called thereafter the god of the ostriches, and it was said among them that some great disaster, perhaps death, would overtake any person who should do it harm.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38