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7 December 2023

The secrets of frost

Frost doesn’t merely transform our surroundings – it alters the kind of attention we pay to the world.

By Helen Macdonald

In rural Suffolk, where I live, frost most commonly arrives in December. In Aviemore, October. In Penzance it might not happen at all. For gardeners and agriculturalists the phenomenon is a blessing and a curse: it breaks up heavy soils, kills weeds, reduces pest populations, and turns parsnips, carrots, kale and leeks so much sweeter. But at the other end of winter, unseasonably late frosts can wreak havoc, leaving new plant-growth limp and blackened and dead.

With the earlier springs of a warming world, late frosts are increasingly destructive and can devastate industries. Desperate not to lose entire vintages, French winemakers light bonfires and candles among the vines to keep the ice at bay.

Frost occurs because warm air is able to carry more moisture than cold air. When temperatures dip, water is lost from it. Should temperatures remain above freezing, this water is deposited as dew. If temperatures continue to fall, dew may freeze to a clear, glassy coat called rime ice. But with sufficient cold, water vapour lost from the air skips the liquid stage entirely and turns directly to crystalline ice: frost.

Like clouds, frosts have their own taxonomy. Wind frost occurs when a bitter wind blows over surfaces, forming tiny spikes that cluster along the edges of leaves, twigs or poles. The branching, feathered patterns on windscreens and the interior of windows in unheated rooms are known as fern frost or window frost, each curling frond seeded from an imperfection, a scratch or grain of dust or dirt that allows ice crystals their first purchase on an otherwise smooth surface.

Hoar frost – spines and needles of white ice growing from frozen surfaces – is often a consequence of freezing fog. And rarest of all is an exquisitely beautiful phenomenon called hair ice. Rotting wood of deciduous trees infected by the fungus Exidiopsis effusa can, under the right conditions, extrude a tangled, thick mop of long strands of white ice possessing the soft sheen of animal fur. The presence of the fungus and the chemicals it releases allow ice to grow in a form unlike any other manifestation: it looks like a tiny silver toupee or a patch of polar bear pelt discarded on the darkness of a forest floor.

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[See also: Why we must fight the threat of a “silent spring”]

In their resemblance to biological growths, fern ice and hair ice conjure life. But in their fragility and transience, all forms of frost intimate death. It’s not something we can interact with: the merest touch of human warmth destroys it. It can only be observed. Furthermore, its mysterious appearances feel unanchored from any tangible cause. We see snow and rain fall from the sky, but frost appears from thin air, apparently grown from the things it decorates, as if they themselves had produced it.

Frost’s transformative power isn’t limited to its physical effects on soil structure or living tissue. It has the capacity to alter the kind of attention we pay to the world and the meanings we take from it. Under its secret ministrations, straight lines become furred, baroque. Hoar frost turns soft, near-invisible spiders’ webs into heavy opalescent necklaces slung between branches. Things you would pass without a second glance on any other day become rich, fascinating and deserving of minute attention: the newly feathered lattices of a chain-link fence, the tiny stars and spears of ice growing from a discarded soda can. All things touched by frost are rendered the same, whether roadside litter or the rarest late rose.

To me, the changes wrought by heavy frost recall JG Ballard’s The Crystal World, a deeply eerie novel that relates the effects of a distant cosmic event that causes areas of the world inexplicably to crystallise. Across swathes of tropical jungle, flesh and wood and light and water become conjoined and refracted in glittering, final solidity, as if time and space and life and death had become one and the same. And it’s that intimation of crystalline, collapsing time that sits inside my memories of hoar frost.

[See also: The bird that wasn’t there]

One day in particular stays with me. It began with freezing fog, and it was a weekday in winter. I’d set out at dawn for a walk in Chippenham Fen, and as the light increased I saw that over the short hours of darkness, long spines of white ice had grown from every surface exposed to air. Hoar frost isn’t rare, but the size and thickness of these lapidary encrustations were: the fogbound landscape I walked in was other-worldly and entirely bewitching.

Frost, silence, stillness. The only soul I met on that walk was a man escorting his small border terrier back to the car park. It was an elderly dog with a halting gait that bespoke age and frozen paws. As we passed I expected the usual wordless nod of greeting. But the man stopped. Looked at me. Rubbed his gloved hands, then gestured at everything around us. When he spoke, his voice was deep and full of feeling.

“I’ve never seen it like this and I’m 73. Never. Never like this in all my life.” He paused. “You can get this old, as old as me,” he said, his voice breaking mid-sentence, “but you can still see something new.”

We’d been privy to a miracle, a shared secret. Less than ten minutes later the frost started to decay. Each frozen twig and branch of the willows around and above me began shedding ice, soft splinters falling slowly through the air, glittering here and there with the first touch of winter sun through mist.

As I walked, the frost tickled my face and nape as it melted, glittering spines coating my sleeves. The sky had grown bright as I reached my car, that foggy silence replaced by the patter of dripping water, and by the time I found myself home, the whole new world I’d been given had gone.

[See also: Winter wonderlands: Writers on their favourite artworks]

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This article appears in the 07 Dec 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special