January 18, 1859

in Thoreau’s Journal:

That wonderful frostwork of the 13th and 14th was too rare to be neglected, —succeeded as it was, also, by two days of glaze, —but, having company, I lost half the advantage of it. It was remarkable to have a fog for four days in midwinter without wind. We had just had sudden severe cold weather, and I suspect that the fog was occasioned by a warmer air, probably from the sea, coming into contact with our cold ice-and-snow-clad earth. The hoar frost formed of the fog was such a one as I do not remember on such a scale. Apparently as the fog was coarser and far more abundant, it was whiter, less delicate to examine, and of far greater depth than a frostwork formed of dew. We did not have an opportunity to see how it would look in the sun, but seen against the mist or fog it was too fair to be remembered. The trees were the ghosts of trees appearing in their winding-sheets, an intenser white against the comparatively dusky ground of thef og. I rode to Acton in the afternoon of the 13th, and I remember the wonderful avenue of these faery trees which everywhere over-arched my road. The elms, from their form and size, were particularly beautiful. As far as I observed, the frostwork was deepest in the low grounds, especially on the Salix alba there. I learn from the papers that this phenomenon prevailed all over this part of the country and attracted the admiration of all. The trees on Boston Common were clad in the same snow-white livery with our Musketaquid trees.

Perhaps the most unusual thing about this phenomenon was its duration. The air seemed almost perfectly still the first day, and I did not perceive that the frosting lost anything; nay, it evidently grew during the first half of the day at least, for it was cold at the same time that it was foggy.

Every one, no doubt, has looked with delight, holding his face low, at that beautiful frostwork which so frequently in winter mornings is seen bristling about the throat of every breathing-hole in the earth’s surface. In this case the fog, the earth’s breath made visible, was in such abundance that it invested all our vales and hills, and the frostwork, accordingly, instead of being confined to the chinks and crannies of the earth, covered the mightiest trees, so that we, walking beneath them, had the same wonderful prospect and environment that an insect would have in the former case. We, going along our roads, had such a prospect as an insect would have making its way through a chink in the earth which was bristling with hoar frost.

That glaze! I know what it was by my own experience; it was the frozen breath of the earth upon its beard.

But to remember still that frostwork, I do not know why it should build out northward alone, while the twig

is perfectly bare on the south side. Is not the phenomenon electrical ? You might have guided yourself night or day by observing on which side the twigs it was. Closely examined, it is a coarse aggregation of thin flakes or leafets.

Standing a little east or west of an evergreen, you saw considerable of its greenness, especially the second day, when much had fallen; but in each case successively you were agreeably disappointed when you arrived exactly north of the tree and saw it to best advantage.

Take the most rigid tree, the whole effect is peculiarly soft and spirit-like, for there is no marked edge or outline. How could you draw the outline of these snowy fingers seen against the fog, without exaggeration? There is no more a boundary-line or circumference that can be drawn, than a diameter. Hardly could the New England farmer drive to market under these trees without feeling that his sense of beauty was addressed. He would be aware that the phenomenon called beauty was become visible, if one were at leisure or had had the right culture to appreciate it. A miller with whom I rode actually remarked on the beauty of the trees; and a farmer told me in all sincerity that, having occasion to go into Walden Woods in his sleigh, he thought he never saw anything so beautiful in all his life, and if there had been men there who knew how to write about it, it would have been a great occasion for them.

Many times I thought that if the particular tree, commonly an elm, under which I was walking or riding were the only one like it in the country, it would [be] worth a journey across the continent to see it. Indeed, I have no doubt that such journeys would be undertaken on hearing a true account of it. But, instead of being confined to a single tree, this wonder was as cheap and common as the air itself. Every man’s wood-lot was a miracle and surprise to him, and for those who could not go so far there were the trees in the street and the weeds in the yard. It was much like (in effect) that snow that lodges on the fine dead twigs on the lower part of a pine wood, resting there in the twilight commonly only till it has done snowing and the wind arises. But in this case it did not rest on the twig, but grew out from it horizontally, and it was not confined to the lowest twigs, but covered the whole forest and every surface.

Looking down the street, you might say that the scene differed from the ordinary one as frosted cake differs from plain bread. In some moods you might suspect that it was the work of enchantment. Some magician had put your village into a crucible and it had crystallized thus. The weeping willow, with its thickened twigs, seemed more precise and regularly curved than ever, and as still as if it were carved of alabaster. The maples, with their few long shoots, were rather set and still. It was remarkable that when the fog was a little thinner, so that you could see the pine woods a mile or more off, they were a distinct dark blue. If any tree is set and stiff, it was now more stiff, if airy and graceful, it was now more graceful. The birches especially were a great ornament. As usual in the winter, where a rock rises above the ice it was a mere hillock covered with a white counterpane, and often where one end, perhaps the higher, of the rock was bare on one side it looked like a seal or walrus slowly lifting itself above the surface, or resting there. One suggested a bonfire under the elms in the street at night.

P. M. — Up Assabet to bridge.

Two or more inches of snow fell last night. In the expanse this side Mantatuket Rock I see the tracks of a crow or crows in and about the button-bushes and willows. They have trampled and pecked much in some spots under the button-bushes where these seeds are still left and dibbled into the snow by them. It would seem, then, that they eat them. The only other seeds there can be there are those of the mikania, for I look for them. You will see a crow’s track beginning in the middle of the river, where one alighted.  I notice such a track as this, where one alighted, and apparently struck its spread tail into the snow at the same time with its feet.

I see afterward where a wing’s quills have marked the snow much like a partridge’s. The snow is very light, so that the tracks are rarely distinct, and as they often advance by hops some might mistake it for a squirrel’s or mink’s track.

I suspect that they came here yesterday after minnows when the fishermen were gone, and that has brought them here to-day in spite of the snow. They evidently look out sharp for a morsel of fish. I see where, by the red maple above Pinxter Swamp, they have picked over the fine dark-greenish moss from button-bush, and the leaves which had formed a 

squirrel’s nest, knocking it down on to the river and there treading about and pecking a small piece, apparently for some worms or insects that were in it, as if they were hard pushed.

I am pretty sure to find tracks under the last-named bank, in the edge of the low swamp white oak wood, either of rabbits or mice, crows or fox. The two former generally keep close under the bank, as the safest beat for them, but sometimes I see where they hopped across the river several times last night, and I can imagine how shyly they looked back from the opposite side. The mice occasionally hop out a rod and back, making a semicircle; more rarely quite across.

In my walk of the 16th, I noticed that almost all the way after leaving the railroad till I reached the highway near Hubbard’s Bridge I was on the track of a fox. My beat was nearly identical with its (or there may have been several), — lengthwise through the Cassandra Ponds and Hollows by the lowest and most open path, along the narrow grown-up hillside path to Pleasant Meadow, and just along the edge of the button-bushes, visiting every musquash-house, and crossing the river from time to time.

I notice in midstream, opposite the cooper’s shore, where an opening has been made for ice, some eighteen feet square, and has not frozen over again, but the water is seen passing with a swift current and disappearing quickly under the thin edge of the newly formed ice. I notice one of those fine unaccountable cobweb-like lines, nearly straight though undulating, stretched from side to side of this opening, about eight inches from the edge of the ice on the lower side. It looked at first as if the water, compared with the ice, was higher, in fact heaped up at that point on account of the obstruction which the lower side offered, and that it then suddenly descended and passed under the thin edge of the newly formed ice! The ridge of the watery dam was a narrow light line, and there were on the upper side, parallel with it, eight or ten other light lines or ripples alternating with dark within the breadth of three or four inches, growing less and less distinct; and on the lower side there was a sudden slope (apparently to the level of the water below) about one inch wide.

It was remarkable that the current and all that it carried with it passed incessantly through and over these lines without in the least disturbing them, or rather breaking them, only producing that slight undulation. I describe it as it appears.

Of the large black oaks on the north bank near Prescott Barrett’s, some are quite bare, others have about as many leaves on their lower parts as a white oak. The swamp white oaks opposite are all bare. I notice in two places where a musquash has been out on the snow-covered ice, and has travelled about a rod or less, leaving the sharp mark of its tail.

To-day, an average winter day, I notice no vapor over the open part of the river below the Island, as I did the very cold afternoon of the 10th. The air and water are probably now too nearly of the same temperature. That, then, in the winter, is a phenomenon of very cold weather.