Thursday, March 17, 2005

Southern constructions of snow

No, I'm not talking about half-melted snowmen.

I'm thinking of the fact that, here in the North Carolina piedmont, lots of people break out their umbrellas when it snows, as it did this morning. I don't ever remember anybody doing that when I lived in Iowa.

Of course my impulse as an academic is to try to give some over-intellectualized explanation to things like this. So, from a Lévy-Straussian structuralist perspective, we could argue that midwesterners construct weather in categories characterized by typical bipolar oppositions:

summer : winter
rain : snow

Thus in the midwest, the harmonic consonance between summer and rain is expressed in the use of the umbrella in those seasons and conditions. The umbrella is replaced by the knit or eared cap in the winter. Thus we see the following set of bipolarities:
summer : winter
rain : snow
umbrella : cap
But in the south, weather, seasons, and precipitation are constructed differently, because the boundaries between summer and winter are blurred by the fact that it seldom snows here. The more salient categories for southerners are the following:
clear : precipitation
- - - : umbrella
The dashes signify that there is no accessorial component to clear weather, but that for southerners, rain and snow are not opposed categories; rather, they are part of the same weather construction. Thus they use the umbrella in rain AND snow.

Or it could be that southerners don't like getting snow on their heads.


Rob Ainbinder said...


Brilliant construction! I believe your summary point is on the mark. particular... the ladies, generally do prefer dry heads without employing knit hats.

What you state for those in Iowa also holds true in New England.
You would never catch *anyone* with an umbrella in a snowstorm.

One weather centric factor to consider in this construction... the wind. From my recollections: there is more wind with a snowstorm in the Northeast than in the South.

In fact, the South is largely without constant winds. See the U.S. DOE National Renewable Energy Lab's Wind Power Map

Anonymous said...

People in the South carry umbrellas becuase our snow is often "wet". Snow events in the South are likely to occur when the temperature at ground level is around 32 degrees or above and the atmosphere temperature is not much cooler. This causes the snow to be wet and to melt quickly after contact.

I have made the mistake of going for a long walk in a wet snow in Greensboro. When I got to my destination it looked like I had walked through a waterfall.

Anonymous said...

Not to rain on anyone's "umbrellas-in-the-snow" parade, but (as a native North Carolinian living in Boston for the past four years), I was just thinking how odd it was that, during the last snow-storm, everyone up here was walking around with umbrellas.

I can't speak for the rest of New England, but umbrellas-in-the-snow is alive and well in Boston.

Billy Jones said...

And it's now impossible to buy an umbrellia made in America.