He used to call it “Diamantenpulver,” or diamond dust, the mesmerizing weather phenomenon that only happens when the air is so cold and dry that humid air crystallizes into pulverized diamonds floating through the air.
My great grandpa, Tata, lived and died in the small town of Schlanders, in the heart of the Italian Alps. He was born before the first World War, when the northern part of Italy was still part of Austria. After the war, where he served as an officer in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, territory passed from Austria to Italy. To this day, South Tyrol’s first language is German, not Italian, testimony of the enduring love these people have for their culture and home.
Tata would say that Diamantenpulver is the mountain breathing. It always made sense to me: everything he said made sense.
Meteorologically, diamond dust is caused by temperature inversion. Sub-freezing, dry air closer to the ground freezes humidity in the warmer air above, creating a cloud of small ice crystals. Poetically, diamond dust is one of the most beautiful things you’ll ever see.
In the cloudless sky, often battered by cold winds, diamond dust swirls and shimmers, tiny points of light in the sky reflecting all the colors of the spectrum. Inside diamond dust, the light looks alive, and you find yourself hypnotized like a child.
Tata would put on my heavy wool coat, hat and gloves on. I don’t know how much of these memories is accurate or how much was told to me by my dad. I was three when Tata died, but I have very distinct snapshots of the two of us walking, diamond dust whirling around us.
“Das ist Diamantenpulver!” “That’s diamond dust!” he would say, pointing his long, weathered finger into the sky. “When the mountain takes a deep breath, a really deep one, the diamond dust appears. Mountains love the cold; they love the snow; they become more alive. That’s why you see it now.”
He would grab me off the ground and swing me around onto his shoulders. He was a small man in his nineties, frail in appearance, but in reality freakishly strong. He’d walk me up the steep trail into the forest. The pine trees branches, coated in snow, would sway in the strong wind and release puffs of dry snow, which would mix with the diamond dust, shimmering in the rays filtering through the trees.
I would ask a million questions. How tall are the mountains? The tallest here, Tata would say, is the Ortler, 3900 meters, but there are others much higher.
How long do they live? Much, much longer than you and me. Some are still growing, some are slowing becoming smaller.
Do mountains get cold? Never. The snow you see is their heavy coat.
Who needs fairy tales, when reality is so enchanting? Every time I see diamond dust now, I think of the mountains breathing and the endless wonder that they have brought and will always bring into my life.