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- Over Prairie Trails - 20/28 -


to be merely floating along. The reason, of course, is entirely different. The bees wheel and circle around individually, the whole swarm revolves--if I remember right, Burroughs has well described it (as what has he not?). [Footnote: Yes; I looked it up. See the "Pastoral Bees" in "Locusts and Wild Honey."] But the snow will not change its direction while drifting in a wind that blows straight ahead. Its direction is from first to last the resultant of the direction of the wind and that of the pull of gravity, into which there enters besides only the ratio of the strengths of these two forces. The single snowflake is to the indifferent eye something infinitesimal, too small to take individual notice of, once it reaches the ground. For most of us it hardly has any separate existence, however it may be to more astute observers. We see the flakes in the mass, and we judge by results. Now firstly, to talk of results, the filling up of a hollow, unless the drifting snow is simply picked up from the ground where it lay ready from previous falls, proceeds itself rather slowly and in quite a leisurely way. But secondly, and this is the more important reason, the wind blows in waves of greater and lesser density; these waves--and I do not know whether this observation has ever been recorded though doubtless it has been made by better observers than I am--these waves, I say, are propagated in a direction opposite to that of the wind. They are like sound-waves sent into the teeth of the wind, only they travel more slowly. Anybody who has observed a really splashing rain on smooth ground--on a cement sidewalk, for instance--must have observed that the rebounding drops, like those that are falling, form streaks, because they, too, are arranged in vertical layers--or sheets--of greater and lesser density--or maybe the term "frequency" would be more appropriate; and these streaks travel as compared with the wind, and, as compared with its direction, they travel against it. It is this that causes the curious criss-cross pattern of falling and rebounding rain-streaks in heavy showers. Quite likely there are more competent observers who might analyze these phenomena better than I can do it; but if nobody else does, maybe I shall one day make public a little volume containing observations on our summer rains. But again I am digressing.

The snow, then, hits the surface of the older layers in waves, no matter whether the snow is freshly falling or merely drifting; and it is these waves that you notice most distinctly. Although they travel with the wind when you compare their position with points on the ground--yet, when compared with the rushing air above, it becomes clear that they travel against it. The waves, I say, not the flakes. The single flake never stops in its career, except as it may be retarded by friction and other resistances. But the aggregation of the multitudes of flakes, which varies constantly in its substance, creates the impression as if the snow travelled very much more slowly than in reality it does. In other words, every single flake, carried on by inertia, constantly passes from one air wave to the next one, but the waves themselves remain relatively stationary. They swing along in undulating, comparatively slow-moving sheets which may simply be retarded behind the speed of the wind, but more probably form an actual reaction, set up by a positive force counteracting the wind, whatever its origin may be.

When at last I had fully satisfied my mind as to the somewhat complicated mechanics of this thing, I settled back in my seat--against a cushion of snow that had meanwhile piled in behind my spine. If I remember right, I had by this time well passed the church. But for a while longer I looked out through the triangular opening between the door of the cutter and the curtain. I did not watch snowflakes or waves any longer, but I matured an impression. At last it ripened into words.

Yes, the snow, as figured in the waves, CRAWLED over the ground. There was in the image that engraved itself on my memory something cruel--I could not help thinking of the "cruel, crawling foam" and the ruminating pedant Ruskin, and I laughed. "The cruel, crawling snow!" Yes, and in spite of Ruskin and his "Pathetic Fallacy," there it was! Of course, the snow is not cruel. Of course, it merely is propelled by something which, according to Karl Pearson, I do not even with a good scientific conscience dare to call a "force" any longer. But nevertheless, it made the impression of cruelty, and in that lay its fascination and beauty. It even reminded me of a cat slowly reaching out with armed claw for the "innocent" bird. But the cat is not cruel either--we merely call it so! Oh, for the juggling of words!...

Suddenly my horses brought up on a farmyard. They had followed the last of the church-goers' trails, had not seen any other trail ahead and faithfully done their horse-duty by staying on what they considered to be the road.

I had reached the northern limit of that two-mile stretch of wild land. In summer there is a distinct and good road here, but for the present the snow had engulfed it. When I had turned back to the bend of the trail, I was for the first time up against a small fraction of what was to come. No trail, and no possibility of telling the direction in which I was going! Fortunately I realized the difficulty right from the start. Before setting out, I looked back to the farm and took my bearings from the fence of the front yard which ran north-south. Then I tried to hold to the line thus gained as best I could. It was by no means an easy matter, for I had to wind my weary way around old and new drifts, brush and trees. The horses were mostly up to their knees in snow, carefully lifting their hindlegs to place them in the cavities which their forelegs made. Occasionally, much as I tried to avoid it, I had to make a short dash through a snow dam thrown up over brush that seemed to encircle me completely. The going, to be sure, was not so heavy as it had been the day before on the corner of the marsh, but on the other hand I could not see as far beyond the horses' heads. And had I been able to see, the less conspicuous landmarks would not have helped me since I did not know them. It took us about an hour to cross this untilled and unfenced strip. I came out on the next crossroad, not more than two hundred yards east of where I should have come out. I considered that excellent; but I soon was to understand that it was owing only to the fact that so far I had had no flying drifts to go through. Up to this point the snow was "crawling" only wherever the thicket opened up a little. What blinded my vision had so far been only the new, falling snow.

I am sure I looked like a snowman. Whenever I shook my big gauntlets bare, a cloud of exceedingly fine and hard snow crystals would hit my face; and seeing how much I still had ahead, I cannot say that I liked the sensation. I was getting thoroughly chilled by this time. The mercury probably stood at somewhere between minus ten and twenty. The very next week I made one trip at forty below--a thermometer which I saw and the accuracy of which I have reason to doubt showed minus forty-eight degrees. Anyway, it was the coldest night of the winter, but I was not to suffer then. I remember how about five in the morning, when I neared the northern correction line, my lips began to stiffen; hard, frozen patches formed on my cheeks, and I had to allow the horses to rub their noses on fence posts or trees every now and then, to knock the big icicles off and to prevent them from freezing up altogether--but. my feet and my hands and my body kept warm, for there was no wind. On drives like these your well-being depends largely on the state of your feet and hands. But on this return trip I surely did suffer. Every now and then my fingers would turn curd-white, and I had to remove my gauntlets and gloves, and to thrust my hands under my wraps, next to my body. I also froze two toes rather badly. And what I remember as particularly disagreeable, was that somehow my scalp got chilled. Slowly, slowly the wind seemed to burrow its way under my fur-cap and into my hair. After a while it became impossible for me to move scalp or brows. One side of my face was now thickly caked over with ice--which protected, but also on account of its stiffness caused a minor discomfort. So far, however, I had managed to keep both my eyes at work. And for a short while I needed them just now.

We were crossing a drift which had apparently not been broken into since it had first been piled up the previous week. Such drifts are dangerous because they will bear up for a while under the horses' weight, and then the hard pressed crust will break and reveal a softer core inside. Just that happened here, and exactly at a moment, too, when the drifting snow caught me with its full force and at its full height. It was a quarter-minute of stumbling, jumping, pulling one against the other--and then a rally, and we emerged in front of a farmyard from which a fairly fresh trail led south. This trail was filled in, it is true, for the wind here pitched the snow by the shovelful, but the difference in colour between the pure white, new snow that filled it and the older surface to both sides made it sufficiently distinct for the horses to guide them. They plodded along.

Here miles upon miles of open fields lay to the southeast, and the snow that fell over all these fields was at once picked up by the wind and started its irresistible march to the northwest. And no longer did it crawl. Since it was bound upon a long-distance trip, somewhere in its career it would be caught in an upward sweep of the wind and thrown aloft, and then it would hurtle along at the speed of the wind, blotting everything from sight, hitting hard whatever it encountered, and piling in wherever it found a sheltered space. The height of this drifting snow layer varies, of course, directly and jointly (here the teacher makes fun of his mathematics) as the amount of loose snow available and as the carrying force of the wind. Many, many years ago I once saved the day by climbing on to the seat of my cutter and looking around from this vantage-point. I was lost and had no idea of where I was. There was no snowstorm going on at the time, but a recent snowfall was being driven along by a merciless northern gale. As soon as I stood erect on my seat, my head reached into a less dense drift layer, and I could clearly discern


Over Prairie Trails - 20/28

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