Hoary frost and December nights

Mon, 12/12/2011 - 1:43pm

A morning stroll in 60 degree weather takes me by the smooth-as-ice “duck pond” on Old Town Road. I note, as a few mallards slip into the surface — seemingly buoyant both above and below the watery lens — that this wide-edged soup bowl in the landscape is full to the brim, and beyond. And I am suddenly transported 40-plus years backwards to the time I first heard my friend — still living in this same neighborhood — repeat the wisdom of her island roots: “The ponds won’t freeze until they’re full.”

Well, they are full, and I wonder when they will crystallize into frozen glassine sheets. According to my yearly log, the average date for my pond being covered in the season’s first skim ice is about December 12; although it has been as early as November 24 in 2008 and as late as January 18 in the winter of 2006/07.

Ice is an amazing substance. The finest tatting maker could not create a Bentley snowflake*. Only crystallized water — ice — has the power to infiltrate and crack granite as an erosive force. Ice can act as a preservative, it has curative powers as an anti-inflammatory and can sooth swollen joints. Ice insulates well and is a strong structural material whether as glacier or igloo. Snow, hoary rime and bouquets of windowpane frost show off ice’s beauty and structure. Skaters find ice to be the substrate of joy, and admirers of the night sky thrill when a frozen snowball reveals itself as a comet.

December on Block Island is the month when ice is most likely to be admired. It welcomes a new season with the beauty of interesting icy incarnations. December ice is novel, and fresh, and pinks the cheeks such that even the most ardent hater-of-cold will blush with a modicum of delight.

December is also the month of both dwindling and increasing daylight. This year the winter solstice — the day where there is the least amount of daylight — will occur on December 22. Because of earth’s axis tilt (relative to the sun) however, the day of the winter solstice results in neither the earliest sunset nor the latest sunrise. The earliest sunsets will occur between December 5 and 12 at 4:15 p.m. And the latest sunrises will occur in January (approximately January 2 through 6 at 7:12 a.m.).

In this month of long nights, views of the night sky can be fabulous. Our winter friend, Orion, can be seen shifting throughout the night from east to west; and the Northern Cross (a.k.a. Cygnus) can be viewed in the evening’s western sky amid the Milky Way. Other favorite winter constellations — Pleiades, Perseus and Taurus — are also easily seen overhead before bedtime. For those of you willing to interrupt a night’s sleep, December will also be good for planet gazing. Venus can be seen in the southwest not long after sunset. Jupiter will be in the southeast sky also after sunset. Mars will be over the eastern horizon around midnight. Saturn can be seen in the third week of December in the southeast sky about an hour before dawn. Mercury, the most difficult planet to see with the naked eye, will make a brief pre-dawn appearance low in the southeast December 21 to 23.

In spite of the wonders of December’s long nights, it is the delicateness of December’s short days that I am preparing to enjoy. Just think of it: an “early” morning walk at the civilized hour of 7 a.m., a need for mittens while watching dawn spread into sunrise, the opportunity to walk as vapor condenses on shadowed grasses, leaves and cattails as hoary frost. Or perhaps a mid-day walk along a pond will be accompanied by the clink and whisper of broken ice, wind-driven to the shore’s edge. To that background ensemble, the delicate voice of a dainty winter wren may join, and then perhaps a distant pheasant crow. Or best of all, a late afternoon walk at 4 p.m. (again, a civilized hour) shrouded in the comfort of a grey-flannel and cotton-clouded sky, observing puddles as the watery surfaces magically stiffen with feathery spikes and expanding webs of ice. If the stars are aligned just right, that is the moment that discernable six-pointed snowflakes — stars of ice — will lightly descend and waft around the perfect December, icy, crepuscular walk.

The following December events and Ocean View Foundations programs are sure to provide opportunities for both icy explorations and the warmth of camaraderie.

Dec. 6 & 20, at 8 a.m.: Crazy-as-a-Coot Bird Walk, call 595-7055 for location.

Dec. 10, Merry Berry Extravaganza at the B.I. School. Ocean View Foundation shirts, tote bags and films will be available.

Dec. 10: Full Hoary Frost moon.

Dec. 12 or so: Ponds covered in the season’s first skim ice.

Dec. 22: Winter Solstice at 12:31 a.m.

Dec. 26 at 9 a.m.: Community Bird Census, meet at Sachem Pond parking area.

* For more information about Wilson Bentley’s amazing photographs of individual snowflakes go to: http://snowflakebentley.com/index.htm