Austria: a Natural Winter Wonderland

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It’s nice to slow down, stop, and enjoy simple things. Last weekend it was a natural winter wonderland of hoar frost and rime in the tiny town of Sandl in the north of Austria. It looks like Narnia and it’s not even started to snow yet.

Sandl is not a tourist destination – it’s a plain little farming village with cross country ski paths all around it. It’s near the pretty and medieval town of FREISTADT, it’s en route north to CZESKY KRUMLOV (which might be one of the prettiest towns in the Czech Republic), and it’s also the home of a mega cool OBSERVATORY which can be visited by appointment – one of only four of its kind in the world outside the US and the only one in Europe).

When I was at the observatory last week I learnt something really cool about space and science and how inextricably linked they are to language. In the early to mid 1900s astronomers spotted and photographed a nebula – a distant sun in the midst of exploding and “dying”. By studying the pictures and the appearance of the gas formations they were able to date the explosion back to the year 1054. What they saw through their lens was the remains of something which happened nearly 1000 years ago. But the scientists could find no old written records of this ever happening.

They dug deeper and moved their search to China. There, they found old Chinese scriptures which told of a second sun in the sky appearing and then disappearing. There were no written records in Europe. Strange because it must have been seen there too, as China, in the same Northern Hemisphere, had witnessed it. The scientists realised that there must have been a medieval “publicity blackout”.

The only people able to write back then were church elders, priests and the like. They really did not like the fact that there were two suns in the sky. One god, one sun. So they wrote nothing about this amazing sight, and tried to bury it with the witnessing generation. If the masses looked back and questioned the existence of two suns, contrary to their religious beliefs, what else might be inaccurate or just plain wrong? China didn’t have that same religious issue.

Language, or the lack of it, is an immensely powerful thing.

This year Austria had its warmest November in 250 years. The temperature has now dipped, and up in the north it’s hovering between zero and 7 degrees centigrade. It’s not been snowing yet but it’s totally white.

Frost hoar rime
Frost in the garden.
No snow yet.  Just frost.
No snow yet. Just frost.

It’s caused by hoar frost and rime.

Hoar comes from an old English adjective which means “showing signs of old age” because it looks like white hair. If it’s a clear frosty night, ice crystals form on plants and trees. It can be so thick it looks like snow. The air is saturated with water and when it’s cold, instead of dew, the frost forms.

Hedging with hoar frost.
Hedging with hoar frost.

On a rose, it’s the spiky outside of the leaves rather than the waxy centre that keeps a grip of the ice, creating a natural halo round each individual leaf.

The frost sticks to the edge of the leaves.

Rime is ice which forms in the fog. You can tell the direction of the prevailing wind by the direction of the ice crystal formations. Beautiful sparkling horizontal formations appear along the length of twigs and grasses.

You can see the direction of the wind.

I like visiting my friend Irmi who lives is the thatched cottage. She cares about the people around her, about her pupils (she’s an English teacher) and about the world around us – even far away from us into space. It’s nothing fancy. For her it’s about not wasting things, about buying local, organic, about noticing and standing up for nature and questioning our (literally) all-consuming society.

If more people were like Irmi we’d be able to proudly show winter wonderlands to our children and grandchildren for centuries to come. Instead, and this makes me sad, our only winter wonderlands might be produced in factories on display for sale in department stores. If we even have time to look.

A frosty fairy keeping watch.
A frosty fairy keeping watch.
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