ALL through the long hours of yesterday the low clouds hung close above our heads, to pour with more unswerving aim their constant storm of sleet and snow,— sometimes working in soft silence, sometimes with impatient gusty breaths, but always busily at work. Darkness brought no rest to these laborious warriors of the air, but only fiercer strife : the wild winds rose ; noisy recruits, they howled beneath the eaves, or swept around the walls, like hungry wolves, now here, now there, howling at opposite doors. Thus, through the anxious and wakeful night, the storm went on. The household lay vexed bybroken dreams, with changing fancies of lost children on solitary moors, of sleighs hopelessly overturned in drifted and pathless gorges, or of icy cordage upon disabled vessels in Arctic seas; until a softer warmth, as of sheltering snow-wreaths, lulled all into deeper rest till morning.
And what a morning! The sun, a young conqueror, sends in his glorious rays, like heralds, to rouse us for the inspection of his trophies. The baffled foe, retiring, has left far and near the highheaped spoils behind. The glittering plains own the new victor. Over all these level and wide-swept meadows, over all these drifted, spotless slopes, he is proclaimed undisputed monarch. On the wooded hill-sides the startled shadows are in motion ; they flee like young fawns, bounding upward and downward over rock and dell, as through the long gleaming arches the king comes marching to his throne. But shade yet lingers undisturbed in the valleys, mingled with timid smoke from household chimneys; blue as the smoke, a gauzy haze is twined around the brow of every distant hill; and the same soft azure confuses the outlines of the nearer trees, to whose branches snowy wreaths are clinging, far up among the boughs, like strange new flowers. Everywhere the unstained surface glistens in the sunbeams. In the curves and wreaths and turrets of the drifts a blue tinge nestles. The fresh pure sky answers to it; every cloud has vanished, save one or two which linger near the horizon, pardoned offenders, seeming far too innocent for mischief, although their dark and sullen brothers, banished ignominiously below the horizon’s verge, may be plotting nameless treachery there. The brook still flows visibly through the valley, and the myriad rocks that check its course are all rounded with fleecy surfaces, till they seem like flocks of tranquil sheep that drink the shallow flood.
The day is one of moderate cold, but clear and bracing; the air sparkles like the snow; everything seems dry and resonant, like the wood of a violin. All sounds are musical, — the voices of children, the cooing of doves, the crowing of cocks, the chopping of wood, the creaking of country sleds, the sweet jangle of sleighbells. The snow has fallen under a cold temperature, and the flakes are perfectly crystallized ; every shrub we pass bears wreaths which glitter as gorgeously as the nebula in the constellation Perseus ; but in another hour of sunshine every one of those fragile outlines will disappear, and the white surface glitter no longer with stars, but with star-dust. On such a day, the universe seems to hold but three pure tints—blue, white, and green. The loveliness of the universe seems simplified to its last extreme of refined delicacy. That sensation we poor mortals often have, of being just on the edge of infinite beauty, yet with always a lingering film between, never presses down more closely than on days like this. Everything seems perfectly prepared to satiate the soul with inexpressible felicity if we could only, by one infinitesimal step farther, reach the mood to dwell in it.
Leaving behind us the sleighs and snow-shovels of the street, we turn noiselessly toward the radiant margin of the sunlit woods. The yellow willows on the causeway burn like flame against the darker background, and will burn on until they burst into April. Yonder pines and hemlocks stand motionless and dark against the sky. The statelier trees have already shaken all the snow from their summits, but it still clothes the lower ones with a white covering that looks solid as marble. Yet see how lightly it escapes ! — a slight gust shakes a single tree, there is a Staub-bach for a moment, and the branches stand free as in summer, a pyramid of green amid the whiteness of the yet imprisoned forest. Each branch raises itself when emancipated, thus changing the whole outline of the growth; and the snow beneath is punctured with a thousand little depressions, where the petty avalanches have just buried themselves and disappeared.
In crossing this white level, we have been tracking our way across an invisible pond, which was alive last week with five hundred skaters. Now there is a foot of snow upon it, through which there is a boyish excitement in making the first path. Looking back upon our track, it proves to be like all other human paths, straight in intention, but slightly devious in deed. We have gay companions on our way; for a breeze overtakes us, and a hundred little simooms of drift whirl along beside us, and whelm in miniature burial whole caravans of dry leaves. Here, too, our track intersects with that of some previous passer ; he has but just gone on, judging by the freshness of the trail, and we can study his character and purposes. The large boots betoken a wood-man or ice-man: yet such a one would hardly have stepped so irresolutely where a little film of water has spread between the ice and snow and given a look of insecurity; and here again he has stopped to observe the wreaths on this pendent bough, and this snow-filled bird’s-nest. And there the footsteps of the lover of beauty turn abruptly to the road again, and he vanishes from us forever.
As we wander on through the wood, all the labyrinths of summer are buried beneath one white inviting pathway, and the pledge of perfect loneliness is given by the unbroken surface of the all-revealing snow. There appears nothing living except a downy woodpecker, whirling round and round upon a young beechstem, and a few sparrows, plump with grass-seed and hurrying with jerking flight down the sunny glade. But the trees furnish society enough. What a congress of ermined kings is this circle of hemlocks, which stand, white in their soft raiment, around the daïs of this woodland pond! Are they held here, like the sovereigns in the palace of the Sleeping Beauty, till some mortal breaks their spell ? What sage counsels must be theirs, as they nod their weary heads and whisper ghostly memories and old men’s tales to each other, while the red leaves dance on the snowy sward below, or a fox or squirrel steals hurriedly through the wild and wintry night ! Here and there is some discrowned Lear, who has thrown off his regal mantle, and stands in faded russet, misplaced among the monarchs.
What a simple and stately hospitality is that of Nature in winter ! The season which the residents of cities think an obstruction is in the country an extension of intercourse : it opens every forest from here to Labrador, free of entrance; the most tangled thicket, the most treacherous marsh becomes passable; and the lumberer or moose-hunter, mounted on his snow-shoes, has the world before him. He says “ good snow-shoeing,” as we say “ good sleighing ” ; and it gives a sensation like a first visit to the sea-side and the shipping, when one first sees exhibited, in the streets of Bangor or Montreal, these delicate Indian conveyances. It seems as if a new element were suddenly opened for travel, and all due facilities provided. One expects to go a little farther, and see in the shop-windows, “ Wings for sale, — gentlemen’s and ladies’ sizes.” The snow-shoe and the birch-canoe, — what other dying race ever left behind it two memorials so perfect and so graceful ?
The shadows thrown by the trees upon the snow are blue and soft, sharply defined, and so contrasted with the gleaming white as to appear narrower than the boughs which cast them. There is something subtle and fantastic about these shadows. Here is a leafless larchsapling, eight feet high. The image of the lower boughs is traced upon the snow, distinct and firm as cordage, while the higher ones grow dimmer by fine gradations, until the slender topmost twig is blurred and almost effaced. But the denser upper spire of the young spruce by its side throws almost as distinct a shadow as its base, and the whole figure looks of a more solid texture, as if you could feel it with your hand. More beautiful than either is the fine image of this baby hemlock : each delicate leaf droops above as delicate a copy, and here and there the shadow and the substance kiss and frolic with each other in the downy snow.
The larger larches have a different plaything: on the bare branches, thickly studded with buds, cling airily the small, light cones of last year’s growth, each crowned with a little ball of soft snow, four times taller than itself, — save where some have drooped sideways, so that each carries, poor weary Atlas, a sphere upon its back. Thus the coy creatures play cup and ball, and one has lost its plaything yonder, as the branch slightly stirs, and the whole vanishes in a whirl of snow. Meanwhile a fragment of low arbor-vitæ hedge, poor outpost of a neighboring plantation, is so covered and packed with solid drift, inside and out, that it seems as if no power of sunshine could ever steal in among its twigs and disentangle it.
In winter each separate object interests us; in summer, the mass. Natural beauty in winter is a poor man’s luxury, infinitely enhanced in quality by the diminution in quantity. Winter, with fewer and simpler methods, yet seems to give all her works a finish even more delicate than that of summer, working, as Emerson says of English agriculture, with a pencil, instead of a plough. Or rather, the ploughshare is but concealed; since a pithy old English preacher has said that “ the frost is God’s plough, which He drives through every inch of ground in the world, opening each clod, and pulverizing the whole.”
Coming out upon a high hill-side, more exposed to the direct fury of the sleet, we find Nature wearing a wilder look. Every white-birch clump around us is bent divergingly to the ground, each white form prostrated in mute despair upon the whiter bank. The bare, writhing branches of yonder sombre oak-grove are steeped in snow, and in the misty air they look so remote and foreign that there is not a wild creature of the Norse mythology who might not stalk from beneath their haunted branches. Buried races, Teutons and Cimbri, might tramp solemnly forth from those weird arcades. The soft pines on this nearer knoll seem separated from them by ages and generations. On the farther hills spread woods of smaller growth, like forests of spun glass, jewelry by the acre provided for this coronation of winter.
We descend a steep bank, little pellets of snow rolling hastily beside us, and leaving enamelled furrows behind. Entering the sheltered and sunny glade, we are assailed by a sudden warmth whose languor is almost oppressive. Wherever the sun strikes upon the pines and hemlocks, there is a household gleam which gives a more vivid sensation than the diffused brilliancy of summer. The sunbeams maintain a thousand secondary fires in the reflection of light from every tree and stalk, for the preservation of animal life and the ultimate melting of these accumulated drifts. Around each trunk or stone the snow has melted and fallen back. It is a singular fact, established beyond doubt by science, that the snow is absolutely less influenced by the direct rays of the sun than by these reflections. “ If a blackened card is placed upon the snow or ice in the sunshine, the frozen mass underneath it will be gradually thawed, while that by which it is surrounded, though exposed to the full power of solar heat, is but little disturbed. If, however, we reflect the sun’s rays from a metal surface, an exactly contrary result takes place: the uncovered parts are the first to melt, and the blackened card stands high above the surrounding portion.” Look round upon this buried meadow, and you will see emerging through the white surface a thousand stalks of grass, sedge, osmunda, golden-rod, mullein, Saint-John’s-wort, plaintain, and eupatorium,— an allied army of the sun, keeping up a perpetual volley of innumerable rays upon the yielding snow.
It is their last dying service. We misplace our tenderness in winter, and look with pity upon the leafless trees. But there is no tragedy in the trees: each is not dead, but sleepeth; and each bears a future summer of buds safe nestled on its bosom, as a mother reposes with her baby at her breast. The same security of life pervades every woody shrub: the alder and the birch have their catkins all ready for the first day of spring, and the sweet-fern has even now filled with fragrance its folded blossom. Winter is no such solid bar between season and season as we fancy, but only a slight check and interruption: one may at any time produce these March blossoms by bringing the buds into the warm house; and the petals of the May-flower sometimes show their pink and white edges in autumn. But every grass-blade and flower-stalk is a mausoleum of vanished summer, itself crumbling to dust, never to rise again. Each child of June, scarce distinguishable in November against the background of moss and rocks and bushes, is brought into final prominence in December by the white snow which imbeds it. The delicate flakes collapse and fall back around it, but they retain their inexorable hold. Thus delicate is the action of Nature, — a finger of air, and a grasp of iron.
We pass the old red foundry, banked in with snow and its low eaves draped with icicles, and come to the brook which turns its resounding wheel. The musical motion of the water seems almost unnatural amidst the general stillness : brooks, like men, must keep themselves warm by exercise. The overhanging rushes and alder-spravs, weary of winter’s sameness, have made for themselves playthings,—each dangling a crystal knob of ice, which sways gently in the water and gleams ruddy in the sunlight. As we approach the foaming cascade, the toys become larger and more glittering, movable stalactites, which the water tosses merrily upon their flexible stems. The torrent pours down beneath au enamelled mask of ice, wreathed and convoluted like a brain, and sparkling with gorgeous glow. Tremulous motions and glimmerings go through the translucent veil, as if it throbbed with the throbbing wave beneath. It holds in its mazes stray bits of color, — scarlet berries, evergreen sprigs, blue raspberry-stems, and sprays of yellow willow; glittering necklaces and wreaths and tiaras of brilliant ice-work cling and trail around its edges, and no regal palace shines with such carcanets of jewels as this winter ball-room of the dancing drops.
Above, the brook becomes a smooth black canal between two steep white banks; and the glassy water seems momentarily stiffening into the solider blackness of ice. Here and there thin films are already formed over it, and are being constantly broken apart by the treacherous current; a flake a foot square is jerked away and goes sliding beneath the slight transparent surface till it reappears below. The same thing, on a larger scale, helps to form the mighty ice-pack of the Northern seas. Nothing except ice is capable of combining, on the largest scale, bulk with mobility, and this imparts a dignity to its motions even on the smallest scale. I do not believe that anything in Behring’s Straits could impress me with a grander sense of desolation or of power than when in boyhood I watched the ice break up in the winding channel of Charles River.
Amidst so much that seems like death, let us turn and study the life. There is much more to be seen in winter than most of us have ever noticed. Far in the North the “ moose-yards ” are crowded and trampled, at this season, and the wolf and the deer run noiselessly a deadly race, as I have heard the hunters describe, upon the white surface of the gleaming lake. But the pond beneath our feet keeps its stores of life chiefly below its level platform, as the bright fishes in the basket of yon heavy-booted fisherman can tell. Yet the scattered tracks of mink and musk-rat beside the banks, of meadow-mice around the hay-stacks, of squirrels under the trees, of rabbits and partridges in the wood, show the warm life that is beating unseen, beneath fur or feathers, close beside us. The chicadees are chattering merrily in the upland grove, the blue-jays scream in the hemlock glade, the snow-bird mates the snow with its whiteness, and the robin contrasts with it his still ruddy breast. The weird and impenetrable crows, most talkative of birds and most uncommunicative, their very food at this season a mystery, are almost as numerous now as in summer. They always seem like some race of banished goblins, doing penance for some primeval and inscrutable transgression, and if any bird have a history, it is they. In the Spanish version of the tradition of King Arthur it is said that he fled from the weeping queens and the island valley of Avilion in the form of a crow; and hence it is said in “ Don Quixote” that no Englishman will ever kill one.
The traces of the insects in the winter are prophetic,—from the delicate cocoon of some infinitesimal feathery thing which hangs upon the dry, starry calyx of the aster, to the large brown-paper parcel which hides in peasant garb the costly beauty of some gorgeous moth. But the hints of birds are retrospective. In each tree of this pasture, the very pasture where last spring we looked for nests and found them not among the deceitful foliage, the fragile domiciles now stand revealed. But where are the birds that filled them ? Could the airy creatures nurtured in those nests have left permanently traced upon the air behind them their own bright summer flight, the whole atmosphere would be filled with interlacing lines and curves of gorgeous coloring, the centre of all being this forsaken bird’s-nest filled with snow.
Among the many birds which winter here, and the many insects which are called forth by a few days of thaw, not a few must die of cold or of fatigue amid the storms. Yet how few traces one sees of this mortality ! Provision is made for it. Yonder a dead wasp has fallen on the snow, and the warmth of its body, or its power of reflecting a few small rays of light, is melting its little grave beneath it. With what a cleanly purity does Nature strive to withdraw all unsightly objects into her cemetery! Their own weight and lingering warmth take them through air or water, snow or ice, to the level of the earth, and there with spring comes an army of burying-insects, Necrophagi, in a livery of red and black, to dig a grave beneath every one, and not a sparrow falleth to the ground without knowledge. The tiny remains thus disappear from the surface, and the dry leaves are soon spread above these Children in the Wood.
Thus varied and benignant are the aspects of winter on these sunny days. But it is impossible to claim this weather as the only type of our winter climate. There occasionally come days which, though perfectly still and serene, suggest more terror than any tempest, — terrible, clear, glaring days of pitiless cold,— when the sun seems powerless or only a brighter moon, when the windows remain ground-glass at high noontide, and when, on going out of doors, one is dazzled by the brightness and fancies for a moment that it cannot be so cold as has been reported, but presently discovers that the severity is only more deadly for being so still. Exercise on such days seems to produce no warmth; one’s limbs appear ready to break on any sudden motion, like icy boughs. Stage-drivers and draymen are transformed to mere human buffaloes by their fur coats ; the patient oxen are frost-covered ; the horse that goes racing by waves a wreath of steam from his tossing head. On such days life becomes a battle to all householders, the ordinary apparatus for defence is insufficient, and the price of caloric is continual vigilance. In innumerable armies the frost besieges the portal, creeps in beneath it and above it, and on every latch and key-handle lodges an advanced guard of white rime. Leave the door ajar never so slightly and a chill creeps in cat-like; we are conscious by the warmest fireside of the near vicinity of cold, its fingers are feeling after us, and even if they do not clutch us, we know that they are there. The sensations of such days almost make us associate their clearness and whiteness with something malignant and evil. Charles Lamb asserts of snow, “ It glares too much for an innocent color, methinks.” Why does popular mythology associate the infernal regions with a high temperature instead of a low one ? El Aishi, the Arab writer, says of the bleak wind of the Desert, (so writes Richardson, the African traveller,) “ The north wind blows with an intensity equalling the cold of hell; language fails me to describe its rigorous temperature.” Some have thought that there is a similar allusion in the phrase, “ weeping and gnashing of teeth,”—the teeth chattering from frost. Milton also enumerates cold as one of the torments of the lost: —
and one may sup full of horrors on the exceedingly cold collation provided for the next world by the Norse Edda.
But, after all, there are few such terrific periods in our Massachusetts winters, and the appointed exit from their frigidity is usually through a snow-storm. After a day of this severe sunshine there comes commonly a darker day of cloud, still hard and forbidding, though milder in promise, with a sky of lead, deepening near the horizon into darker films of iron. Then, while all the nerves of the universe seem rigid and tense, the first reluctant flake steals slowly down, like a tear. In a few hours the whole atmosphere begins to relax once more, and in our astonishing climate very possibly the snow changes to rain in twenty-four hours, and a thaw sets in. It is not strange, therefore, that snow, which to Southern races is typical of cold and terror, brings associations of warmth and shelter to the children of the North.
Snow, indeed, actually nourishes animal life. It holds in its bosom numerous animalcules: you may have a glass of water, perfectly free from infusoria, which yet, after your dissolving in it a handful of snow, will show itself full of microscopic creatures, shrimp-like and swift; and the famous red snow of the Arctic regions is only an exhibition of the same property. It has sometimes been fancied that persons buried under the snow have received sustenance through the pores of the skin, like reptiles imbedded in rock. Elizabeth Woodcock lived eight days beneath a snow-drift, in 1799, without eating a morsel ; and a Swiss family were buried beneath an avalanche, in a manger, for five months, in 1755, with no food but a trifling store of chestnuts and a small daily supply of milk from a goat which was buried with them. In neither case was there extreme suffering from cold, and it is unquestionable that the interior of a drift is far warmer than the surface. On the 23d of December, 1860, at 9 p. M., I was surprised to observe drops falling from the under side of a heavy bank of snow at the eaves, at a distance from any chimney, while the mercury on the same side was only fifteen degrees above zero, not having indeed risen above the point of freezing during the whole day.
Dr. Kane pays ample tribute to these kindly properties. “ Few of us at home can recognize the protecting value of this warm coverlet of snow. No eider-down in the cradle of an infant is tucked in more kindly than the sleeping-dress of winter about this feeble flower-life. The first warm snows of August and September, falling on a thickly pleached carpet of grasses, heaths, and willows, enshrine the flowery growths which nestle round them in a non-conducting air-chamber; and as each successive snow increases the thickness of the cover, we have, before the intense cold of winter sets in, a light cellular bed covered by drift, six, eight, or ten feet deep, in which the plant retains its vitality. . . . . I have found in midwinter, in this high latitude of 78° 50', the surface so nearly moist as to be friable to the touch; and upon the ice-floes, commencing with a surface-temperature of — 30°, I found at two feet deep a temperature of — 8°, at four feet + 2°, and at eight feet + 26°. . . . . The glacier which we became so familiar with afterwards at Etah yields an uninterrupted stream throughout the year.” And he afterwards shows that even the varying texture and quality of the snow deposit ed during the earlier and later portions of the Arctic winter have their special adaptations to the welfare of the vegetation they protect.
The process of crystallization seems a microcosm of the universe. Radiata, mollusca, feathers, flowers, ferns, mosses, palms, pines, grain-fields, leaves of cedar, chestnut, elm, acanthus: these and multitudes of other objects are figured on your frosty window; on sixteen different panes I have counted sixteen patterns strikingly distinct, and it appeared like a show-case for the globe. What can seem remoter relatives than the star, the starfish, the star-flower, and the starry snowflake which clings this moment to your sleeve ?—yet some philosophers hold that one day their law of existence will be found precisely the same. The connection with the primeval star, especially, seems far and fanciful enough, but there are yet unexplored affinities between light and crystallization : some crystals have a tendency to grow toward the light, and others develop electricity and give out flashes of light during their formation. Slight foundations for scientific fancies, indeed, but slight is all our knowledge.
More than a hundred different figures of snow-flakes, all regular and kaleidoscopic, have been drawn by Scoresby, Lowe, and Glaisher, and may be found pictured in the encyclopædias and elsewhere, ranging from the simplest stellar shapes to the most complicated ramifications. Professor Tyndall, in his delightful book on “ The Glaciers of the Alps,” gives drawings of a few of these snowblossoms, which he watched falling for hours, the whole air being filled with them, and drifts of several inches being accumulated while he watched. "Let us imagine the eye gifted with microscopic power sufficient to enable it to see the molecules which composed these starry crystals; to observe the solid nucleus formed and floating in the air; to see it drawing towards it its allied atoms, and these arranging themselves as if they moved to music, and ended with rendering that music concrete.” Thus do the Alpine winds, like Orpheus, build their walls by harmony.
In some of these frost-flowers the rare and delicate blossom of our wild Mitella diphylla is beautifully figured. Snowflakes have been also found in the form of regular hexagons and other plane figures, as well as in cylinders and spheres. As a general rule, the intenser the cold the more perfect the formation, and the most perfect specimens are Arctic or Alpine in their locality. In this climate the snow seldom falls when the mercury is much below zero ; but the slightest atmospheric changes may alter the whole condition of the deposit, and decide whether it shall sparkle like Italian marble, or be dead-white like the statuary marble of Vermont, — whether it shall be a fine powder which can sift through wherever dust can, or descend in large woolly masses, tossed like mouthfuls to the hungry earth.
The most remarkable display of crystallization which I have ever seen was on the 13th of January, 1859. There had been three days of unusual cold, but during the night the weather had moderated, and the mercury in the morning stood at + 14°. About two inches of snow had fallen, and the trees appeared densely coated with it. It proved, on examination, that every twig had on the leeward side a dense row of miniature fronds or fern-leaves executed in snow, with a sharply defined central nerve, or midrib, and perfect ramification, tapering to a point, and varying in length from half an inch to three inches. On every post, every rail, and the corners of every building, the same spectacle was seen; and where the snow had accumulated in deep drifts, it was still made up of the ruins of these fairy structures. The white, enamelled landscape was beautiful, but a close view of the details was far more so. The crystallizations were somewhat uniform in structure, yet suggested a variety of natural objects, as feather-mosses, birds’ feathers, and the most delicate lacecorals, but the predominant analogy was with ferns. Yet they seemed to assume a sort of fantastic kindred with the objects to which they adhered : thus, ou the leaves of spruce - trees and on delicate lichens they seemed like reduplications of the original growth, and they made the broad, flat leaves of the arbor-vitæ fully twice as wide as before. But this fringe was always on one side only, except when gathered upon dangling fragments of spider’s web, or bits of stray thread: these they entirely encircled, probably because these objects had twirled in the light wind while the crystals were forming. Singular disguises were produced : a bit of ragged rope appeared a piece of twisted lacework; a knot-hole in a board was adorned with a deep antechamber of snowy wreaths; and the frozen body of a hairy caterpillar became its own well-plumed hearse. The most peculiar circumstance was the fact that single flakes never showed any regular crystallization : the magic was in the combination; the under sides of rails and boards exhibited it as unequivocally as the upper sides, indicating that the phenomenon was created in the lower atmosphere, and was more akin to frost than snow ; and yet the largest snowbanks were composed of nothing else, and seemed like heaps of blanched iron-filings.
Interesting observations have been made on the relations between ice and snow. The difference seems to lie only in the more or less compacted arrangement of the frozen particles. Water and air, each being transparent when separate, become opaque when intimately mingled ; the reason being that the inequalities of refraction break up and scatter every ray of light. Thus, clouds cast a shadow ; so does steam; so does foam: and the same elements take a still denser texture when combined as snow. Every snow-flake is permeated with minute airy chambers, among which the light is bewildered and lost; while from perfectly hard and transparent ice every trace of air disappears, and the transmission of light is unbroken. Yet that same ice becomes white and opaque when pulverized, its fragments being then intermingled with air again, —just as colorless glass may be crushed into white powder. On the other hand, Professor Tyndall has converted slabs of snow to ice by regular pressure, and has shown that every Alpine glacier begins as a snow-drift at its summit, and ends in a transparent ice-cavern below. “ The blue blocks which span the sources of the Arveiron were once powdery snow upon the slopes of the Col du Géant.”
The varied and wonderful shapes assumed by snow and ice have been best portrayed, perhaps, by Dr. Kane in his two works ; but their resources of color have been so explored by no one as by this same favored Professor Tyndall, among his Alps. It appears that the tints which in temperate regions are seen feebly and occasionally, in hollows or angles of fresh drifts, become brilliant and constant above the line of perpetual snow, and the higher the altitude the more lustrous the display. When a staff was struck into the new-fallen drift, the hollow seemed instantly to fill with a soft blue liquid, while the snow adhering to the staff took a complementary color of pinkish yellow, and on moving it up and down it was hard to resist the impression that a pink flame was rising and sinking in the hole. The little natural furrows in the drifts appeared faintly blue, the ridges were gray, while the parts most exposed to view seemed least illuminated, and as if a light brown dust had been sprinkled over them. The fresher the snow, the more marked the colors, and it made no difference whether the sky were cloudless or foggy. Thus was every white peak decked upon its brow with this tiara of ineffable beauty.
The impression is very general that the average quantity of snow has greatly diminished in America ; but it must be remembered that very severe storms occur only at considerable intervals, and the Puritans did not always, as boys fancy, step out of the upper windows upon the snow. In 1717, the ground was covered from ten to twenty feet, indeed; but during January, 1861, the snow was six feet on a level in many parts of Maine and New Hampshire, and was probably drifted three times that depth in particular spots. The greatest storm recorded in England, I believe, is that of 1814, in which for forty-eight hours the snow fell so furiously that drifts of sixteen, twenty, and even twenty-four feet were recorded in various places. An inch an hour is thought to be the average rate of deposit, though four inches are said to have fallen during the severe storm of January 3d, 1859. When thus intensified, the “beautiful meteor of the snow ” begins to give a sensation of something formidable ; and when the mercury suddenly falls meanwhile, and the wind rises, there are sometimes suggestions of such terror in a snowstorm as no summer thunders can rival. The brief and singular tempest of February 7th, 1861, was a thing to be forever remembered by those who saw it, as I did, over a wide plain. The sky suddenly appeared to open and let down whole solid snow-banks at once, which were caught and torn to pieces by the ravenous winds, and the traveller was instantaneously enveloped in a whirling mass far denser than any fog ; it was a tornado with snow stirred into it. Standing in the middle of the road, with houses close on every side, one could see absolutely nothing in any direction, one could hear no sound but the Storm. Every landmark vanished, and it was no more possible to guess the points of the compass than in mid-ocean. It was easy to conceive of being bewildered and overwhelmed within a rod of one’s own door. The tempest lasted only an hour; but if it had lasted a week, we should have had such a storm as occurred on the steppes of Kirgheez in Siberia, in 1827, destroying two hundred and eighty thousand five hundred horses, thirty thousand four hundred cattle, a million sheep, and ten thousand camels, — or as “ the thirteen drifty days,” in 1620, which killed ninetenths of all the sheep in the South of Scotland. On Eskdale Moor, out of twenty thousand only forty-five were left alive, and the shepherds everywhere built up huge semicircular walls of the lead creatures, to afford shelter to the living, till the gale should end. But the most remarkable narrative of a snowstorm which I have ever seen was that written by James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd, in record of one which took place January 24th, 1790.
James Hogg at this time belonged to a sort of literary society of young shepherds, and had set out, the day previous, to walk twenty miles over the hills to the place of meeting ; but so formidable was the look of the sky that he felt anxious for his sheep, and finally turned back again. There was at that time only a slight fall of snow, in thin flakes which seemed uncertain whether to go up or down; the hills were covered with deep folds of frost-fog, and in the valleys the same fog seemed dark, dense, and as it were crushed together. An old shepherd, predicting a storm, bade him watch for a sudden opening through this fog, and expect a wind from that quarter; yet when he saw such an opening suddenly form at midnight, (having then reached his own home,) he thought it all a delusion, as the weather had grown milder and a thaw seemed setting in. He therefore went to bed, and felt no more anxiety for his sheep ; yet he lay awake in spite of himself, and at two o’clock he heard the storm begin. It smote the house suddenly, like a great peal of thunder, — something utterly unlike any storm he had ever before heard. On his rising and thrusting his bare arm through a hole in the roof, it seemed precisely as if he had thrust it into a snow-bank, so densely was the air filled with falling and driving, particles. He lay still for an hour, while the house rocked with the tempest, hoping it might prove only a hurricane; but as there was no abatement, he wakened his companion-shepherd, telling him “it was come on such a night or morning as never blew from the heavens.” The other at once arose, and, opening the door of the shed where they slept, found a drift as high as the farm-house already heaped between them and its walls, a distance of only fourteen yards. He floundered through, Hogg soon following, and, finding all the family up, they agreed that they must reach the sheep as soon as possible, especially eight hundred ewes that were in one lot together, at the farthest end of the farm. So, after family-prayers and breakfast, four of them stuffed their pockets with bread and cheese, sewed their plaids about them, tied down their hats, and, taking each his staff, set out on their tremendous undertaking, two hours before day.
Day dawned before they got three hundred yards from the house. They could not see each other, and kept together with the greatest difficulty. They had to make paths with their staves, rolled themselves over drifts otherwise impassable, and every Three or four minutes had to hold their heads down between their knees to recover breath. They went in single file, taking the lead by turns. The master soon gave out and was speechless and semi-conscious for more than an hour, though he afterwards recovered and held out with the rest. Two of them lost their head-gear, and Hogg himself fell over a high precipice, but they reached the flock at half-past ten. They found the ewes huddled together in a dense body, under ten feet of snow, — packed so closely, that, to the amazement of the shepherds, when they had extricated the first, the whole flock walked out one after another, in a body, through the hole.
How they got them home it is almost impossible to tell. It was now noon, and they sometimes could see through the storm for twenty yards, but they had only one momentary glimpse of the hills through all that terrible day. Yet Hogg persisted in going by himself afterwards to rescue some flocks of his own, barely escaping with life from the expedition; his eyes were sealed up with the storm, and he crossed a formidable torrent, without knowing it, on a wreath of snow. Two of the others lost themselves in a deep valley, and would have perished but for being accidentally heard by a neighboring shepherd, who guided them home, where the female portion of the family had abandoned all hope of ever seeing them again.
The next day was clear, with a cold wind, and they set forth again at daybreak to seek the remainder of the flock. The face of the country was perfectly transformed: not a hill was the same, not a brook or lake could be recognized. Deep glens were filled in with snow, covering the very tops of the trees; and over a hundred acres of ground, under an average depth of six or eight feet, they were to look for four or five hundred sheep. The attempt would have been hopeless but for a dog that accompanied them : seeing their perplexity, he began snuffing about, and presently scratching in the snow at a certain point, and then looking round at his master: digging at this spot, they found a sheep beneath. And so the dog led them all day, bounding eagerly from one place to another, much faster than they could dig the creatures out, so that he sometimes had twenty or thirty holes marked beforehand. In this way, within a week, they got out every sheep on the farm except four, these last being buried under a mountain of snow fifty feet deep, on the top of which the dog had marked their places again and again. In every case the sheep proved to he alive and warm, though halfsuffocated ; on being taken out, they usually bounded away swiftly, and then fell helplessly in a few moments, overcome by the change of atmosphere ; some then died almost instantly, and others were carried home and with difficulty preserved, only about sixty being lost in all. Marvellous to tell, the country-people unanimously agreed afterwards to refer the whole terrific storm to some secret incantations of poor Hogg’s literary society aforesaid; it was generally maintained that a club of young dare-devils had raised the Fiend himself among them in the likeness of a black dog, the night preceding the storm, and the young students actually did not dare to show themselves at fairs or at markets for a year afterwards.
Snow-scenes less exciting, but more wild and dreary, may be found in Alexander Henry’s Travels with the Indians, in the last century. In the winter of 1776, for instance, they wandered for many hundred miles over the farthest northwestern prairies, where scarcely a white man had before trodden. The snow lay from four to six feet deep. They went on snow-shoes, drawing their stores on sleds. The mercury was sometimes— 32°; no fire could keep them warm at night, and often they had no fire, being scarcely able to find wood enough to melt the snow for drink. They lay beneath buffalo-skins and the stripped bark of trees: a foot of snow sometimes fell on them before morning. The sun rose at half past nine and set at half past two. “ The country was one uninterrupted plain, in many parts of which no wood nor even the smallest shrub was to be seen : a frozen sea, of which the little coppices were the islands. That behind which we had encamped the night before soon sank in the horizon, and the eye had nothing left save only the sky and snow.” Fancy them encamped by night, seeking shelter in a scanty grove from a wild tempest of snow ; then suddenly charged upon by a herd of buffaloes, thronging in from all sides of the wood to take shelter likewise, — the dogs barking, the Indians firing, and still the bewildered beasts rushing madly in, blinded by the storm, fearing the guns within less than the fury without, crashing through the trees, trampling over the tents, and falling about in the deep and dreary snow! No other writer has ever given us the full desolation of Indian winter-life. Whole families, Henry said, frequently perished together in such storms. No wonder that the Aboriginal legends are full of “mighty Peboan, the Winter,” and of Kabibonokka in his lodge of snow-drifts.
The interest inspired by these simple narratives suggests the reflection, that literature, which has thus far portrayed so few aspects of external Nature, has described almost nothing of winter beauty. In English books, especially, this season is simply forlorn and disagreeable, dark and dismal.
All winter drives along the darkened air.”
And stormy winds are howling in their ire,
Why com'st not thou? . . . . Oh, haste to pay
The cordial visit sullen hours require ! ”
Chill the pale morn, and bid his driving
Deform the day delightless.”
With whom you might converse, and by the fire
Help waste the sullen day.”
But our prevalent association with winter, in the Northern United States, is with something white and dazzling and brilliant; and it is time to paint our own pictures, and cease to borrow these gloomy alien tints. One must turn eagerly every season to the few glimpses of American winter aspects: to Emerson’s “ SnowStorm,” every word a sculpture, — to the admirable storm in “Margaret,”—to Thoreau’s “ Winter Walk,” in the “ Dial,” — and to Lowell’s “First Snow-Flake.” These are fresh and real pictures, which carry us back to the Greek Anthology, where the herds come wandering down from the wooded mountains, covered with snow, and to Homer’s aged Ulysses, his wise words falling like the snows of winter.
Let me add to this scanty gallery of snow-pictures the quaint lore contained in one of the multitudinous sermons of Increase Mather, printed in 1704, entitled “ A Brief Discourse concerning the Prayse due to God for His Mercy in giving Snow like Wool.” One can fancy the delight of the oppressed Puritan boys, in the days of the nineteenthlies, driven to the place of worship by the tithingmen, and cooped up on the pulpitand gallery-stairs under charge of the constables, at hearing for once a discourse which they could understand, — snowballing spiritualized. This was not one of Emerson’s terrible examples, — “ the storm real, and the preacher only phenomenal ”; but this setting of snow-drifts, which in our winters lends such grace to every stern rock and rugged tree, throws a charm even around the grim theology of the Mathers. Three main propositions, seven subdivisions, four applications, and four uses, but the wreaths and the gracefulness are cast about them all, — while the wonderful commonplacebooks of those days, which held everything, had accumulated scraps of winter learning which cannot be spared from these less abstruse pages.
Beginning first at the foundation, the preacher must prove, “Prop. I. That the Snow is fitly resembled to Wool. Snow like Wool, sayes the Psalmist. And not only the Sacred Writers, but others make use of this Comparison. The Grecians of old were wont to call the Snow, ERIODES HUDOR Wooly Water, or wet Wool. The Latin word Floccus signifies both a Lock of Wool and a Flake of Snow, in that they resemble one another. The aptness of the similitude appears in three things.” “ 1. In respect of the Whiteness thereof.” “ 2. In respect of Softness.” “ 3. In respect of that Warming Vertue that does attend the Snow.” [Here the reasoning must not be omitted.] “ Wool is warm. We say, As warm as Wool. Woolen-cloth has a greater warmth than other Cloathing has. The wool on Sheep keeps them warm in the Winter season. So when the back of the Ground is covered with Snow, it keeps it warm. Some mention it as one of the wonders of the Snow, that tho’ it is itself cold, yet it makes the Earth warm. But Naturalists observe that there is a saline spirit in it, which is hot, by means whereof Plants under the Snow are kept from freezing. Ice under the Snow is sooner melted and broken than other Ice. In some Northern Climates, the wild barbarous People use to cover themselves over with it to keep them warm. When the sharp Air has begun to freeze a man’s Limbs, Snow will bring heat into them again. If persons Eat much Snow, or drink immoderately of Snow-water, it will burn their Bowels and make them black. So that it has a warming vertue in it, and is therefore fitly compared to Wool.”
Snow has many merits. “ In Lapland, where there is little or no light of the sun in the depth of Winter, there are great Snows continually on the ground, and by the Light of that they are able to Travel from one place to another. . . . . At this day in some hot Countreys, they have their Snow-cellars, where it is kept in Summer, and if moderately used, is known to be both refreshing and healthful. There are also Medicinal Vertues in the snow. A late Learned Physician has found that a Salt extracted out of snow is a sovereign Remedy against both putrid and pestilential Feavors. Therefore Men should Praise God, who giveth Snow like Wool.” But there is an account against the snow, also. “ Not only the disease called Bulimia, but others more fatal have come out of the Snow. Geographers give us to understand that in some Countries Vapours from the Snow have killed multitudes in less than a Quarter of an Hour. Sometimes both Men and Beasts have been destroyed thereby. Writers speak of no less than Forty Thousand men killed by a great Snow in one Day.”
It gives a touching sense of human sympathy, to find that we may look at Orion and the Pleiades through the grave eyes of a Puritan divine. “ The Seven Stars are the Summer Constellation: they bring on the spring and summer ; and Orion is n Winter Constellation, which is attended with snow and cold, as at this Day. . . . . Moreover, Late Philosophers by the help of the Microscope have observed the wonderful Wisdom of God in the Figure of the Snow; each flake is usually of a Stellate Form, and of six Angles of exact equal length from the Center. It is like a little Star. A great man speaks of it with admiration, that in a Body so familiar as the Snow is, no Philosopher should for many Ages take notice of a thing so obvious as the Figure of it. The learned Kepler, who lived in this last Age, is acknowledged to be the first that acquainted the world with the Sexangular Figure of the Snow.”
Then come the devout applications. “ There is not a Flake of Snow that falls on the Ground without the hand of God, Mat. 10. 29. 30 Not a Sparrow falls to the Ground, without the Will of your Heavenly Father, all the Hairs of your head are numbred. So the Great God has numbred all the Flakes of Snow that covers the Earth. Altho’ no man can number them, that God that tells the number of the Stars has numbred them all. . . . . We often see it, when the Ground is bare, if God speaks the word, the Earth is covered with snow in a few Minutes’ time. Here is the power of the Great God. If all the Princes and Great Ones of the Earth should send their Commands to the Clouds, not a Flake of snow would come from thence.”
Then follow the “ uses,” at last, — the little boys in the congregation having grown uneasy long since, at hearing so much theorizing about snow-drifts, with so little opportunity of personal practice. “ Use I. If we should Praise God for His giving Snow, surely then we ought to Praise Him for Spiritual Blessings much more,” “ Use II. We should Humble our selves under the Hand of God, when Snow in the season of it is witheld from us.” “ Use III. Hence all Atheists will be left Eternally Inexcusable.” “ Use IV. We should hence Learn to make a Spiritual Improvement of the Snow.” And then with a closing volley of every text which figures under the head of “ Snow ” in the Concordance, the discourse comes to an end; and every liberated urchin goes home with his head full of devout fancies of building a snow-fort, after sunset, from which to propel consecrated missiles against imaginary or traditional Pequots.
And the patient reader, too long snowbound, must be liberated also. After the winters of deepest drifts the spring often comes most suddenly; there is little frost in the ground, and the liberated waters, free without the expected freshet, are filtered into the earth, or climb on ladders of sunbeams to the sky. The beautiful crystals all melt away, and the places where they lay are silently made ready to be submerged in new drifts of summer verdure. These also will be transmuted in their turn, and so the eternal cycle of the seasons glides along.
Near my house there is a garden, beneath whose stately sycamores a fountain plays. Three sculptured girls lift forever upward a chalice which distils unceasingly a fine and plashing rain ; in summer the spray holds the maidens in a glittering veil, but winter takes the radiant drops and slowly builds them up into a shroud of ice which creeps gradually about the three slight figures : the feet vanish, the waist is encircled, the head is covered, the piteous uplifted arms disappear, as if each were a Vestal Virgin entombed alive for her transgression. They vanishing entirely, the fountain yet plays on unseen ; all winter the pile of ice grows larger, glittering organpipes of congelation add themselves outside, and by February a great glacier is formed, at whose buried centre stand immovably the patient girls. Spring comes at last, the fated prince, to free with glittering spear these enchanted beauties; the waning glacier, slowly receding, lies conquered before their liberated feet; and still the fountain plays. Who can despair before the iciest human life, when its unconscious symbols are so beautiful ?