Jack Frost

by | 28 Mar, 2023 | Folklore, Landscape, Nature, Weather | 0 comments

There are many things to feel nostalgic for as our world heats up. Near the top of my list is frost. 

Frost is magic. Its formation, although easily explained, seems akin to alchemy. Crudely put, when ground temperatures fall below freezing, water vapour in the air condenses into ice crystals. These crystals, which start as hexagonal prisms, can shift and morph into numerous symmetrical shapes, including needles, columns, plates and dendrites (multi-branching forms, from the Greek word dendron, meaning ‘tree’.) If the crystals migrate into an area with different environmental conditions, their growth pattern can change. 

There are different types of frost. All are beautiful, but because it’s the type I experienced most recently, I’m going to focus on the frost that forms on windows – fern frost (sometimes known as ice ferns.) 

Fern frost, as the name suggests, looks like ferns. It appears when one side of the glass is exposed to freezing temperatures while on the other side there is warmer, moist air. The cold temperature causes deposition, meaning that the moisture in the air bypasses a liquid state and transforms directly into ice. Minor differences on the surface of the glass such as dust, dents, cracks and dirt all serve as nucleation points for the formation of ice crystals, which expand symmetrically, creating breathtaking, fractal patterns. In other words, imperfections create masterpieces. (If you’re a perfectionist, there’s a lesson there.)

In the early hours of the 15th March 2023 it got cold. Not cold enough for the whole garden to be covered in frost, but cold enough for my car to freeze. From the lounge window, it looked as if there might be an interesting pattern on the rear windscreen. Wearing a grey, hand-me-down ‘Comfy’, an unflattering, faux-fleece lined blanket with arms and a hood, I went out to have a closer look. What I saw was spectacular. Jack Frost, a relatively modern addition to our folklore, had decorated my car exquisitely.

As far as I can ascertain, Jack Frost first appeared in our vernacular in the 19th century. Jack was once slang for fellow, hence Jack-in-the-box, Jack-of-all-trades, Jack-o-lantern and numerous animal and bird names referring either specifically to the male of the species, such as Jack-hare (Hare) and Jack-hern (Heron), or as a generic term for both sexes, as in Jack-bird (Fieldfare), Jack-in-a-Bottle (Long-tailed tit) and my particular favourite, Jack-a-Dells, and intentional modification of Jack-Devil (a Swift) to avoid using the word Devil. This tendency to add a prefix of Jack, combined with cold, frosty weather, created Jack Frost, a turn of phrase which morphed into a personification of frosty conditions. Over the years, artists and writers have depicted him in different ways. For Arthur Rackham, he was a ghost-like, cloaked figure who floated through the sky, breathing out clouds of icy mist, whereas for Oliver Herford, he was a window-painting sprite, who pitched up in the darkness to decorate window panes with his pallet of ice. 

American poet Hannah F. Gould’s charming poem Jack Frost suggests, as have other writers, that Jack Frost is a mischievous fellow, delighting in going unseen through the night to decorate the landscape in ‘diamond beads’ and happily spoiling ill-protected stores: ‘I’ll bite this basket of fruit’ says Jack in Gould’s poem, and ‘This costly pitcher I’ll burst in three’. 

Her third stanza in the poem encapsulates fern frost terrifically:

He went to the windows of those who slept,

And over each pane, like a fairy, crept;

Wherever he breathed, wherever he slept,

By the light of the moon were seen

Most beautiful things – there were flowers and trees;

There were bevies of birds and swarms of bees;

There were cities and temples and towers, and these

All pictured in a silver sheen!

I like that Jack Frost hasn’t got a single identity, that our individual imaginations make of him what they will. I think it fits with the ephemeral, ever-changing nature of frost. This icy shapeshifter arrives and departs on his own terms, adorning the landscape only when and where he sees fit, hopscotching hither and thither under the cover of darkness to the call of his own crystalline tune. We may be able to scientifically analyse his residues, and even explain how they appear, but to predict how he’ll behave on a given night and what formations he will leave behind is a trickier problem. In this, he remains a tantalising enigma, always one step ahead of us on his icy toes.  

The fern frost on my car didn’t last long. By 9am it had disappeared. But while it was there, in the hour after sunrise, I sat in my car and delighted at its beauty. There were feathers across the front windscreen, vertebrae on the roof; ripples, rivers, whirlpools and shapes of such intricacy that, despite the cold, I found it difficult to leave. I felt as if I was sat beneath a translucent tapestry of ice that had been cast across my car. Not on the greenhouse, not on the cold frame and not on our windows – just on my car; selected, styled and sealed by the verglas virtuoso himself, Jack Frost, winter’s most spellbinding imp. 

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