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The Coming Of The Frost

( Originally Published 1907 )



"Rustily creak the crickets ;
Jack Frost came down last night—
He came on the wings of a star beam,
Cool and sparkling and bright;
He sought in the grass for the crickets
With delicate icy spear,
So sharp and so fine and so fatal,
And he stabbed them far and near.
Pray what have you done to the flowers?
Where hides the wood aster?
She vanished as snow wreathes dissolve in the sun
The moment you touched her."

-THAXTER.

WHEN autumn has reached the zenith of perfection, when the milkweeds and thistles which grow thick in the hedges have cast their gossamer, fairy-like seeds to the winds, and the goldenrod which flaunted its yellow banners so brightly through those last long, perfect days of dying autumn, has at last begun to fade, the first warning which we have of the approach of the frost is all at once seen in certain mysterious changes of colour which have taken place in the foliage of the trees. Then we know that upon that last still night, when the stars snapped and sparkled so brilliantly, and the air felt unusually keen and crisp, that the Hoar-frost Spirit must have been abroad, and in passing, touched all the trees and plants very lightly with his magic wand: Out in the garden the sturdy sunflowers droop their seed-filled crowns a trifle, while the hollyhocks seem to stand less primly and firmly, and lean together as though for support. They have felt the blighting touch of that magic wand. He touched also the tips of the maple leaves upon the hillside, and left upon some of them just a little dab of his crimson brush-work; they form a touch of brilliant colour against the darkly massed pines and hemlocks in the background. But shortly they will flame forth upon every hillside, one vast torch, lighted to do honour to the passing of autumn; and all the work of the Frost Spirit.

The little sour fox-grapes which grow in the hedge-rows, are now piquant in flavour, and have acquired something which they lacked before, and are pleasant to the taste since the hoar frost's visit to them. The bitter-sweet berries which grow close beside them, tangled and twisted with the gray, fluffed-out clematis plumes, have burst their orange-coloured sheaths, and gleam more vividly than before. And the great green chestnut burs are bursting, just a trifle; they need one more, slightly sharper touch from the hoar frost, and then the plump, brown, satin-skinned nuts will come tumbling! out of their burs to the ground. The eager squirrels have already begun to collect their winter supplies. They are early at work, even before the magical display created by the hoar frost has been touched by the sun. They mean to get ahead of the children in their nut gathering, if possible.

If you too, would rise with the squirrels, and go forth into the open fields and woods, you will be amply repaid for the small effort which it cost you, for the display which the delicate hoar frost makes upon a clear morning in early autumn, when first touched by the sunrise, is really fantastic and wonderfully beautiful.

If you happen to be in the country, direct your steps across the pasture lands, where the short thick grass is powdered heavily with the hoar frost, and do not fail to pause at the old, gray rail fence, leading into the cornfield, to study the fine effects, the magic work which the Frost Spirit has left there during the night. The withered brown shocks of corn, standing in suggestive, witch-like attitudes, scattered over the fields, each lance-like rust-ling blade tipped with a steely, glittering coat of frost; while between the leaning stacks gleam great golden pumpkins, as yet unharvested, each golden sphere gleaming through a bluish-white deposit of hoar frost, or frozen dew.

Unquestionably, James Whitcomb Riley had in mind a similar scene when he was inspired to pen the homely lines so often quoted:

"When the frost is on the punkin, And the fodder's in the shock."

The beauties and peculiarities of the hoar-frost crystals are a distinctly separate study in themselves, as they do not be-long, nor are they classified with the heavier frosts of late and mid-winter, such as we find in the extreme cold weather deposited upon our window-panes and elsewhere.

The hoar frost is in reality the dew particles or molecules of water in the air, which, when the temperature falls below 32°, freezes and collects, and thus forms a deposit of hoar frost upon nearly all surfaces which it encounters;

Still another variety of hoar frost is that which forms mysteriously under some covering; occasionally we find it deposited upon a bit of wood which has lain under the snow; it forms upon the underside of the wood, or that part resting upon the ground, and is caused by the moisture of the earth, which collects, and which the temperature converts into crystals of hoar frost.

Special and interesting examples of hoar-frost formations are given in the photo-graphic illustrations, which, being taken with a camera having a microscopic attachment are, for the most part, largely magnified. The detail and formation of the hoar-frost crystal is most delicate, and well worthy of study, and the curious manner in which some of them are found, also the many different shapes which they assume, clearly shows that each formation is possessed of certain individuality of structural form peculiar to its environments, and the surrounding objects to which it may attach itself.

An especially interesting type of crystal is that which grows in queer needle-like layers, somewhat suggestive of tiny stalactite growths; this variety we frequently discover in gravelly or peaty soil, while it sometimes raises and supports upon its points large sections of earth and stones.

These needle-like columnar formations, which are excellently portrayed in the illustrations, are often found from two to six inches in height, and are formed from the moisture which rises from the warm soil and freezes. These columnar crystals do not form in this manner in the extremely cold weather, or after the ground has become solidly frozen to a certain depth; therefore they may be classed among the hoar-frost formations of early autumn.

As shown in detail in the photographs, the formation of each section of this type of hoar-frost crystal appears as a prism-like columnar growth, the base of the prism being hexagonal in shape, and closely resembling an unset jewel.

Through the still, cool nights in autumn the Hoar-frost Fairy works steadily, covering vegetation with glittering frost-work, touching all unsightly places, decaying woods, old gray fence-rails lightly in passing, and upon the following morning, if you are fortunately stirring before the sun ruins the best work of the hoar frost, you will discover many wonderful works of art. Sometimes it will be a miniature, scintillating forest of needle-like crystals attaching itself to some old rail. Again a perfectly marvellous collection which you may find deposited upon a board; tiny tabular ice crystals of hoar frost closely resembling a flight of white butterflies or moths powdered over its flat surface. We were fortunately able to secure one of this type; and with the aid of a small pocket microscope, you may be able to discover this pleasing variety, as shown in our photograph. The same variety of hoar frost was again encountered, where the delicate crystals had formed and grouped themselves upon a stick or straw; this is wonderfully suggestive of a group of butter-flies resting upon a flower-stalk, as we frequently observe them in mid-summer, where flights of the yellow wayside butter-flies assemble upon a mullein-stalk in precisely the same fashion.

The showy illustration resembling in formation a branch of bleached coral, is another interesting example of the hoar frost's eccentric development, and was found clinging to a decaying beam, under an old building.

The beautiful feathery spray, somewhat resembling a miniature fir tree, was taken from the branch of a tree, about which it had formed, and is made up of countless, lace-like, filmy ice prisms, of infinite delicacy.

Much is lost in the scintillating iridescence of these frail hoar-frost crystals when seen merely in the photographs, for they frequently show rare colour effects when seen in the open.

That the hoar frost sometimes takes strange freaks is shown in the exquisitely beautiful deposits occasionally found upon the edges of a piece of broken ice. Some-times you will discover it upon the thin, new ice which forms upon small streams in the early autumn, and in gullies beside the road. This ice is short-lived, and readily breaks at the slightest touch, with the crackling sound of broken glass. A section of this thin ice is shown, about the ragged edge of which the hoar' frost has arranged itself in fantastic fashion. The dark waters of the brook may be seen through the opening.

Hoar frost which gathers upon the grass blades, unlike the deposit of the dew, does not form noticeably upon the tips of the blades; on the contrary, the hoar frost gathers in an apparently greater and heavier degree the nearer to the earth it approaches. Flat-leaved, low-growing plants are usually well covered with hoar-frost crystals, while about the edges of certain leaves a heavy decoration of film-like crystals is some-times seen.

Frequently upon a pond of frozen water we come across a queer moss-like fungus deposit scattered at intervals over the surface of the ice. This is still another type of hoar-frost formation. Still an-other is the columnar frost crystal, which is formed of clusters of needles, and these loose, needle-like formations we frequently find scattered over the surface of thin brook ice.

During your rambles in the autumn, after the arrival of the hoar frost, it would prove a pastime as well as an instructive nature study, to search out and locate the many different varieties of hoar frost. Be sure to take a small pocket microscope or reading lens with you. Search diligently in unexpected places, beneath blocks of wood, about decaying logs and old tree stumps, for in- all sorts of out of the way places you will encounter them. Under the edge of a stone, imbedded even in the snow, and scattered over the surface of frozen pond and brook. The Frost Spirit seeks all sorts of strange nooks and crannies in which to deposit its fascinating mushroom growths.

Nature has in store for us many strange, agreeable surprises. Among them there is much to be discovered and learned about these delicate fantastic creations deposited by the Hoar-frost Spirit.



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