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Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Thirty Degrees Below Zero, 1856

In January 1856 "F.W.S.," the editor of The Knickerbocker's "favorite 'Up-River' correspondent," ("Winter cannot freeze his fancy, nor snow thicken the ink that drops in gems from his potent pen," p. 192), reported to the magazine's city-based readership on the experience of extreme cold in the Green Mountains of northern New England:

Thirty Degrees Below Zero: This is ten degrees lower than the god Mercury had snuggled down in his crystal cell at my last. Amabile frigus! as Horatius has it. Delightful coolness! Have you ever tasted it? Clap your tongue on a bar of cold iron, or a smooth sleigh-runner, and it will polish it up, and remove the fur. [p. 311]

After pages of mid-Victorian prose about Dr. Kane, the American polar explorer, and Arctic cold, F.W.S. eventually got back to his subject, and closer to home:

[p. 313] I had not intended to allude to Kane, but commenced with a different object, to speak of the effects of intense cold. Thirty degrees below zero are sometimes experienced in this latitude, although we neither feed on train-oil, nor harness dogs, nor drive rein-deer, nor travel with snow-shoes; and I assure you that the weather is quite comfortable at that point. It is intense, but still. Ordinary winter clothing will suffice. When you snuff the open air, you are aware of its quality from the line and icy net-work, finer than spider's web, which is woven instantaneously within your nostrils as the breath goes out, and which is dissolved and spun again with a tickling and a tingling sensation. The lungs imbibe freely and refreshingly as if cool wavelets of a brook. The snow squeaks beneath the feet. Within doors you are startled by sundry noises; the timbers of the house groan, the boards contract, and tear up the nails with a sound which resembles the explosion of a pistol, and is repeated at short intervals. The smoke rolls upward from the chimneys in white volumes — white as the snow itself. The flanks of the horses are well powdered, their manes and shaggy coats are tagged with little pellets, a hirsute beard of icicles hangs from their chins. As they stand thus enveloped in vapor, and a white steam gushes from their nostrils, they seem like mythic creatures come back to realms of matter-of-fact The eaves of houses are adorned with massive, sharpened pendents, which would be deemed most rich if carved in wood or marble, but which are superber yet when of transparent crystals. This architectural ornamentation, made by the still and master-hand of Nature, alas! that it should be removed as quickly, as noiselessly, and as magically as it was fashioned, by a breath or by vapor, in a night or in a day; that one by one the icicles should all drop off, and nothing be left but a rude uncomely gutter. In the morning, the windows of your chamber are not covered with delicate frost-work, in which you can trace out many pictures, but coated with a thick snow, through which external objects are invisible. If you have courage to resume your walks, go visit the pools where you have once dropped your line for the speckled trout, the water-course, the cascade, or the cataract. There you will see superb congelations, immense icicles. Mill-dams are frozen, and, with all their foam and frothy billows, arrested and petrified as by a magician's wand; the great rocks are covered with a massive coating, and from the brow of the dripping precipice hang immense ice-drops, sharp and glittering pendents, while shafts and columns, and glittering boulders of every form, are seen about, and the whole landscape is arrayed in the utmost gorgeousness of winter.


Not long ago, at the midnight hour, I sat inditing this by a cheerful light. A stealthy cold crept along the floor, and stole about the feet. I heard the boards and timbers cracking, I arose and piled on the pitchy logs, then went out into the keen night-air. What a scene! The moon was at the full. Within a hundred yards, at the base of a steep hill upon the right, a range of manly Doric columns, carved out of native marble, and worthy of ancient Athens, composing the capital on the portico of this sovereign State, glistened in the whito beams, and a beautiful dome was upheaved in the very spot where, within the memory of living men, the audacious wolves, and bears, and catamounts were wont to prowl. All around lay [p. 314] a vast scene of rolling mountains, white from peak to base, the surface of the snow as hard as ice, and glistening like purest alabaster. It was a cold, a glorious, yet solemn sight. Light without warmth! You could read the finest print. I had polar feeling, such as Kane had when he searched for Franklin's grave among the bergs of ice. I sniffed and snuffed the breeze bare-headed for a moment, and then retreated into summer heat. Cold contracts: it crystallizes iron, and it drives the soul into snug, concentred quarters. It makes home pleasant, and by contrast adds a new delight and zest to genial warmth. Now the historians please, now the poets satisfy. Ah! how pleasant to be in a snug home, when the tempest dashes against the windows and upon the roof; or in an illuminated library when the winter howls without! But I was about to describe the physical effects of intense cold. Man readily adapts himself to any climate, and can live sub Diofrigido — be very comfortable at thirty degrees below zero — or breathe, like the fireking, in an oven hot enough to bake bread. It is all habit. Other animals seem to suffer little. Cows and horses bear the weather well. As to hogs, they are not sensitive: they are as tough as J. B.: either their hides are leathery thick, or bristles are warm as Saxony wool. Give them provender, and a chance to put one hoof in the trough, and they do not care whether Mercury goes up an inch or down a foot. I can perceive no sign of suffering unless indicated by a grunt It would be unfair to interpret that dialect as expressing the voice of complaint.
Birds sometimes perish, and are pierced through the vitals by a sharp icy dart, as they are struck dead by electric fire; but if they belong to Northern climes, they bear up (penna metuente solvi) with an untiring wing.

The other day, I saw a flight of snow-birds sit down in a garden-patch to pick at the seed-vessels of a few dry weeds, and as they rose up to fly, and wheeled about, they seemed like a flurry of vast snow-flakes, their bosoms were 'so white as no fuller on earth could whiten them.' It is funny to see a single file of geese fast asleep, standing upon the ice on one leg, like so many zanies, looking like the relics of that great shot once made by Baron Munchausen. But a Shanghai rooster is out of place in this latitude. He can't stand it. There was a tall, scrawny fellow about the premises, and his feathers looked like porcupine quills. The first cold snap came, and in the night watches I no longer heard him crow the hours in accordance with the town clock. In the morning he came not down from his perch: he grappled it with the clutch of an eagle's talons: it was the grab of death. From crest to Pope's nose, he was as stiff a piece of poultry as you would find in the stalls. 

F.W.S., "Thirty Degrees Below Zero -- A Fact!" The Knickerbocker 47:3 (Mar. 1856): 311-314, http://books.google.com/books?id=J8gGAQAAIAAJ.

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