A fine, frosty morning dawned Monday, and Kitty and I took an extra few turns on our morning ramble to inspect nature's fleeting handiwork.
Frost could use some PR. As far as precipitation goes, it doesn't get anywhere near the attention of its more voluminous brethren, rain, snow, hail or even fog.
Perhaps because frost inconveniences no one. No one ever said, "I'd love to go, if it weren't for this darn frost." Frost's most powerful punch comes as metaphor, for creeping age and death.
It used to be called "hoar frost," though that term would only confuse people if used in conversation nowadays, as it would no doubt be heard as "whore frost," and imagined to be perhaps a colorful antique term for some symptom of venereal disease.
"Hoar" means a grayish white, usually relating to hair—we speak of people being "hoary with age"—and I noticed Monday this little display of flattop hairiness on the frost atop our Weber grill, a quality associated with frost. Bowditch's American Practical Navigator, if nothing a book of fine distinctions, defines frost as "more fluffy and feathery than rime which in turn is lighter than glaze."
Frost forms first on metal easiest because metal cools quickly, and frost is a phenomenon of cold drawing out moisture from the air. Frost is really just frozen dew, the condensation that forms when the temperature drops and the air can no longer hold the water that's evaporated within it. The night before had been clear with little wind, perfect conditions for forming frost, a situation that Samuel Taylor Coleridge refers to in his beautiful ode to his son, "Frost at Midnight," whose opening lines are, "The Frost performs its secret ministry/Unhelped by any wind."
Just as it is winter that makes the springtime so sweet, so it is death that makes our lives so precious. At the ending of "Frost at Midnight," Coleridge places all his good wishes upon the cradle before him, while pushing away thoughts of frost and its friend, " the sole unquiet thing" stalking us all.
Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,Whether the summer clothe the general earthWith greenness, or the redbreast sit and singBetwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branchOf mossy apple-tree, while the nigh thatchSmokes in the sun-thaw;
whether the eave-drops fallHeard only in the trances of the blast,Or if the secret ministry of frostShall hang them up in silent icicles,Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.
For writers, there is a parting lesson here in the value of revision. Coleridge re-wrote this poem at least seven times, changing what had originally been "the secret ministry of cold" to "the secret ministry of frost," which just sounds more poetic. Indeed, that's perhaps the best way to think of frost: as poetic cold.