For a few days each winter, the swamp here at Mingo Woods becomes a fairyland. A layer of ice covers the way to the creek and cracks away from itself as the morning sun slips through the leafless tupelo and cypress trees. Cypress knees look like people standing and waiting, frozen in space and time. My favorite part of this fairyland is the Ice Sculptures hiding in leaf debris at the base of white Crownbeard, a wildflower that blooms at the edge of the swamp in summer.
When this happens, the ice layer in the swamp presents some additional opportunities for beautiful pictures of the trees, the Saw Palmetto, and the Cypress knees. As I stand taking these pictures, I am captivated by the only sound in the swamp: ice breaking under the warmth of the sun. I wonder where the White Tail Deer go when the swamp is frozen.
I’ve been photographing Ice Sculptures each winter for nineteen years now. To get good pictures, the temperature must drop below 26,˚ and a really good rain has to come before the freezing temperatures. When these two weather phenomena occur, the Swamp Fairyland comes to life. On these days, my old “snow socks” from college days in the mountains of Tennessee come in handy again.
I don layers of clothes, neck warmers, hats (Yes, more than one!) and gloves on those mornings and spend several hours trekking the edge of five acres of swamp, camera and a thermos of Gevalia coffee in hand. I wait until 8:30 or 9:00 when I know the sunlight will strike the ice formations in interesting ways.
These sculptures have intrigued me since I first spotted them from my front door many years ago. At that time my husband Stephen and I were on winter vacation from teaching. One morning I stood, as I often do, with my first cup of coffee, taking in the early morning sunlight as it sliced through the trees in the swamp.
That morning I noticed what appeared to be trash, balled up pieces of white paper, scattered across the front of the property. After closer examination I discovered, not trash at all, but what I have come to call Ice Sculptures. For the next seven years I continued to take pictures of the ice formations each winter and attempted to learn what they really are. I sent pictures to people, looked in science books, and searched the Internet to no avail. These days on the Internet, one can find many stories and photographs of this winter gift of short-lived ice art, called by a different name.
My father, who has since passed away, looked at my first ice pictures in 1998 and called them “Jack Frost.” He said he had seen them when he went duck hunting in Mingo Creek on very cold mornings. A few years ago, on my third morning that week to take pictures, I waited until almost noon to go out. The weather was so cold I knew they would still be there. I had come out of the swamp to check the mail, when my neighbor, a forester, passed by on his way home for lunch. He stopped his truck to greet me and commented, “Patricia, you have leaf trash all over your forearms.
I explained that I had been leaning my arms on the ground to get close to the Ice Sculptures. One was on a little mound of earth and I could see the sky behind it. I showed Brad the image in my camera and he acknowledged he sees this ice sometimes as he works in the forest.
Twelve years ago I noticed information and pictures of this phenomenon on the Internet. Some writers call them Frost Flowers; others call them Ice Ribbons. I like my name for them because they are so different from my experiences with just plain frost, and their shapes are much more than ribbons.
How does this ice occur? In the beginning of my experience with it, I could find no scientific information. I began an intense personal observation, and the best I could figure out is that when we have a good winter rain followed by a good freeze, I’ll find Ice Sculptures. Sometime during the night, water in the roots of the dried white Crownbeard will rise through the root to the stem above.
The outer casing of the stem will split and is usually seen lying close, draping on the ice. As the water spews out and away from the stem, it freezes in these interesting layers and shapes. As soon as the sun hits them, they begin to melt away. If more than one night is cold enough, another formation will appear on the same stem, perhaps in a very different shape. Although we have hundreds of wildflowers here, the white Crownbeard is the only one to boast an Ice Sculpture.
I have photographed Ice Sculptures that look like boats, spirals, hearts, doughnuts, an angel’s wings, roses, an owl, cups and saucers, and even one question mark. The folded layers of ice often remind me of a favorite childhood ribbon candy. This phenomenon of Nature captured my attention nineteen years ago and continues to draw me to its annual exhibition in the swamp at Mingo Creek. Today I am looking forward to colder temperature following a heavy rain.