The right and the wrong type of snow, according to Avicenna, Aristotle and Plutarch

With an excerpt from a plea for more state funding by the Bostonian Western Rail-road, in which we are given to understand that snow is not necessarily a bad thing.

A couple of days ago I chanced on the Granada blog of Bruno Alcaraz Masáts and an interesting entry on snow and its uses, based around the 1569 Tractado de la nieve y del uso de ella written by that old friend of mine, the presumably crypto-Judaic Andalusian physician Francisco Franco. And I was reminded of this post tonight by Margaret Marks’ post on one of the classic excuses for British trains not running, despite astronomical ticket prices: the presence on the tracks of “the wrong kind of snow”.

Eskimos may sigh with frozen envy at the subtlety of British phraseology, but they would be the first to tell you (eschewing verbosity, naturally) that distinctions have always been made between various types of snow in order to arrive at useful value judgements. Francisco Franco’s treatise (which I have just read on Corde) deals inter alia with good and bad snow and the medical consequences. A summary: Bad snow is impure snow, and both Aristotle (Historiis animalium) and Avicenna have warned against cooling your drinks excessively or with bad snow. Good snow comes from clean roofs where cats do not pass, but may also be gathered from high mountains like the Sierra Nevada. Plutarch names among various delights the mushrooms of Italy, placenta from Sannio, and Egyptian snow, which may come as news to those of you who have consumed Cairo bar ice.

I Googled briefly for nuanced, pre-WWII character assessments of snow by railway officials, but without success. However, I did find a remarkable example of snow as a business opportunity rather than a threat in a bundle of documents published in the 1830s and 40s by the Boston, MA-based Western Rail-road Corporation. Their serial masterpiece of railway bubble hype and dodgy accounting opens with a Twain-esque appeal to the people of Massachusetts for yet more public money, submitting

the following statement of facts and mathematical demonstrations: The Western Rail-road breaks asunder the chains of mountains, and fills up the valleys, and furnishes the bridges, over the broad streams, which seemed to forbid your entrance, into the trade of the fertile and immense region of the West.

Later, when things are 30 degrees Celsius below swimmingly:

Freight increased ten per cent this year in February over the same month of last year. Shall we suppose this was owing to the unusual bad snow-storms of this year, that did, no doubt, keep off passengers?

Wouldn’t it be nice if modern passengers could be told that, due to the wrong type of snow, extra freight will be carried instead of them, and that their fares will therefore fall in 2011? Or is Yankee hyper-optimism one of the reasons why, compared to the UK, the US is so short on railways?

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  1. Lavengro, the fact that the Eskimo snow story is a myth is one of the platitudes of these parts.

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