Silk Frost

Dear President Biden,

It’s been a minute since I wrote to you. I’ve thought of you often and even formulated some partial Biden letters in my head, but it’s been a hectic couple of weeks and other priorities (like sleep, watching a few Queer Eyes, work, gardening – you know, life stuff) won out. I hadn’t exactly planned to write to you today either, but after dutifully reading my church’s by-laws in preparation for taking over as the Church Council Moderator tomorrow (eek!), the light is too dim to start printing, so a letter it is.

The main thing I want to tell you about is from our wild-place ramble this morning. We drove across Lake Washington to Redmond bright and early to that preserve we hiked in on Christmas day that I told you about – Evans’ Creek Preserve. On that earlier trip we parked at the top and followed the highly switchbacky trail down, down, down almost to the creek and then back up, up, up, up.

Ok, so that was our first introduction to ECP. Today we parked in the lower meadow parking area and walked through frosted meadows and low-lying second growth patches of forest before going about halfway up the side of the (very steep) hill/ridge that we came down the time before. For the most part we had the place to ourselves and aside from the distant sound of traffic, it was quite quiet except when we were walking alongside the creek or fording it (!).

The whole thing felt pretty magical and we got to see something extra special magical that neither of us had ever seen before – Silk Frost (aka hair ice, frost beard, ice wool, feather frost, cotton candy frost – see both Lee Rentz’s blog entry about Silk Frost and the Wikipedia entry on Hair Ice for some gorgeous pictures of the phenomenon). I can’t possibly do it justice with words, but try to imagine seemingly randomly distributed decaying sticks on the forest floor that are adorned with thousands of the thinnest white filaments massed together like so many strands of white silk curling up above the surface of the stick to form fragile little tunnels. We probably saw several dozen such sticks – some tiny and some quite large with a good 10 to 12 inches of Silk Frost sprouting from them.

Rentz shares that it was just in 2008 that a paper entitled “Hair Ice on Rotten Wood of Broadleaf Trees–a Biophysical Phenomenon” was published, although Wikipedia notes that Hair Ice was described by Alfred Wegener (of continental drift fame) in 1918 who surmised correctly that fungi are responsible for the phenomenon. An even more recent paper (2015) describes a series of experiments demonstrating that Silk Frost is indeed caused by a fungi, specifically one endemic to rotting broadleaf wood – Exidiopsis effuse, which gets into the wood and leaves water and carbon dioxide as waste products. Under the exact right circumstances of very cold but not too cold (just below freezing down to the mid 20’s Fahrenheit) the water is extruded through microscopic holes in the woods to form gorgeous little swaths of Silk Frost.

It’s apparently a rare phenomenon that only occurs every now and again in latitudes between 45° and 55°N in broadleaf forests (and apparently in mixed broadleaf and evergreen forests and meadows with random sticks). We’d certainly never seen it before. I very much doubt you’ll be out here in the winter-time – ever – but if you can manage to get someplace where Silk Frost happens and you get lucky enough to be there on a cold (but not too cold) morning, keep your eyes peeled for sticks oddly covered with what does look, from a distance, like cotton candy and then do whatever you need to do to get down close enough to it to see the filaments – it’s as though Mother Nature spun the finest threads and managed to make a fabric with no weft, just warp.

May we all be safe to see the wonders around us.
May we all be willing to venture out, even if not all that far, to see what there is to see (hear, feel…).
May we use our health and our strength, in whatever measure we have them, to engage the world.
May we accept the gifts that come our way and hold them lightly.

Tracy Simpson

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