Thursday, February 05, 2009

Frost Flowers

     They are called “flowers,” and the old descriptions of nature assure us that Jack Frost "conjures numerous enchanted flowers on windows.” Well, I looked at them carefully, and I saw that Jack Frost has fantasies of being some sort of tinsmith, as a rule, and takes special care in conjuring something that looks like barbed wire. As far as vegetative elements are concerned, shapes are constrained to those resembling thistles, holly, brambles and prickly branches, or some sort of braching fern, spiny leaves, foliage lined with horribly spiked thorns, jagged moss, slender needles, stinging prickers—in short, something very sharp and prickly, far removed from flowers. A window overgrown with frost flowers in no way resembles a bower lush with flowers; it resembles an abatis instead, horribly spiny fencing, which surrounds us as if we were a besieged fortress. The window is a hole in the wall; when the frost comes, the hole is barricaded by icy pikes, daggers and blades. It is no flowering and lush pleasure garden, but a rich, flowering blockade with horribly sparkling swords and bayonets.


     But when fresh snow falls something miraculous happens; the streets somehow seem wider than they did before, and the houses seem farther apart, and what had seemed confining and narrow in the world before recedes into the width of that uninterrupted white growth. All areas seem much freer; the world has much more clearance, as we might speak of overhead clearance in a pipe.
If I wanted to depict it beautifully, I would have to write it out in lines that were widely separated from each other, leaving the clean white paper between them, but the reader’s eyes would have to wade through the lanes that I left between the lines, as though you were strolling along through freshly fallen snow.


     It is no accident that we always use both systems of temperature on thermometers: Réaumur1 and Celsius. If one wants to complain that the heating is poor in his house and that Lord, it’s cold, he proclaims (according to Réaumur) that it is “only twelve degrees;” had he said that it was fifteen degrees (Celsius) the weight of his protest would be weakened. If on the other hand he wants to claim that it is madly hot in his room, of course he will say that it is twenty degrees (Celsius) and never fifteen degrees (Réaumur).2 If he wishes to prove it is terribly cold he will of course use degrees Celsius, if he wishes to prove that it is too hot he will give the temperature in Réaumur. So it is entirely normal, that thermometers are manufactured with both scales, with a humane consideration for people’s needs to exaggerate a bit.


     When there is snow on the ground, there is yet another way to measure the temeperature, and that is acoustically. If the temperature is just a little below freezing, the snow crunches nicely and deeply underfoot; if it is five below, it starts to creak with a rather high pitch; if it is ten below, is scrapes and resounds with a high, clear tone; but if it is fifteen below (Celsius), it whistles and cries in a terribly high tone, like a grasshopper rubbing the violins of his legs together. One might even say “Today the snow is two octaves above middle C." Snow is indeed so squeaky and shrill, it is like scraping a knife across a plate.
The nicest thing about snow is that it returns the inhabited world its virginity. The busiest and most disagreeable street has those short moments in the snow where not a human foot has trodden, and the first pedestrian steps out onto it like a sailor onto a new and virgin continent.

     It is possible that snow is white out of physical or chemical reasons; I would rather believe that it is white so our northern nights are not so terribly black. Perhaps it is only white to be the frozen light of the longest nights.



1 [Réaumur scale. Simple conversion with Celsius: [°Ré] = [°C] × 0.8]
2 [sic] (20 * 0.8 = 16] But so it is in the original. Perhaps he's just being fuzzy with the math.


Casey said...


Quibble -

twenty degrees (Celsius) and never fifteen degrees (Réaumur).

What happened there? Rounding?

Wendy Whaples Scully said...

Writing is a gift. You have a skill. Enjoying your entries...

Andrew said...

Casey: It's that way in the original, but I added a [sic] for you.

Wendy: Thanks for the kind words! Nice to see a familiar face in a new context.