There were some very cold days last week and most people stayed inside, but I know better. Because, it is on the coldest days when winter plays and her plans change to mischief and whimsy.
After years of winter photography, I still never know what surprises winter will conjure. And this is why I am always excited to explore the natural world on the most frigid mornings.
It was 1°F on this particular morning at Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve in DuPage County. Sawmill Creek still had fissures that had not frozen over. Some were due to raccoons and coyotes that broke through the ice as they slipped and skidded atop the stream. Many accidentally took dips while out for a drink, cracking through the fragile glass ledge that comprises the booby-trapped perimeter of every crevasse. Even the foot of a thirsty feather-light robin punctured the surface during a short jaunt. How do I know all of this? A dusting of snow masked the frozen thoroughfare and where the animals tread, white was swept away, leaving behind black captions of the exposed ice.
Then, near the end of my five-and-a-half hour exploration, winter presented me with a lighthearted surprise.
Swelling from a foundation of ice that was once a flowing Sawmill Creek, stretched a byzantine silver structure just a few inches high, a frazzled framework of fragile, film-like fragments, fused together, cold and clear, a chaotic crystal array conjured by winter in a whimsical interpretation of Tiffany.
First, I placed against my tongue, a single slice of the frigid glass, many times finer than a stick of gum. Melting slightly, it tasted as you’d expect, like an ice cube straight from the freezer. Then, breaking off a section of latticework, I placed it in my mouth.
As the splintered edges made contact with palette and tongue, they rapidly rounded in the sweltering heat. I closed my mouth and the delicate labyrinth crackled as the brittle maze collapsed into a flavorless liquid confection.
This white colony began as multitudes of microscopic crystal individuals, growing together. Home to countless citizens, each member is unique, differing in shape, stature, and orientation, but similarly transparent, tall, slender, and precariously fine.
Like a giant, I reached down with my gloved hand and collected a fraction of their magical world into my palm. With my eyes, I beheld the various inhabitants: taller, wider, and fully formed. I admired their diversity and the complex interrelationships that bind their community together.
As I gently closed my mitten, from within sprang their singing voices. Then, with a tip of my hand, they descended like snowfall onto the unwitting collective below, nearly endless in number. And in their joyful reuniting, new singing rang out in a miniature melody, like multitudes of molecular chimes rung by an orchestra of angels.