The Man In The Snow

“I’m going for a run with the dog,” I hollered to everyone in general, “anyone want to come along?”

Muted refusals from various corners of the three-story house drifted down to the front door where the dog awaited with ears akimbo.

The family’s reluctance was understandable: they had traipsed through the snow-capped forest before breakfast, and dug snow-free paths for Granny; indeed, they had cleared the road outside. They had enough of the snow and outdoors.

My son pottered past us with a sense of purpose. “Actually, Mum,” he confided on his way, “I was going to have a go at making a snowman outside.”

And with that, he put his wellies and mittens on, and disappeared. Shortly afterwards he could be observed rolling large snowballs around with a solemnity normally more suited to ecclesiastical settings. There were other boys outside doing the same with equal gravity.

I hitched the dog up to a lead, donned my running shoes, and headed out. The light was becoming muted and the last of the walkers of the day were heading home as we made our way deep into the forest. We ran happily for half an hour and then walked across the tabletop which was once an iron age settlement.

I love this moment: the silhouettes of all the trees in stark contrast to the grey sky. But as we came to the carriage-track which bears one down to civilisation once more, the dog went potty.

He was very unhappy indeed about a tall imposing figure with a wild head of hair standing at the side of the path. True, the interloper was not showing signs of movement: yet he maintained a deeply proprietorial air over the tabletop hill, standing as he was with his arms wide open, welcoming visitors with a cheery grin.

Mac was deeply suspicious. He did not run close, but sermonised from a distance with short sharp rat-tat-tat machine gun exclamations. Think you’re so tall, don’t you, he barked: well, we’ll soon see who has the most legs round here.

The gentleman had wild hair, like some distracted academic. Macaulay, I said, be quiet. You need spectacles and possibly lessons at scent school: it’s a snowman, dog.

Macaulay remained unimpressed, and showed his displeasure by christening the snowman’s feet. Now he smells right, the terrier rejoined without saying a word. He was slightly happier now: but only slightly.

I, however, was smitten. This lord of the tabletop was my kind of snowman: theatrical, with aplomb. Someone had not only accumulated a very large volume of snow to make a lifesize figure; they had equipped him with all the attributes of a snowman-about-town.

His hair was positively stylish, his face engaging; and he gestured to his land with an almost offhand sweep of his arm, a master of British landowning understatement.

How long, I wondered, had that land been claimed by snowmen? Did folks build them  in Georgian times when royal carriages used to clatter across the top in their hunting larks across Windsor Forest? Did Roman children, their villages now long-buried, roll them as solemnly as my son had, just a short distance away? And did the children in those iron age circular dwellings, kept warm by fires, venture out to make an effigy in ice crystals?

You’d have to ask Bob Eckstein that.

Bob was a jobbing writer and illustrator when he stumbled on an area of academic research no-one else seemed to have considered: when were the first snowmen built?

The search proved an absorbing one which would involve hobnobbing with some of the great academics of our time, and an odyssey which took him round Europe to some of the most illustrious libraries and universities which have manuscripts hailing from the mists of time. It took six years, trawling through 15,000 engravings and costs of around $40,000.

Finding the first snowman is a tall order, But he did track down the first representation in print: a tiny fragment of illuminated manuscript from a Book of Hours in Koninklijke Bibliotheek, The Hague, dated around 1380. Take a look, and read Bob’s story- and source his book- here.

No iron age evidence of snowmen exists, as far as we know. Of course not: it melted millennia ago.

I peeled the dog away from sentry duty and we returned to find Felix’s snowman finished. “Shall I take a picture?” I asked, eyeing the twilight speculatively.

Felix nodded. But he was not coming out again to show me: he was all snowed out. I eyes the solemn parade of stationary figures outside on the green. “How will I know which is yours?” I asked.

“It’s the one with carrots for eyes,” Felix replied gravely.

I went out, and there it was, staring with crazed orange in my direction.

Plus ça change;  plus c’est la même chose.

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52 thoughts on “The Man In The Snow

  1. I loved making snowmen as a kid and helped my daughter make them as she was growing up as well. That’s about the only really good memory of snow that I have as all other memories involve ice, sliding cars, crunchy footsteps like chalk on a blackboard and trundling to class at college through 3 feet of snow.

    Felix did a fine job with his snowman, sort of an Olympic hero look.

  2. How do you find out about these amazing people?! Can I ask is the ‘had enough of snow’ meant to be a ‘had had enough’ because that one always confuses me and drives the spellchecker nuts? ‘Plus ça change; plus c’est la même chose’ – indeed. 🙂

  3. Funny thing Kate. June and I traversed the main top on Caesar’s Camp this morning and
    didn’t notice a beautiful snowman like your picture. But of course we only walked up the middle road.

    Dad

  4. I had a boyfriend once who was a thwarted sculptor…It was 1981, the winter I turned 21 and as he couldn’t get into Uni that day so stayed at home to build a figure of snow. But his was so definitely not a snowman. It was indeed a voluptuous woman, naked, nude, with nothing on. Luckily it was in the back garden.

    Better not tell Felix.

  5. My childhood memories include cousins who made anatomically correct snow people. Women with bulging mammaries and men with, well, you know. Glad Felix decided to stick to the normal traditions.

  6. My my . . . imagine spending 6 years and $40,000 to track down a bit of snow lore. 😉

    Glad that Felix had a chance to continue the tradition . . . in his own style. Laughted at Macauley as he decorated the gendarme in the forest with a bit of “yellow snow.”

    1. I should point out that Bob has a highly successful book as a result of his $40,000, Nancy 😀 It was a productive pastime!

      And yes: yellow snow is always part of the deal, here in the forest!

  7. What a perfectly enchanting idea; to research when snowmen first walked the earth. I just love it the idea. We haven’t had enough snow here this winter for any snowmen. I’m so glad Felix could make one – and that Macauley could christen one as well.

  8. Dear Kate,
    Once again, you’ve invited me into your world and then led me gently and so persuasively into the world of snowmen, books, and a delightful, madcap author whose book I’m going to read.
    I so enjoyed his article.

    Peace.

  9. Kate, I really enjoyed your story and thanks for sharing mine. Let me share that my expenses were high due to permission rights to the artwork and photography in the book (along with travel expenses). I’m often asked why Calvin & Hobbs wasn’t in the book; First off, he was invited but he wanted the condition that no other cartoonist be included, Secondly, I didn’t enjoy doing business with him and finally I realized everyone under the moon has seen his cartoons in spams and everything else in my book was very original so it wasn’t the right fit.

    If you get a chance I’m in this week’s New Yorker (a cartoon toward the back). And yesterday I covered the Super Bowl for the NY Times, I’m also a sports writer on the side.

    1. Bob, honoured that you paid a visit and commented, thank you! And you are fresh from Superbowl reporting too!

      We can go anywhere to find Calvin and Hobbes: but a tiny fourteenth century representation of a snowman: well, where else would we go but to you. I think you’ll have gathered from this thread that there are many who have been inspired to get hold of your book: me, I’m giving it to all my friends next Christmas, but my own copy can’t wait 🙂

  10. I have very little experience with snow, but I can easily imagine the wonder and joy for children. What wonderful creations! This Southern California gal hasn’t ever spent a day thinking about snow, let alone the first snow man! So fun for me to read and imagine what you and your family experience and creatively consider! Fun, Kate! Debra

  11. Macaulay has more than a fair share of conquering hero, hasn’t he?

    My Felix’s first snowman was a lumpy affair, packed together a year ago by chubby, mitten-impaired toddler hands in his Gramma and Grampa’s backyard. He’s quite miffed at the mild winter we’re having this year. There’ve only been a handful of snowy days, and all far too cold for the thick, heavy snow needed for sculpting.

    1. My kids are just the same, Cameron: they’ve been waiting impatiently for the first flakes of snow, and were so excited when it came. I love your description of Felix patting down the snowman with his mittens. It’s such an important part of an under-fives’ life, the tactile motor skills stuff. Hope he gets a little snow before the spring comes.

  12. Ha! So, Z is not the only pup who is weary of the rotund ice sculpture! She is a bit odd about ’em, and cairns that I randomly set up on my deck. That is one fabulous looking snowman ~

  13. I love the hair! 😀 Strange that Macaulay recognises it as some sort of form to be wary of – you would think that their sense of smell would tell them that it is inanimate. Dogs also bark at statues – perhaps it is their height

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