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Just Another Gray Morning

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Here comes another gray morning
A not-so-good morning after all
She says, "Well, what am I to do today?
Too much time, so much sorrow.
She hears the baby waking up downstairs
She hears the foghorn calling out across the sound
Repetition in the morning air
It's just too much to bear, and no one seems to care
If another day goes creepin' by
Empty and ashamed
Like an old unwanted memory no one can claim
The clouds put their heads on the ground
She's gonna have to come down.

-James Taylor, "Another Gray Morning"

Yesterday, a nondescript gray flannel day, like all the other countless nondescript gray flannel days in the Mid Ohio Valley, I was treated to GRAUPEL!!

This is graupel. It's formed when water droplets freeze around a snowflake on its way down to earth, making a foamy little ball.

You've probably seen it and thought it was just pelleted snow or freezing rain. Well, isn't it nice to have a groovy German term for it? I think so. I am fully in support of meteorological arcana like "graupel" and "derecho" and "Kelvin-Helmholtz Wave Clouds" entering common parlance, and I hereby pledge to continue to foment this trend, because the more bizarre and interesting words one can add to one's everyday speech, the better. Like my DOD said, "Keep 'em guessing."

I noticed on this gray and grumpy morning that sycamore leaves catch graupel best of all, their quilted venation making runnels and channels for the tiny dots. 

The leaves themselves are so beautiful, so huge--ten inches across! I stood outside one very dark night in November and listened to them hitting the ground all around me. It was actually scary-freaky, because they sounded like large manila folders being thrown from great height, and I couldn't see them, and feared being klonked on the head by one.

It's just the leaves, I said. Just the leaves.

Like graupel is just ice. But then again, it's more than that. It's ice, drawing leaf outlines on leaves--this one a poplar! My hike devolved into about 50 deep knee bends as I found pattern after pattern, tracing the visual music across the orchard floor. It was marvelous.

So out I went this morning, hoping for more graupel, but the leaves were clean, and the moss had no dusting of stars.
It was a good thing I had my dawg along, because he doesn't mind another gray day.


This is what happens when you ask Curtis if he wants to go into the woods. After years of wheedling, trying to get my husband and (younger)  kids to come into the woods with me, it's so nice to have someone who is always just thrilled to come along! His enthusiasm for life is so affirming. Going deep into the woods is his favorite thing of all. 

I'm reaping the benefits of some hard trail cutting the past few weeks. It's SO nice to be able to grab my trek stick and NOT the clippers; to just go and enjoy an open path where once there were briars and trippy sticks and logs and roots. Its so worth the hours it takes it to clear yourself a trail and the minor maintenance to then keep it open. If you're going to go into the woods, it behooves you to make it easy on yourself.

I wound my way down into the west valley, wondering if I should read the messages on fallen logs, take them to heart. There had to be some meaning there. 




Further down the holler, some beautiful things clinging to beech trunk and rock, both hairy

and crustose. I love that word, crustose. I honestly don't even really know if these are both lichens, but the thought that they are colonies of living things, perhaps very old, thrills me. UPDATE: what a wonderful world! From the comments section, by Jame: That's a liverwort on your beech! Frullania forms beautiful dendritic patterns on tree bark.

Curtis had long since gone off on a far-ranging adventure as he is wont to do, looking for deer gutpiles and chasing rabbits and squirrels. That's par for the course--he ditches me. But then he also comes back to find me. It can't be hard; I move so slowly. It's always so nice when he picks up my trail and comes barging down through the leaves to get a hug and give me a kiss. Even though he has deer poop breath.

I stood awhile in the sacred circle where we'd had our family cookout so many winters and sleeps ago

and thought about how I never, ever would have imagined myself standing here alone so many years later, with all that happened, having happened. 
But still I was glad to be here, so glad. 
I headed straight up the steep hill out of the holler, making for a gasline cut at the top. I am enjoying my trek stick because I can stump my way up hills like that (and down them) so much faster and surer than I can without it. 

And I saw something white in the leaves, and headed over to pick it up and put it in my pocket, because litter doesn't stay on my land.

And it wasn't litter at all! It was beauty! This nondescript gray morning was a frost flower morning!

A lone pennyroyal, growing on an open slope in the woods, was festooned with frost flowers! 

You can see why, at a distance, I thought it was litter. 
I hurried up the slope to the open cut where pennyroyal grows wild. 

There I beheld the largest bloom of frost flowers I'd ever seen. Click on this picture to get an idea...there were hundreds of them! 

Frost flowers only appear on still, humid mornings when the temperature is a few degrees below freezing. I think, though I don't know, that it helps to have the perennial roots of the plant producing them be alive and still extracting water from the soil. The way I theorize it, the roots are likely still pulling water up, and the lower stem dutifully sends the water up the stem of the pennyroyal (or wingstem, or aster). But hard freezes have shattered the stem tissue, creating paper-thin cracks in the stem. That good rootwater oozes out of the cracks, freezing on contact with the air, making seashells and ribbon candy and angels and tubes. It's their midwinter bloom, I guess.

One possible  factor that might also be at play is fungus. There is a fungus that's been found in "hair ice" that extrudes from rotting wood in Germany, called Exidiopsis effusa. What a great name! Here's an article about it.

The scientists found that using fungicide or dunking ice-producing wood in hot water--killing the fungus--stopped the production of hair ice. And they found lignin and tannin--exudates of fungus--in their hair ice samples, so they think the fungus is necessary for the weird hair ice to form. 

I tasted part of a frost flower to see if I could taste any lignins or tannins, but it was nothing but ice to my tongue.

Hair ice on beech, photo by Diana Hofmann

Now, I'm not at all sure that a fungus is at play here in my frost flowers, but it might be. New goal: to find hair ice. Thanks to my friend Charlotte --on Instagram she's @charlottes_woods_witchery

who knows so much and shares so nicely

for planting this fungus in my path.

Until I find some hair ice, I'm down on my squatters, photographing frost flowers, seashells, and caterpillars, and wondering if there's a fungus among'em. 

This one plant had a whole flock of flowers!

I loved this one, a symmetrical curl. I wondered how long it took to form. Could you set up a timelapse camera on them, or do they form in the dark? If I went out before light, would they be there? Not sure I'll find out, as I'm having an awful time getting out of bed these dark winter mornings. The covers and flannel sheets are sooo nice. 

It's enough to find frost flowers when I find them. It's a gift.

I like to say, you have to watch those gray mornings when you don't feel like getting out of bed. You can find graupel.

and flowers

bows and flows of angel hair

and a Christmas tree for fairies. 

Heres' what it feels like to find a whole field of frost flowers in bloom in December. 



That's a liverwort on your beech! Frullania forms beautiful dendritic patterns on tree bark.

What an utterly delicious post! VOWN and MOBE - I love deciphering coded messages from other worlds, other life forms. And then, crustose, too? one of my favorite words, along with foliose and fructose (I think those are the ones I mean). Hair ice! and you tasted this stuff. We have frostweed here but I don't know if I'll ever be lucky enough to see it bloom like that.

And that Curtis - he ran so far, so fast. Where does he hide his Acme rocket-booster-thruster devices? What a treat to travel along through the woods with you both.

Robins were clucking and tutting in the oak trees today - that's a rarity down here.

Just a few minutes before reading this, out on a morning wander, I saw my very first frost flowers, and thought of you. And having learned about graupel yesterday, on your IG. I'm delighted to have met your acquaintance recently, and be learning these very cool things about the natural world. And the messages of the trees... yes! I built my house with some tree posts indoors, and have a favorite one, next to the stove, which also has these hieroglyphics.

You brought back good memories of a Texas Hill Country walk where beautiful use formations were everywhere, obviously formed on plant stems. I had to find out why,. I discovered that Frostweed, Verbesinia virginica, was the artist. And just as you described,, The active roots are pumping water into the stalks where it freezes, expands and is extruded, making for magical formations. When we bought property, I found we owned out own frostweed and got to see the magic a few more times. My friend and I visited the Missouri Botanical Garden and discovered a whole gallery of Ice formations produced by frostweed and photographed. And I discovered frostweed is an important supplier of nectar for monarch butterflies coming through the hill country.

I've been reading, enjoying and learning from your blog(and books) for years...back to 2006 or so. I remember we started running about the same time . I've wanted , but have never commented before now. After reading your last blog about frost flowers I went out on our first below freezing morning and saw some on my new favorite plant, a scarlet sage. I also noticed them the next morning on my tomato plant and bean vines . I took some interesting pictures and have thoroughly enjoyed sharing them with friends. Thanks for sharing all your enthusiasm and knowledge and joy of nature! My husband and I (he introduced me to your blog) are fellow birders and nature lovers and are crazy about our on dog as well. So thanks for all you do to instill a deep and interesting knowledge of this amazing world around us!

What wonderful discoveries in this post! We had graupel here last week and foolish me, I ignored it as ice pellets and went back inside to my recliner and the warmth of the woodstove. Shame on me, next time I will go out and explore and enjoy! I've got to pay attention to the ice flowers too!

Thanks, as always, for sharing. Curtis too :)

Thanks for sharing interesting vocabulary.
Here's one of my favorites: caudal peduncle. It's just fun to say.

Curtis is so joyful! Thank you for sharing his joy and for educating your readers about frost flowers. 🙂

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