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AUNT SUE'S SNOWBANK
For weeks the country folk, wise in weather lore, have been shaking their heads of a morning or an evening and saying, "The air is full of snow!" No one of them can tell you how he knows it, but he knows. "It feels like snow," and that does not mean that the air is of a certain coldness or chilliness, dampness or dryness, though there is definite balance of these conditions when we say it. It means that there is in it another quality, too subtle to be defined, that touches some equally subtle sixth sense which life in the open begets in most of us. Fulminate is full of fire, but it needs a shock or sudden pressure to liberate it. So as the northerly wind drifted steadily down from the Arctic with no opposition in the air currents that would give the requisite counter pressure, the sky held up its store and we all continued to go forth, sniff, shake our heads and prophesy. The cold drifted farther and farther south till Jacksonville recorded, shamefacedly and reluctantly, the same freezing temperature that New York had. All this while "Aunt Sue's snowbank" lifted in dun clouds a degree or two above the horizon in the southeast of a morning or a night and disappeared again. Who Aunt Sue was or why the snowbank should be hers is more than I know, but her snowbank thus appears in the sky before a coming winter storm, and has been known as such to the country folk of my neighborhood for many generations. The early English settlers of "the Dorchester back woods" brought with them many a quaint proverb and local saying. Some of these you can trace back to Shakespeare’s day, and beyond. Others, like the sturdy men that brought them, have no record in the Domesday Book, but no doubt as long a lineage for all that. One of these proverbs that is probably as old as weather wisdom says:
So as the air and Aunt Sue both prophesied for weeks without fulfilment, all the weather-wise world knew the storm would be ,a good one when it did come. Meanwhile the steady, increasing cold put all the woodland into winter quarters. The ground froze, as we say, meaning that the moisture in it became ice to a depth of several inches, making an almost impenetrable ice blanket through which the most severe winter weather will work but slowly. Beneath this, or even in it, all burrowing roots, animals and insects are safe from freezing. Where the ground is packed hard, the flinty combination of ice and grit goes deepest, though even in exposed situations only to a depth of three feet or so. The woodchucks asleep in their burrows, the snakes, torpid in their holes, are as safe from frost-bite as if they had migrated to the shores of the Gulf of Mexico. The rootlets of small, perennial herbs may be encased in ice to their tips, but they do not freeze. The heat which the surrounding moisture gives up in changing to ice, combined with their own self-generated warmth, keeps them just above the freezing temperature and they live through it in safety. The same rootlets laid bare to the frost of a single October night die. The ice which seems to menace them is in fact their armor. So it is with countless numbers of burrowing insects. The frozen ground which seems so dead is full of waiting life which the very frost that threatens to kill instead protects. Last September I watched two larvae of the rather common moth, Protoparce sexta, the tomato sphinx. Great fat green fellows as large as one's thumb, they were, each with a spine-like thorn cocked jauntily on his rear segment. They had fattened on my tomato vines until they had reached their full growth and were ready to go into the cocoon stage, in winter quarters. They dropped from the vines and began to wander hastily, but seemingly aimlessly, on the ground beneath. But careful watching showed that each was poking at the ground every few lengths as he crawled, seeking a situation that suited him. Before long each had started to burrow, going into the earth slowly and laboriously, but steadily worming a way in. Each went out of sight, leaving a hole just his own size behind him, such a hole as I might have made by pressure with a round stick. A week later I dug them up. They had gone down five or six inches, turned head upward, and there they were, each a conical brown pupa that bore little resemblance to the naked green caterpillars that had gone down into the earth a week before. Barring the accident of my spade, which neither could foresee, they were safe from cold and enemies. The ground would freeze solid around them, but that instead of harming them would simply put the seal of safety on their abode. Nor were they dead things to be resurrected by the Gabriel horn of spring. When I poked them they wriggled with quite surprising vigor, showing that they were very much alive and keenly conscious. They were not even asleep, else their jump at a touch would not have been so prompt.
The frost goes deepest in the densely compacted earth, probably because of the density; the fewer the air cells the better the conductor. In fluffy soil, especially in the peaty margins of the pond where the earth granules are large and loose and there is much moisture, freezing produces a singular and beautiful result. The ice seems to crystallize away from the peat in which the water was ensponged, not in a compact body nor yet in feathery crystals, either of which one might expect, but in closely parallel, upright cylinders from the size of a knitting needle to that of a slim lead pencil. These are often several inches long and stand erect at the surface by the thousand, touching but not cohering, ready to crumble to fragments at the pressure of the foot but shielding the peat below from the cold. The ice on the pond may be solid enough to bear you, but when you step on this peaty edge you go down into the liquid mud beneath. Here you have reproduced in fragile miniature the same result as happened at the Giant's Causeway on the sea margin at the northeast corner of Ireland. There a long vein of once liquid basalt, freezing suddenly ages ago, left a great ridge of close-packed, vertical rock crystals running out an unknown distance into the sea.
With the good old rock-ribbed New England earth in winter quarters and the surface vocal with Jeremiahs clamoring for snow, it had to come. The incantations of these raised a witch whirl in that mysterious source of all our storms, the region along the tropic of Capricorn, in the Gulf of Mexico. Up the coast it came, with the weather bureau flying storm flags in its honor from Palm Beach to the Penobscot, boring into the freezing temperature and clear air that the North wind had spread around us, obscuring all the sky in the dun clouds of conflict. The young moon threw her clasped hands to a point of slender flame above her head and drowned in it. Aunt Sue's snowbank had circled the horizon and was rising steadily toward the zenith.
The sky does not give up its moisture readily this year, else the snow prophets had had their way weeks ago. The morning after that night on which the young moon drowned should have seen the air whirling with white flakes, but only in mid-forenoon did the clouds give up, and then grudgingly. All it had for us was a few granules, first-form crystals consisting of the tiniest crossed ice needles ground out of shape by the pressure between the opposing forces of the air. In the woodland the eye caught a glint of one of these now and then, but I had to go to the lee shore of the pond to know that the storm was really beginning. There the northeast wind, swept the ice for a half-mile, collected these tiny snow nodules and sent them whirling along the smooth black surface to bank them in miniature drifts against the southern shore. They did not seem to come from the air, instead the ice seemed to give them up under the pressure of the keen wind. It was as if the edge of it scraped them off. The winding streams of them were very like the spindrift I have seen swept in tortuous, level flight from the black waves of the mid-Atlantic by a wild sea gale. Very white they looked as they flew along the black ice, yet when I picked a handful of them from the pond margin I saw that they were anything but white. Instead they were dirty, in places fairly black. The air had seemed crystal clear for weeks, yet the snow had found in it the soot of a thousand factory chimneys and brought it to earth.
The air seems full of a magical new life always after it has been snowing for an hour or two. People who are out in it may have cold feet and tingling ears and fingers, yet they feel the intoxication of this renewed vitality till the very teamsters, half-frozen though they may be, shout cheerily to one another and laugh with the delight of it all. I fancy it is because the cleansing snow has swept all the impurities out of it in its fall, and all breathe its oxygen disentangled from soot and dust.
An hour or two more and visible snowflakes were falling in increasing numbers. The grind of winds in the upper air must have lessened a little, for the crystals came down no longer crushed into grains but with their primary, six-pointed star form intact. These swirled over the treetops, but straight to earth behind all wind breaks, and hung a film of flowing lace between the eye and all distances of the nearby woods. Such a curtain the makers of stage scenery imitate when they wish to let the audience see through the veil into fairyland and through it we see all beautiful things become more dainty and we know in our hearts that all wonder-tales are true, so long as we see them made real through the magic of this illusory veil. So through this floating, fairy film of snowflakes it is easy to see gnomes and sprites dancing and all the people of northland legends grow and vanish. The children may believe in Santa Claus in bright weather with the ground bare, and good luck to them. It is only when the snow falls in the woodland that we elders hear the jingle of his bells in the tinkle of ice-crystal on twig and see his reindeer lift through the air of the woodland glade and prance to vanishment over the treetops in a whirl of the storm. For a little the world is young again and Santa Claus no myth, even to graybeards in the Dorchester backwoods, when Aunt Sue's snowbank comes tumbling home through the pine tops. On such days weather-wisdom is justified of her children and prophets of storm have honor, even in their own country.
Most of all woodland trees, the young pines seemed to love this dry, light snow, holding up every limb and every cluster of green needles to receive it, stretching them upward as if in yearning for it. I think it is quite true that in the December cold, when there is a feel of snow in the air, the limbs of young pines do bend a little more toward the vertical. I know that the upward pointing needles do press a little closer to the stems on which they grow and thus more readily tangle and hold the ice crystals that fall upon them. The tender young shoots of this year's growth are clothed with these close-set needles for a space of a foot or more, averaging ten groups of five needles to the inch, all pointing upward to the very tip, where they press around the buds for next year's growth in a close-inverted cone. They themselves keep the cold winds in a good measure from this young bark and these prized buds. But they do better than that. When the snow begins to fall they catch and hold every flake that touches them, skewering the interstices of the crystals on their needle points. The first real flakes of this storm showed as soon on the top tassels of these young pines as they did in the bare fields.
As the storm progressed, the lower needles of the spike caught such as got by the filled tops and soon all the needles of the young trees were filled with fluffy white snow, until the trees from tip to butt were no longer green but white, most royally robed in spotless purity. There was no soot in this whiteness, all that the air held had been swept from it by the very first of the storm. No cherry tree in the full fragrance of May bloom could show such dainty beauty, such endearing florescence as these young pines on the borders of the deep wood. Nor could the pines do better for their own protection than this. Ice which encases their tender rootlets in the frozen ground and holds them warm and safe through the most severe cold, came out of the sky with the storm for the safety of tender twigs and young buds. Snow crystals hold entangled within their mass eight or ten times their own bulk of air. It is this entangled air, whether in the fluff of a woolen blanket or in a snowfall, that fends from the cold. The first clear night after a snowfall is almost sure to be a bitter one. Calm follows the storm, the sky is clear and the radiation from the snow-clad surface of the earth is great. This radiation lowers the temperature, and as we look at our frost-bitten thermometers in the early morning after, we do not wonder that the mercury has shrunken to the zero mark or below. But what do the young pines care? This radiation is only from the very surface of the evaporating snow crystals. Robed in this regal ermine fluff from top to toe, they hold their life warmth secure behind the entangled mass of non-conducting air and are safe from all disaster.
Our pines have suffered much from a mysterious "disease" for the last few years, and the most careful study has failed to find any fungus blight or insect at the bottom of this. We have had summer after summer of severe and long continued drought. It is now believed that this has weakened the trees so that they could not withstand the winter cold and have been "winter killed." With the drought we had several winters of infrequent snowfall. We did better last winter and the disease seems to be on the wane. Next to plenty of rain in summer, a winter in which we have frequent falls of light snow will be the best medicine for the pines that we could have.
It is the air entangled among the snow crystals, then, which makes the snow blanket, as we often call it, so sure a protection from cold. The ground may have frozen to a considerable depth before the snow comes, but if it stays throughout the winter there is no frost in the earth beneath it when the spring melts it away. No sooner is the ground protected from further freezing from above than the greater warmth below begins to melt the frost and change it to life-giving moisture. Because of this warmth from below the sap stirs in the trees long before the temperature in the air above the snow blanket has given it any warrant for such action. It pushes up until the frost-bound trunk denies it further passage and there waits the first brief respite in the air above. Hence in March, though the snow may be still deep on the surface and the mercury in the glass fall well toward zero at night, the fires are started in the maple sugar camps and the pails hung to the trees. We know that no sooner will the sun warm their trunks than the sap will begin to tinkle in the pails, dripping with the sweet promise of the spring which is already pulsing in the subsoil.
It was not a big storm, in my woods, after all. It lasted less than twenty-four hours and hardly six inches of light snow fell. Proverbs are half-truths, anyway, and "long foretold, long last" has proved less than half of itself this time. But though the day is clear and the sun bright, Aunt Sue's snowbank is lifting its purple mass in the southeast again and, with the other Dorchester backwoodsmen, I am wagging my head solemnly and joining in a jeremiad concerning a big one next time. I should like to have known Aunt Sue. I picture her as a stout, keen-eyed, wise-headed house-mother of the old English stock. Surely she is the patron saint of the young pines and of all others who know how to enjoy a good old-fashioned winter. As such I hope someone will paint her, seated on a good big snowbank, attended by cupid pines robed in such ermine as they now wear, and with the soft radiance of a snow rainbow around her head for an aureole.