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Mysteries And Beauties Of The Snow

( Originally Published 1907 )



"Hast thou entered into the treasures of the snow?
Or hast thou seen the treasures of the hail?"

JOB 38: 22.

MOST of us have given little time or very serious thought to the study of the snow, and the marvellous detail which goes to fashion the individual snow crystal. In fact, if we live in a crowded city, we are inclined to look upon a heavy snowfall as something of a nuisance, to be shovelled and carted away as expeditiously as may be by the army of men employed by the city for that purpose. There it lies, soiled and unlovely, impeding pedestrianism and traffic, and thoroughly undesirable until it is cleared away.

But once outside in the open country we are inclined to gaze forth upon the pure expanse of snow-covered hill and plain, resplendent and dazzling as it stretches afar under the pale winter sunshine, with a more kindly, tolerant mood; for there we may view the snow in all its unsullied charm; and it will surely bring fine sleighing, we concede, and the children are hilarious and happy over prospective snow sports.

But I wish to give you a brief glimpse into a realm of snow which is filled with charm and mystery, and when you have looked into that realm and studied for yourself the marvellous phenomena and detail of snow-crystal formation, you will doubtless ever after, when gazing forth upon a snow-covered expanse, or in watching the fluttering, swirling flakes as they descend, exclaim : Oh, the wonder and mystery of it all ! How can it be possible for such exquisitely beautiful jewelled crystals to fashion themselves in the vast spaces of the heavens, among the clouds !

Snow is, in itself, the water in solution, crystallised into irregular and regular, more or less geometrical forms and designs, of which there are two distinct types; the crystalline and the granular forms. The granular formations embody a special type, and the crystalline formations are usually transparent or ice-like, and vary in size greatly, some being about three-quarters of an inch in greater diameter. They fall either singly or bunched together, according to whether the temperature and humidity is high or low.

The structural formation of snow crystals is generally found to be of hexagonal shape, usually six-cornered or pointed, although rare types have been discovered and photographed where such was not the case, as the trigonal crystals shown. Snow crystals have been classified, as to structural formation, into two types; the tubular and columnar. The columnar types are formed of long, slender, needle-like crystals or columns, usually tapering at one end, while the tubular crystals are developed upon an extremely thin tubular plane. Frequently we find that two types have united, thus forming the "compound" crystal, which is rare, and frequently a very beautiful, showy snow jewel.

The tubular crystals are of more common occurrence and exhibit greater beauty and diversity of outline than the plain columnar types.

The internal formation and design of the snow crystal is of great importance and interest, and the delicately etched markings which occur upon their surfaces, and are so well brought out in the photo-micrographic illustrations, are due to certain minute air inclusions or small air tubes. When the light falls upon the crystal, these air tubes appear as dark tracings or lines and shadings and go to form and carry out the design of each individual crystal.

During great snowstorms the winds within such storms blowing spirally inward toward the storm centre near the earth, and at the same time upward and outward, above, exert the vast powers of bringing together the material, the water vapours, which in conjunction with the icy breath of the raging blizzard, perfects the formation of the snow crystal.

Far above the clouds, in the vast silences of space, in thinnest air, supported solely by up-rushing winds, the little snow crystals form and multiply, embellished and enlarged by their continual warring contact with the elements, until at last they descend earthward.

Many of these beautiful crystals are doubtless great travellers, for - they are frequently, when first generated in space, exceedingly light in formation, so much so that not until they have been buffeted about repeatedly by the Storm King, do they gain sufficiently in structure and in weight to descend. They are gradually built up and become heavier by the varying conditions of air pressure, degrees of humidity, aided also by electric currents.

Often the delicate crystals are handled so very roughly while passing from cloud to cloud strata, and violent choppy winds, that there are frequent collisions and many of the crystals reach us in a broken, imperfect state. Perfect crystals are by no means common, and it requires infinite patience and skill to capture and photo-graph them in perfection. During a great blizzard or snow-storm, lasting for days, which one might reasonably hope would be quite prolific of many perfect specimens, perhaps only one or two really perfect or noteworthy crystals may be obtained.

It is only within the past few years that scientists have been enabled to secure crystallographs with any degree of success, so that all early observers of snow-crystal formation were compelled to rely upon the magnifying glass for all information regarding their delicate formation, and crude drawings were made from such observation and served to illustrate articles upon the subject, as shown in the early writings of Tyndall and others.

It is to Mr. Wilson A. Bentley who is recognised as the pioneer in crystal photography, that I am indebted for the wonderfully beautiful illustrations shown, and which have been selected with much care, in order to give as clearly as possible some idea of the many distinct types and the formation of crystals produced during given types of storms or blizzards. Mr. Bentley has during his many years of valuable work for the Government along these lines, secured thirteen hundred distinct snow crystals. Strangely enough, in all that time, he has never run across duplicates. Nature, it seems, is ever versatile and the rarity of her patterns is practically inexhaustible.

Unlike the mineral crystals, or those found in the mineral kingdom, which form beneath the surface of the earth, and are dependant largely upon their surroundings and environments for their crystalline formation, the snow crystal is most ethereal; born in the vast spaces of the heavens, fashioned by the changing clouds and vapours, its lullaby the hoarse crooning of the mighty blizzard, the little snowflake is tossed to and fro, now borne to earth for a brief time, only to be caught upward and tempest-tossed into space again. Perhaps this process occurs many times, for the snowflake is a mere plaything of the storm, until at last the capricious winds permit the snowflake to descend. Timidly and gently it is at last allowed to fall, seeking a final resting place upon the broad bosom of Mother Earth.

It is thus that the snow crystal grows and matures, owing its crystalline formation entirely to the constant tossing and warring with the mighty forces of the storm, and the buffeting which it encounters upon its long journey earthwards.

"When e'er a snowflake leaves the sky
It turns and turns, to say good-bye.
Good-bye, dear clouds, so cool and gray,
Then turns and hastens on its way.

"But when a snowflake finds a tree
Good-day, it says, good-day to thee.
Thou art so bare and lonely, dear,
I'll rest and find a playmate here.

"But when a snowflake brave and meek
Lights on a little maiden's cheek,
It starts—how warm and mild the day,
'T is summer; and it melts away."

It is of course utterly impossible to bring before you in the photo-micrographs of the snow crystals all their many charms, their exquisite hues and rainbow shadings, as each crystal radiates with prismatic hues which are due greatly to air inclusions and resembles closely at times, clusters of magnificent jewels. We get this effect in mass, if we gaze forth upon a wide expanse of snow illuminated by pale moonlight; or flooded by strong sunshine. The scintillation is almost too dazzling at times for the eyes, and we are duly impressed by the magnitude of snow-crystal formation. Numberless they are, and like the sands of the seashore. We find that in making a collection of snow crystals by photo-micrograph, during a period covering twenty years of study, in which thirteen hundred perfect specimens were found, that the entire number discovered, when massed, would form only about one cubic inch of snow.

How many millions of these exquisitely constructed jewels do we heedlessly crush and shatter unconsciously during a brief walk in the snow and how crude and imperfect seem the productions of human minds and hands when compared to those formed by the blind forces of nature.

The exquisite and varied types of snow crystals herein shown, were photographed in northern Vermont; a locality where the snow-storms are frequently long and severe and where the country by-roads are blocked and impassable for days, while huge drifts pile high above the fences, and often cover the windows.

Whittier brings before us the whole picture so charmingly in his beautiful "Snow-Bound":

"Zigzag, wavering to and fro,
Crossed and re-crossed the winged snow;
And ere the early bed-time came
The white drift piled the window pane."

In these severe winter snow-storms, which our New England poets illustrate so aptly, we become familiar with the snow in all its unsullied purity, and if we are New England born, we never forget the white, frozen charms of those rigid winters, no matter where we stray, or how torrid the sunshine of our abiding place in later years.

Many there are among us who are familiar with and love that winter idyl, the wintry landscape—a blended symphony of colouring; warm russet browns, gray, and rich velvety greens. Against the dense greens ,of the Hemlock and Spruce, the sturdy mottled Sycamore branches, with their little pendent russet balls clinging tenaciously to their. topmost twigs, stand forth in bold relief, while graceful white birches, slender and ghost-like, mingle and blend, with the sombre gray trunks of Chestnut and Birch, which toss and sway their denuded branches high in the frosty air.

A cold gray sky—then stealing down appear the first silent fluttering snowflakes, floating gently earthward. A brooding silence settles over all, unbroken save perhaps by a straggling flight of crows winging their way heavily to safe shelter among. the distant forest of dark pines. Timidly at first descend the first advance heralds of the great storm, the tiny snow-flakes; then suddenly ever faster and faster they assemble, until the dreary, leaden skies and the landscape picture is con-fused and merged together in a gray curtain; shut out by the wildly eddying, swirling snow.

"Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,
Arrives the snow, and driving o'er the fields
Seems nowhere to alight, the whitened air
Hides hills and woods, the river, and the heavens
And veils the farmhouse at the garden's end."

Every living thing instinctively seeks safe sanctuary against the advancing fury of the storm; and desolation broods o'er all the land. The hoarse winds rise and rage and croon their wailing symphonies about the picturesque old gray-gabled farm-houses, and the inmates settle themselves contentedly within doors where all is made safe and snug. And thus the mighty blizzard rages for days. But at last the grateful sunshine deigns to burst forth once again, and like magic the scene of desolation has changed:

"Come, see the North Wind's masonry
Out of an unseen quarry evermore
Furnished with tile, the fierce artificer
Curves the white bastions with projected roof
Round every windward stake, or tree or door.

"Leaves when the sun appears, astonished Art
To mimic in slow structures, stone by stone,
Built in an age, the mad wind's night-work,
The frolic Architecture of the snow."

For the trees which tossed their naked gnarled branches in the pitiless wind before the storm have been rejuvenated and clothed anew in soft white velvet draperies, and the old gray fence rails gleam and scintillate, cushioned with snow. It would almost seem as though nature had endeavoured to carry out some special decorative scheme when she draped the evergreens, for see how beautiful are the Southern Pines with their brush-like tufts of needles, each one resembling a snowy pompon of feathers. The graceful, drooping Hackmatack tree looks as though the children had decorated it with strings of popcorn, the tiny cones at intervals each touched with a wisp of white snow carrying out the effect. While the Balsams wave their serrated branches, each tiny needle outlined in white, and the stately Hemlocks bend low their glossy green boughs, flattened and draped heavily with snow. In the hedges the thick under-brush appears for all the world like a field of ripening cotton, each group of twigs supporting a whorl of cotton-like snow. No true New Englander repines or deplores the desolation of such a scene; to him it is not a gloomy spectacle, but rather festive.

Should you wander alone far afield, perhaps across some hilly pasture where above the soft snow hummocks last year's drying seed-pods and grasses gleam frost-touched and sparkling in the sunshine, into the edge of the "spruce bush," if you are a lover of nature in all her moods, aside from the glittering beauties which meet the eye upon every hand, you will be impressed by a wonderful calmness, a brooding silence, which came with the advent of the snow. This silence is so impressive that even the velvety pad of some little furry creature in the under brush is startling, and the tapping of the brave little woodpecker up aloft sounds stridently keen and obtrusive. It is as though the storm in passing had left as a benediction, this great peace which broods over all.

In tropical countries snow is never seen, for it does not reach the earth, excepting that which falls upon lofty mountain tops. On the summits of very high mountains the snow occurs intermittently, whether in frigid or tropical zones, Snow is a wonderfully important factor in the laws which govern irrigation, for as it melts upon the tops of mountains it adds greatly to the watershed or drainage, flowing into all streams and carrying fertility to all regions.

Although certain types of snow crystals may be detected with the naked eye, most of them are so tiny that their structural form cannot be determined without the aid of a microscope. If you chance to be out of doors during a snowfall, and happen to wear a dark coat of wool material, observe closely the flakes which chance to alight upon your sleeve and perhaps you may be able to recognise a true crystal.

When, as we sometimes remark," Mother Goose is shaking out her feather bed," and the white flakes come drifting down in large loose feathery flakes, then we may more readily discover a crystal with-out the aid of a glass. It is then that we find the lace-like, open, branchy and star-like shapes. These usually form during a local storm, or from a storm preceded by a warm wave. But the hard pellet-like crystals which sting our window-panes in falling, are from a very high altitude, and have been great travellers.

The study of the snow and its many mysterious phases is full of surprise and charm; and its various demonstrations fascinating and almost unexplainable. Among the many strange manifestations encountered in the kingdom of snow, perhaps there is nothing more mysterious than the so-called " snow rollers." They are rather a recent discovery among snow students, and not frequently encountered. Two good examples of these curious rollers are given in photograph illustrations. The photographer came upon them quite unexpectedly and thought at first that the children had been amusing themselves by rolling huge snowballs. But upon investigation he discovered that these mysterious bundles of snow were quite hollow, like a large muff, and scattered at intervals over a large snow-covered field. These mysterious snow rollers form only after a light fluffy snowfall, followed by a rise in the temperature, from a degree or so above zero up to 36° or 38° above, accompanied by a peculiar stray gusty wind.

The rollers form most frequently in the foothill regions, wherein these gusty winds pour over and around the hilltops, and down across the valleys. After the temperature has reached 36° to 38° above and the snow upon the surface of the ground has been slightly dampened and rendered sticky, the capricious wind gusts scoop up here and there small particles of the moist snow, and overturn them upon that in front, forming a ridge or hollow arch, which is the commencement of the snow roller. Then the wind gets back of it, and proceeds to roll it forward, until, as it gradually rolls along it accumulates more snow, and increases in size, until it becomes too heavy a plaything for the sport of the winds, and then it stops.

These snow rollers grow in size both in diameter and in length, as they roll along, and attain various sizes from a few inches in diameter up to two feet in diameter. Some of the rolls are overturned by the boisterous winds in such a manner as to form a hollow snow arch, and hence some of the rolls are hollow even when matured. Hundreds of these rather mysterious snow formations occur to the acre of land, and they form both on a dead level and upon inclines.

That snow crystal study is extremely fascinating is well shown, for Mr. Bentley declares that although he works out of doors for hours at a time, when often his hands are well-nigh frost-bitten by the intense cold, in below zero weather, yet he is himself almost unconscious of discomfort or real suffering from the cold, so keenly interested and intent is he at the time, in securing some new and wonderful type of crystal to add to his already large collection of snow jewels.

To make a collection of the snow crystals it is necessary, first of all, to make a receiving board. This is just a flat board covered with black velvet or wool material. The operator then places the board in a favourable position for catching the flakes as they descend, and then closely watches the receiving board as flake after flake alights upon the black surface. His eye will become sufficiently trained by experience at last to detect a fairly perfect specimen. If such a crystal alights—and sometimes it is weary waiting, for in a storm lasting an entire day, frequently but two or three perfect crystals deign to alight upon the receiving board—but when the perfect crystal arrives, then with infinite skill, and just the right touch, which must be acquired by practice, the little crystal is gently lifted upon a tiny, sharp-pointed stick, transferred to the slide and photo-graphed as quickly as possible, before it has had an opportunity to dissolve, and become again a mere drop of uninteresting moisture. The camera used is photo-micrographic, or a camera with a microscopic attachment.

Regarding the formation of the snow into crystalline forms, we are told that the molecules and atoms of all substances when allowed freedom of movement, form themselves into many definite shapes and designs called crystals. Minerals, gold, silver, iron, sulphur, when melted and permitted to cool, gradually show this crystallising power. And by dissolving saltpetre in water and allowing the solution to slowly evaporate, large crystals will form, more or less symmetrical, as the salt is converted into vapour. Alum readily crystallises in the same way. The diamond is crystallised carbon, and all precious stones are examples of mineral crystals. It would be quite an interesting and novel experiment to photograph some of these crystals formed of minerals such as saltpetre, alum and others, and to compare them with the structural formation of snow crystals.

Water itself as a liquid is to all appearances formless; when sufficiently cooled, however, the molecules are brought within play of the crystallising force, and thus arrange themselves in more or less attractive crystals. A most interesting point, well worthy of consideration, is that it is extremely improbable that anyone has as yet found, perhaps never will find, the one preeminently beautiful and symmetrical snow crystal which nature has probably fashioned in her most artistic mood—her masterpiece. The study of this unique branch of nature work is as yet in its infancy. It possesses all the charm of novelty, and many who take it up will find in it a source of much pleasure as well as instruction.

It would seem that there is really no limit to the number of distinct forms and types among the snow crystals. It will be noted that many of the designs are most rare and fanciful, and really worthy of developing and reproducing in many ways. The open, lace-like types might well be copied by a jeweller or worker in precious stones, for nothing could be more exquisite in a pendant or brooch than one of these snow-crystal designs carried out in diamonds. Others suggest rare patterns for lace work and embroideries, while others are wonder-fully effective pieces of mosaic work, or suggestive studies for stained window-glass. Many of the patterns might well serve for wall-paper or print material designs. And as a drawing lesson, the simpler forms might be copied and with their history and detail, afford a pleasant and profitable study..

Ideas along these lines it seems to me are limitless and well worth cultivating.

Again, to quote Whittier, how charmingly has he portrayed, in the following lines, the strangely beautiful and mysterious formation of the ethereal snow crystal

"So all night long the storm roared on;
The morning broke without the sun;
In tiny spherule traced with lines
Of Nature's geometric signs,
In starry flake, and pellicle,
All day the hoary meteors fell."

That all may know and understand the life history and formation of the crystals shown in the photographs, I will give a brief description of each which you will doubtless find both interesting and instructive. It will be seen that each crystal possesses some individual characteristic differing entirely from its predecessor, and each, in its way, fascinating and beautiful.

No. 61. A very showy crystal, of local-storm type, also a blizzard crystal formed in low, warm altitude.

No. 62. This exquisite crystal might well suggest a jewelled brooch or pendant of rare workmanship. It began its formation in a very high altitude, where the solid, hexagonal centre was formed, started to descend in plain hexagonal form, but was caught upwards by the rushing clouds, tossed about awhile, and then allowed to pass into a lower, wanner altitude where its elaborated branches were added.

No. 63. A high, frigid-altitude crystal, notable for its delicately traced centre design, and the six curious, apparently raised formations in the plainer spaces.

No. 64. Remarkable for its six beautiful prism-like rays, and central wheel-like structure.

No. 65. An exquisitely designed centre, with air inclusions strongly marked.

No. 66. This crystal has been formed of two sections, and must have encountered another broken crystal in its travels, with which it united, and from this its crystalline growth formed.

No. 68. An oddity. The air inclusions are very strongly marked and bring into sharp relief its rare central design.

No. 69. A local-storm type. These crystals are always loose and feathery in construction.

No. 70 was started in a very high, cold altitude, and completed in warmer clouds.

No. 71. A rare trigonal form, a sort of "freak" crystal.

No. 72 has delicate tracings.

No. 73. A very remarkable group of snow crystals, which always attract wonder and incredulity, as they appear upon close inspection to represent quite a pretty set of collar buttons or studs. These snow crystals are the product of a very great storm, and they travelled a long distance before reaching the earth. They were generated in a very high, frigid altitude. When these singular snow crystals descended they fell in parachute fashion, the larger section downward.

No. 74. Low-altitude type.

No. 75. This crystal is remarkable for the peculiar delicately etched tracings of its centre, and the rather curious designs in each scallop. A rarity.

No. 76. A crystal powdered with frost-work; has granular edges.

No. 77. A flower type, having few air inclusions, as it grew rapidly and continuously.

No. 78. A very beautiful jewelled design of the diamond pendant type. A local storm crystal.

No. 79. Also a local-storm crystal, generated in warm, low clouds.

No. 80. A perfect hexagonal type having rarely beautiful air inclusions.

No. 81. A lace-like crystal.

No. 82. Note the very beautiful centre elaboration of this crystal, and the plain, apparently unfinished branches.

No. 83. An extremely showy crystal; also a blizzard type.

No. 84. A singularly beautiful type, having unique centre elaborations, and perfect, glass-like prismatic branches.

No. 85. Here we have what appears at first glance to be some secret emblem or Masonic order sent from cloud land. Of rare trigonal, solid form.

No. 86. An Egyptian mystery. Study the markings of this strange crystal closely; its delicately etched centre formation, and the strange characters which form its border. May it not well be some secret cypher message from the skies? Who shall say? This crystal is an extremely cold weather type, as all solidly formed crystals are.

No. 87. The peculiarity of this crystal is the apparent correction made in its nuclear construction.

No. 88. A very delicate and beautiful type. Note the strange grouping of symmetrically arranged dots in its centre formation.

No. 89. Trigonal. A general-storm type.

No. 90. Upon the face of this crystal appear young germ crystals which have attached themselves to the crystal proper.

No. 91. Round, granular snow pellets, from cumulus clouds.

No. 92. Columnar snow crystals; a peculiarity noticeable in these ice-like prisms is that each one contains apparently, at first glance, a picture held in its depths.

No. 93. This is another distinct type of snow, the needle, or spicular form—sleety, which stings and cuts the face when driven by high winds.

No. 94. Apiece of old snow re-crystallised.

No. 95. This crystal is remarkable in that it fell and grew heavier side downward, leaving its upper branches undeveloped.

Nos. 96 and 97 show the mysterious "snow rollers" scattered over the surface of a field, with a glimpse of the wintery landscape as a background.

Nos. 98, 99, and 100 are "freak " crystals, 100 showing singularly shaped tablets attached.

No. 101. A twin crystal.

No. 102. This crystal grew very rapidly and continuously; a warm cloud type. No. 103. Two types combined.

No. 104. A rare design, with fluted prisms, central etchings notable.

No. 105. A remarkably fine specimen. A cold-weather type of crystal. Also has marked perfection in air inclusions.

No. io6. This crystal is another great traveller, a high-altitude type. Such crystals usually possess marked precision and finish in detail as they are long in forming.

No. 107. A star crystal.

No. 108. Notable for its very dark centre, and scroll-like detail.

No. 109. Plain, high altitude type.

No. 11 o. Local storm type.

No. 111. A prismatic beauty.

No. 112. A very frigid-altitude type. No. 113. Contrasting, low-altitude type. No. 114. This crystal possesses a remarkably intricate and noteworthy centre.

No. 115. Also has elaborate centre design.

No. 116. A remarkably beautiful, jewelled effect; intricate centre. This crystal is another mystery. It is of a high-altitude type, and is called "the arrow crystal" because of the six clearly defined arrows upon its surface. A crystal worthy of study.

No. 117. Remarkable feathery type. Low-altitude crystal.

No 118. Notable for very dark centre, and invasion of germ crystals upon its surface.

No. 119 shows a high-altitude type where the centre hexagonal portion is well perfected, but the branch-like rays show imperfections and incompleteness of structural formation.

No. 120 is one of the most showy crystals in the collection. Of trigonal formation with fantastic prism-like branches; a high-altitude type.

No. 121 is a strange crystal, something of a "freak," while No. 122 is a singularly beautiful type, notable for its very dark centre, and the unique and rather mysterious tracings which go to form its border. This crystal must have remained in a very high altitude for some time before descending as it shows finely finished detail.

No. 123 is a beautiful flower type. Usually the branches merge together but in this instance they remained open like flower petals.

No. 124. A high-altitude crystal covered with a deposit of granular snow.

No. 125. Very high-altitude type, having curious inner tracings.

No. 126. A beautiful symmetrical star design, with leaf-like terminating branches. A local-storm type.

No. 127. A great traveller from a cold high altitude.



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