Central heating and double glazing are such accepted features of the warmer, better insulated houses of today that frost ferns are an endangered feature of everyday winter life. I remember loving to examine them closely on my bedroom window pane when I was a bairn, and I recall the frustration when in trying to examine the fabulously intricate variety of crystal designs my breath caused them to melt and blur. Luckily, the greenhouse is single glazed.
On Tuesday morning there was a complete art installation presented from one end of the west facing greenhouse windows to the other. Each pane was exactly the same size; each pane had been covered with, presumably the exact same amount of condensation, so how on earth were the frost fern patterns so very different from one pane to the next? I was mystified. I went as close as I dared to see them in all their glory.
The clarity was exceptionally stark; fine ice fibres and spines radiated and changed angle abruptly, building up shimmering swathes of glittering fronds. Some were curving over, as if caught in a strong breeze; others were stiff and radiated like flames from a silver and white explosion. There were chunky ferns, delicate ferns, multiply branched ones and stiff, solitary varieties. I am determined, while the cold snap lasts, to try to film some of them in detail. It will be just my luck if the weather warms up and there are no more!
But the variety and contrasting shapes and patterns of these two dimensional ice artworks are nothing like as varied as the many forms in which snow falls. You get the soft, floppy blobs of damp snow, the fine, gritty, biting dust snow which stings when it hits you in the face, in the teeth of a gale. The light sinking flakes which settle, rather than fall, drifting down vertically and alighting in ever deepening layers onto every surface in sight.
There is the dusting of snow which gives the hills a grizzled “over 50” appearance and the whipped cream snow total blanket effect, smothering everything under domed, quilted mounds of deep whiteness. Then, apart from the dizzy or delicate arriving of the snow, there are the after effects. The exquisite, but often dangerous quirks of drifting; the gradual solidifying of deep snow into steel hard ice, and one I hadn’t come across before, revealed in Sunday’s wandering, the glacial striations.
A fine, even covering had masked every uneven feature on the lower slopes of Easterhoull, covering hill dyke and drainage channel, boggy patch and outcrop with equal effectiveness. One minute your feet were confidently treading the short grass, obscured by a few inches of crusty, crunching white. The next moment, you had one leg thigh deep and were heading for a snowy tumble, with little purchase from which to secure an escape.
As I was lying, spread-eagled, face down in the snow filled hollow, waiting for Sir Galahad to retrace his steps and extricate me, I realised that the entire snow field was covered in fine, parallel lines of scratches. Something, on a vast scale, had hit the ground surface at speed and scored a fine track in the topmost layer of snow, which had subsequently frozen so hard that the multitude of tracks were fixed hard. All I could think of was large, steely hail stones. If they had been blasted along in gale force winds, over recently fallen snow, they might well have left their traces on the soft snow skin in the final descent.
Shetland has some splendid words for weather, including a lot for snow, but nothing like as many, apparently, as the Inuit tribal vocabulary boasts. I wonder if someone has actually reproduced the words, translated into English? If not, there is a perfect opportunity here for someone to create a wonderful book of words and images, with descriptions and explanations of the many different forms and features which snow can create.
“Snow wheels” are probably not among the vast list of names, which the Inuit are said to have for snow in all its varied forms, but snow wheels exist as a distinct feature in the animated landscape of this Shetland snow. All you need, in order to discover the delights of snow wheels, is a deep layer of snow which has partially melted and refrozen on top; then a slightly shallower layer of soft, freshly fallen snow with just a slight touch of moisture, enough for a handful of flakes to clump and cling together if shoved; and then you need a steep slope.
Walk across the slope on a beautiful Sunday afternoon and as your feet lift from each deep footprint, your toe catches on the soft snow layer and a scatter of tiny clumps of snow fly ahead of you and begin to roll down the slope. The clumps gather momentum and also more flakes. Each revolution picks up a new skin of snow, gradually increasing the width of the clump, along the edge, which touches the ground. The slope is so steep that the blob shape steadily takes on the form of a wheel. A whole clutch of wheels are now galloping and bounding down the slope towards the shore.
Tracks of all kinds lying like light blue hieroglyphics against the pristine snow page, are one of the most intriguing features of a decent few days of snow. Rabbit hop marks are easy enough to read, but bad for the teeth. Mine fairly ground together with frustration and wretchedness when I traced the tracks across the ground, from baby tree to tree as the loping nibblers had sought out particularly sweet bark to chew on. Spring will reveal just what has survived and what has succumbed.
This week the spectacular nature of the snow-transformed scenery has been especially dramatic at night. Full moonlight and thick snow cover, in particular seen against a background landscape of sea and island, has been utterly breathtaking. The dazzle of moonlight on snow, the glare of moonlight on the sea, the flickering of sea safety lights and the ghostly passage of gulls across the stillness has been overwhelmingly beautiful. But there was still one more magical card in the moonlight pack of special effects.
For those with the eyes to see and the good fortune to be on the east side of Shetland on Tuesday night, there was an actual moonbow. We are not talking here about the halo, the broch, or the ring which sometimes surrounds the moon as it glides across the clear, dark sky, but an actual rainbow shape, complete with rainbow colours, cast against a patch of illuminated cloud at a distance from the moon. A friend stood at her window, watching and describing the effect on the phone, while I scanned the sky in vain, realising that for us, on the western side of Shetland’s Pennine ridge equivalent, the moon would not rise above the ridge for several more hours. The moonbow was mesmerising, but fleeting and we missed it.
Jill Slee Blackadder