A couple of years ago I met a man from Lapland – which is the northern part of Sweden and Finnland – at Terra Madre, a gathering of food communities from around the world in Torino, Italy, organized by Slow Food.
He was Sami, a reindeer herder, and he was wearing beautiful clothes made out of felted wool and rain deer leather.
We ate some food together and in our conversation he shared that he knew 300 words to describe “snow”. He had a word for any kind of snow: slushy, dry, thick, snow that had freshly fallen, snow that had fallen on old snow that had turned to ice, snow that was about to melt, and a word for snow that would melt in a few hours – and 295 other words.
For him, there was nothing nostalgic about this, because he knew that his survival was depending on it.
300 words for snow, shared with other reindeer herders, to discuss what the safest route to take would be, on their thousand mile long trek from the endless grazing areas of the tundra in Northern Scandinavia to the place where some of his herd would be slaughtered and sold, just for him to start the journey all over again.
26 letters: the alphabet; a universe of possibility and diversity – all needed to describe the subtleties of nature and all her endless expressions.
The Sami and I were sharing food, eatable, and in the form of words, as well.
According to Webster’s Dictionary “Food” is defined as “something that nourishes us,” and “nourishment” is defined as “…to foster and sustain life.”
His 300 words for snow are sustaining his life. And his story has nourished me, ever since.