It is one o’clock on a mid-December afternoon. The sun has barely risen above the band of spruce on the nearby hill. Rays of light tentatively brush the edges of frozen puddles. Here, just out of reach of the warmth of the midday sun, the ice will remain for days. The temperature creeps just above freezing for a few hours each day, softening the ice just a little before it freezes solid once again at night fall.
Despite the fragility of its semi-thawed state, the ice retains a solid structure, bridging one side of the pothole to the other. An insect lands on a thin shard. From the insect’s perspective the giant ice sculpture upon which it finds itself must resemble a superstructure; an incredible feat of engineering. On colder days, when the ice holds everything in its iron grip, even the earth and grass are solid. A favourite phrase of nineteenth-century writers to describe this phenomenon was ‘iron-bound’.
A few years ago while searching the newspapers for articles by Richard Jefferies I discovered a previously unknown essay that he contributed to the Pall Mall Gazette in 1879 titled ‘Iron-Bound December’. At the time Jefferies was living in Surbiton, having moved there from Wiltshire, to make his way in the field of literature. It was not unusual then for most parts of the British Isles to receive significant snowfall in December or to be frozen in for days at a time. Here Jefferies describes a walk along the river Thames at night, and the eerie creaking sounds of the ice at work in the darkness:
“At night by the silent Thames (far “above bridge”) the footpath was clearly defined by the crystals of snow which thinly covered it, ceasing in a sharp line where the wall fell to the river. On the opposite side the bank again was visible because of the snow and ice accumulated upon it. Presently, while walking by the shore you heard a low grinding, splintering sound, like breaking glass gently, were such a thing possible. Then a broad white spot appeared floating on the black surface. It was an ice-floe, formed in some back-water or shallow behind an osier-grown eyot; and it had not yet been over a weir. After it came another and another; and, with irregular intervals between, these floes followed each other in slow procession through the silence and the darkness. Calm, still, black, and repellent, the river flowed on: coming out of night and going into night, and only made visible by the snow-lined shore and its chilly burden. By the day the banks in places seemed inaccessible, from piles of ice lying high above the water and presenting their jagged edges outwards in layers. Farther down in the tidal way the floes, having been carried over the weir, were broken up and roughly rounded. The pieces varied from one to three feet in diameter, and seemed mostly sexagonal or octagonal in shape. Sometimes a dozen such pieces had become frozen together – a mosaic of ice.”
For me the most memorable part of the article is a scene where Jefferies finds a mole out upon the surface of the earth, unable to scrabble back down into the soil due to the frozen conditions:
“The sun was now shining brilliantly, though without the least apparent effect upon the hoar frost. A rustling sound in the sward by the roadside made me go nearer, when I found a mole working through the grass and dead leaves all white and frozen together. He heaved them up and pushed through them, hidden and yet above the surface of the ground, which was frozen too hard for him to enter. His course zigzagged from side to side, and tracing it backwards I saw an old mole-hill by the side of a ditch; the sign of a subterranean passage there made when the earth was softer. From that passage he had gone forth on an exploring expedition, vainly endeavouring to find some earth into which he could dig in search of food. I placed my foot between him and the molehill. He instantly turned to rush back, but finding the obstacle tried his very hardest to burrow. He scratched, he tore at the earth; but it was like iron, and he could do nothing but cling tightly to the fibres of grass. When picked up and placed in the road he wagged his short tail and made off at a considerable speed – much faster than such an animal would seem capable of going, but to all appearance without any sense of direction. If touched he turned on his back, squeaked like a tiny pig, and fought with all four feet vigorously. I now put him in a ditch where I saw the earth was softer. He buried himself out of sight in a couple of minutes, and I left him in snugness and safety.”
A close-up study of ice itself will yield surprising results. Within a single frame lies a collage of phantasmagorical shapes that depend upon the light for their distinction. Embedded stones suggest mottled reptilian outlines. As my five year old son pointed out, a prehistoric crocodile here, a dinosaur head there. Having denied all appeals to wear a coat he runs ahead in just a t-shirt, oblivious to the cold. He stamps on puddles enjoying the splintering crack and the shards that explode from beneath his boots. When he reaches a larger puddle he picks up a sheet of ice, holding it gingerly between forefinger and thumb, a little out to one side, like a giant shield. His little sister has been gazing into one of the frozen puddles, inspecting the patterns. When he comes along and jumps on it she bursts into tears. I feel her anguish as she rushes over, her sense that the work of art has been lost. When he realises he quickly collects together various fragments and returns them to the puddle. She joins in, and between them they ‘mend the ice.’