Thursday, February 17, 2011

`You Cannot Open Your Jack-Knife'

Recently I learned a new word for a previously nameless weather phenomenon, and as often happens I was given the opportunity to use it with a fair degree of precision. "Graupel" is from the German for graupel – snow pellets, angular bits of snow softer than hail, harder than snowflakes. As I was hauling trash bins to the curb late in the afternoon, it abruptly started falling and made a muted clicking sound hitting the pavement and car. In aggregate, it sounded like thousands of hamburgers frying two blocks away. I found the word last week in a science magazine at school and filed it away, hoping to confuse someone with a word combining sonic elements of “grapple,” “scrapple,” “growl” and “grope.”

One etymology derives the word from the German Graupe, “hulled grain,” and another dictionary says the German is probably from the Serbo-Croat krupa and the Russian for “peeled grain,” krupá. This makes sense, as the sound of graupel falling recalls Gene Krupa’s brush work. In appearance it recalls Thoreau’s journal work, a passage from Nov. 24, 1860:

“The first spitting of snow—a flurry or squall—from out a gray or slate-colored cloud that came up from the west. This consisted almost entirely of pellets an eighth of an inch or less in diameter. These drove along almost horizontally, or curving upward like the outline of a breaker, before the strong and chilling wind. The plowed fields were for a short time whitened with them. The green moss about the bases of trees was very prettily spotted white with them, and also the large beds of cladonia in the pastures. They come to contrast with the red cockspur lichens on the stumps, which you had not noticed before. Striking against the trunks of the trees on the west side they fell and accumulated in a white line at the base. Though a slight touch, this was the first wintry scene of the season. The air was so filled with these snow pellets that we could not see a hill half a mile off for an hour. The hands seek the warmth of the pockets, and fingers are so benumbed that you cannot open your jack-knife. The rabbits in the swamps enjoy it, as well as you. Methinks the winter gives them more liberty, like a night.”

At its best, Thoreau's prose resembles graupel -- hard, angular and a little chilly.

1 comment:

Helen Pinkerton said...

On Feb. 18, the morning of your comments on snow, I found myself in a landscape of heavy snow for the first time in 20 years. Snug inside, looking out on ponderosa pines with several inches on their sweeping branches, I turned to Whittier's "Snow-Bound," remembering some good lines in it (but forgetting there are actually over 700 lines). They were appropriate for some of what I saw:

Unwarmed by any sunset light
The grey day darkened into night,
A night made hoary with the swarm
And whirl-dance of the blinding storm,
As zigzag, wavering to and fro,
Crossed and recrossed the winged snow;
And ere the early bedtime came
The white drift piled the window-frame,
And through the glass the clothes-line posts
Looked in like tall and sheeted ghosts.

So all night long the storm roared on:
The morning broke without a sun;
In tiny spherule traced with lines
Of Nature's geometric signs,
In starry flake, and pellicle,
All day the hoary meteor fell;
And when the second morning shone,
We looked upon a world unknown,
On nothing we could call our own.
Around the glistening wonder bent
The blue walls of the firmament,
No cloud above, no earth below,--
A universe of sky and snow!

This section has more fine lines on the appearance of a New England farmyard, but check it out. All in all it is a pretty delightful memoir and shows a better eye than I rememabered Whittier having. Interesting to compare his and Thoreau's view of New England snow.