by Sarah West


The first frost arrives without spectacle—a spirit train that rolls in after midnight, leaving behind a world covered in the sparkling soot of its cold fire. Part release, part restriction, it promises only finality. Even gardeners that seem perpetually prepared must wonder, as they cover their less robust plantings with sheets, how these thin cloths offer real protection. If the frost is severe enough, remnants of the summer garden will wake blackened, beckoning the coming darkness as they collapse back to the soil, leaving nothing where there was something.

The first hard frost is the final puff of exhaust from Persephone’s private jet to the underworld. Daughter of Demeter (goddess of agriculture) Persephone was the vibrant green apple of her mother’s eye. When Hades abducted her, forcing Persephone to live in the underworld, the earth became a dark and barren place, so deep was Demeter’s grief.

Though Hades was compelled to release Persephone so the world could sprout back to life, he tricked her into eating a few seeds of the pomegranate, fruit of the underworld, guaranteeing (in the circuitous logic of mythical deities) that she must return back to him a portion of each year. And when she goes, the earth is again plunged into darkness: the days grow shorter, deciduous leaves drop, trees run their sap back to their roots, seeds drop to the ground, rotten plants and flowers collapse, returning what is left of their life-force to the soil.            

But frost does not rob the earth of everything vital. Evergreen trees and shrubs stand in defiance. In our climate, the grass grows greener while Persephone’s away. And the winter vegetable patch is actually improved by frost; with each cold morning those stout specimens grow sweeter in the deepening chill; the water in their cells converts to sugar, functioning like antifreeze and preventing the cells from bursting. Perhaps it is Persephone injecting them with sweet pomegranate juice from the underworld, masking their insubordination.            

Frost itself contains a curious energy. Wild forms balanced precariously on leaf tips and delicate stems. Maps of planetary topography, or the branching, feathered foliage of mythical flora, painted across panes of glass. Sparkling soil, heaved into stalagmite pillars and miniature caves. Frost dishevels, and a warm creature walking among it, exhales turned cumulus, becomes complicit in the folly.

Jack Frost, the spritely and mischievous personification of frost, captures this spirit. An Anglicized version of Jokul Frosti, Norse mythological character responsible for the artistry and ambiguity of crisp weather, the modern Jack Frost maintains many of the same attributes: jolly, fun-loving, but apt to turn a little unpredictable, nipping noses and toes, or creating conditions more treacherous when the spirit overtakes him.

The catalog of frost forms reads like an excerpt from Herodotus. Hoarfrost (eccentric and delicate crystalline shapes that materialize when the anchoring object becomes colder than the surrounding air, and whose architecture intensifies with air moisture), window frost (Jack’s prolific artistry), rime (jagged ice spines), frost beards (fine filaments of ice that form in cottony clumps), meadows of sea ice (a frost that forms on the water’s surface in upright, grass-like shapes).

The queen of them all is the rare frost flower, a bizarre formation of ribbon-like ice that forms when water is slowly released from hair-thin fractures in plant tissue. Conditions must be perfect for a frost flower to form: freezing air surrounding yet unfrozen ground turns slowly extracted fluid from a fissured stem into ice. Since the plant’s roots are still relatively warm, fluid continues to move through the stems, forming a slow-growing ribbon of ice that gently folds up and around itself to create flower-like sculptures.

Frost heralds the garden’s contraction and the gardener’s time of rest. We hang our clean tools in the shed, notice with relief that the slugs have taken refuge underground, that the weeds (like all the garden’s plants) have slowed or halted their growth for a spell, and we sit back, sipping something warm, finding our bearings in this stunted world.