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Gardens of the Cross Timbers: Christmas miracle

Becky Emerson Carlberg
Contributing writer
Late autumn red sky

Here’s something for you to ponder during the holiday season.  What is in a cloud?  Cooled water vapor that has condensed into droplets or solid ice crystals.  The water comes from lakes, creeks, oceans, puddles, the soil and plants.  As the water vapor evaporates, it rises up and begins to cool until the molecules hit saturation point (dew point) and condenses into a liquid. Done.

Not yet.  That vapor can’t condense without some additional ingredients.  Microscopic bits of dust or smoke, to name a few, are flying around the atmosphere and provide surfaces where the water vapor molecules can adhere and accumulate.  Cloud scientists call them cloud condensation nuclei or CCN for short.  If the temperature drops below 32 degrees, the tiny vapor droplets freeze and they themselves turn into CCNs, offering additional attachment points for other freezing droplets.  The ice crystals form small branches and shapes while lofty winds keep them air-borne.  They stick to each other forming snowflakes.  When heavy enough, the snowflakes fall to the ground as seen this past week.  Guinness World Record: Snowflake 15 inches diameter, 8 inches thick fell in Fort Keogh, Montana, 1887!

Snow Glacier

Think of the North Pole with Santa’s industrial complex buried in snow, hidden from prying eyes; beautiful evergreen branches laden with layers of fluffy white coldness bending low to earth; quiet landscape covered in a white blanket.  Snow is the major theme in cards and decorations this time of year.  Comforting, pure, clean snow translates to family, fires in the fireplace, tempting food and happy outside plants.  What’s there not to love.

Cold, wet, slush, wet boots, gloves, coats, damp tracks throughout the house.  But these are minor inconveniences.  Snow usually falls after the deciduous trees have dropped their leaves and the conifer takes center stage.  We gather together in the warmth of our homes. Play games.  Listen to music.  Cook. Read.  My Michigan mother mused in Oklahoma there were too few days to retreat to the indoors because of cold or snow.  People in Oklahoma had no downtime.

Snow Pines

Well, we’ve had plenty of downtime this year and two bouts of snow.  Did you break out the bowl, spoon and ingredients for snow ice cream?  A rare delicacy in Oklahoma. Mix one cup of milk, a few tablespoons of sugar, dash of salt and a teaspoon of vanilla.  Add several cups of snow until ice cream consistency. Snow depth of three inches should provide plenty of goodness. Freshly fallen white snow.  No yellow snow. Less than two inches or powdery snow may net leaves, grass and crunchy snow ice cream.  

Snow cream has been around for 5,000 years in various forms.  Blocks of snow and ice were carried down from mountains and used to cool food or eaten with fruit, honey, herbs and milks.  The frozen chunks were stored in ice houses.  

Back to clouds.  Scientists in France reported in 2017 over 28,000 bacterial species were counted in cloud samples taken above a mountain.  Nothing new here.  Fifty years ago, it was thought clouds contained entire microbial systems.  In 2015 one motile bacteria species was discovered to eat airborne sugar which enabled it to form a protective layer against ultraviolet light and cold (Science News Nov. 7 2020).  

Okay.  Add microbes to the list of CNNs which contribute to the formation of rain and snow.  Bacteria can be shot upward in convective currents and remain suspended in the air for long periods of time.  Dust, smoke, pollutants and soil organisms move up from heavily populated areas, croplands, drought stricken or fire damaged regions into the atmosphere.  The complex mix of earthborn particles could affect cloud formation and precipitation.  

We are bathed in all types of non-pathogenic microscopic objects here on earth. Aim the beam of a flashlight across a dimly lit room.  See little somethings dance in the shaft of light?  Dust, hair and skin cells, pollen, microorganisms, who knows?  The Covid-19 virus has raised some interesting questions.  Where does this virus live and how far can it travel?  Wear the mask.

Snow Cedar

Discuss your concerns with a snow deity.  Skiers honor Ullr the old Norse snow god. The ancient Greeks had their snow goddess Chione.  The Aztec snow god Itztlacoliuhqui had a face of curved black obsidian, The Hawaiian snow goddess Poli’ahu spreads her white cloth over Mauna Kea each winter.  Aisoyimstan, on his white horse, is the totally white snow god of the Black Feet people in Montana.  The blue faced Cailleach Bheur is the Celtic snow god.  

My biggest concern after the snow was getting into and out of the house.  As temps warmed, the snow glaciers on the roof began calving.  The cats thought we were under siege in a war zone.  Frozen masses of packed snow glided on snowmelt down the sloping metal roof.  The avalanche would slide to the roof edge and stop, form threatening icicles and, at some unexpected moment, come crashing to earth.

The sights, smells and sounds of the Yule season. My mom loved this time of year.  Right after Thanksgiving, her front room was transformed into a winter wonderland:  giant artificial poinsettia flower on wall; Mary, Joseph, Jesus, angels and livestock on mantel; ceramic town on top the entertainment center; Frosty the snowman by fireplace; fiber optic Christmas tree in window and snow village.

Christmas Snow Village

The snow village was a collection of miniature buildings with small white interior bulbs, midget lamp posts along mini streets and tiny decorations embedded in white tinsel.  The fairy tale hamlet was arranged on a small round table.  Her specialties, fudge and divinity, cooled in the kitchen. When all was in order, she would proclaim “It is now time to bask in the Christmas spirit.” My mother tried, but could not make it to Christmas five years ago.  She died December 15th.

This year, the 8- to 10-year-old Fraser fir (Abies fraseri) tree was put in the front room. Fraser firs in their native southeast Appalachia are an endangered species but are being kept alive through cultivation in many Christmas tree farms.  

My best bud was going to make his famous fudge that afternoon.  While decorating the fir with soft needles, I smelled fresh fudge. Peering around the corner, I expected to see the cook busy at the stove.  He was at the computer and the kitchen was dark.  The smell of fudge lingered around the tree a few more minutes then disappeared.  I want to think my mom came for a quick visit.  A little Christmas miracle.

Happy Yule Y’All.

Rudolph waits for Santa

Becky Emerson Carlberg, graduate of Oklahoma State (Plant Pathology) is a teacher, artist, writer as well as certified Oklahoma Master Gardener and Master Naturalist. Contact her at Becscience@att.net.