As we write, a few straggling snow-flakes flutter timidly past our window and quickly melt into oblivion on the flags below. They will soon cease to melt and will gradually fill our streets with the characteristic New York slush, to the utter weariness of overdone horses, and the almost total extinction of good temper on the part of drivers, who will swear that snow is a nuisance, and wish that it were in a place where it would not be long in melting. Now it is to be admitted that so far as New York city is concerned, the benefits of a " good heavy fall of snow " are J rather indirect than otherwise, yet we shall see that even the poorest, who shiver in cellars along dark and gloomy alleys, are interested to have the snow fall, although they, in their ignorance, think it " poverty's curse." Coal is dear this winter, and for the poor, hard to get, but food costs more than coal, and food must be had at any cost. The supply of fuel may be eked out and supplemented by many a makeshift, imperfect though it be, but hunger cannot be appeased by a subterfuge. The snow which falls upon the earth is a tender mantle to infant food-plants which would otherwise perish of frost. In what is called an " open winter," you may see whole fields of young rye and wheat and clover, all pulled up by the frost and laid, on the top of the ground to wither and die in the spring sunshine. The frost heaves up the earth, and with it the plants; slight thaws permit the earth to settle and renew its hold, and so successive freezings and thawings gradually uproot entire crop?. " Winter killed," is the sad verdict of the farmer, as he contemplates the loss of his labor and seed in the spring; and "winterkilled," might be appropriately spoken of the suffering and dying victims of starvation prices which f ollow the destruction of crops. True, Nature sometimes in her zeal to protect, covers too deep and smothers the young plants; tucks in the coverlid so tight that the unseasonable warmth of the earth stimulates their vitality into an attempt at growth, which fails for want of air and light. But such disasters are comparatively rare, and open winters are the most deadly to grain crops. It is also true that in the large territories devoted to grain growing in the United States, when a crop fails in one section it succeeds in another, and so the food-supply keeps pretty steady pace with the demand, but it is none the less true that in many sections of the country winter wheat or rye could not be successfully grown without snow to protect these crops from frost. But snow has another important office to perform. It is a fertilizer. Ask the experienced farmer, and he will tell you that the late snows of spring falling upon the springing crops makes them look green and vigorous, and really nourishes them. It is the bearer of ammonia, an important element of the food of plants, which it collects from the air. We have known thrifty farmers to rise early to plov vin a light snow before it melted, being aware of its value, though perhaps not realizing in what its virtue consisted. It is also without doubt true that open winters are more favorable to the spread of disease than the contrary. It is an old proverb that "green Christmases fill churchyards." So we see that snow has other uses than to make sleigh ing, though we get so little of this in New York, and the snow so interferes with travel in our crowded thoroughfares that one may well be pardoned for wishing that in the annual distribution our metropolis might be over-looked.
This article was originally published with the title "The Uses of Snow" in Scientific American 21, 26, 407 (December 1869)