Such a tiny feather, just a 3/4" bit of down that was as white and billowy as a fair-weather cloud. It came to roost among the thyme-leaf speedwell early last month and stayed for several days. Next to its airy softness, the speedwell leaves looked thick and heavy; not for them the joy of floating effortlessly on a breeze. The feather rippled in winds so slight that they were imperceptible to me, dressed against a November morning. Even when I set my hand right next to it, I wasn't sure whether I was feeling a breath of wind or of imagination. But then, down is especially good at trapping air, at holding it close against a beating heart, a small body of hollow bones and flight feathers and hunger, where it can warm and insulate. It is a cushion against the jagged edges of frost.
|Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)|
Late in November the lone seedpod on the milkweed finally burst. I have never yet been able to resist the feel of the seeds' downy floss, and its touch sent me instantly back to childhood: pressing my thumb along the inside seam of a seedpod to break it open, easing apart the featherbed inside and teasing out the individual seeds, then sending them flying, one by one, on a breath. Those days, I wasn't particularly interested in the seeds, only in the parachutes that held them so magically aloft in ways that the swingsets at school just couldn't manage. I didn't give a thought to the responsibility those bits of fluff carried with them, to keep their own lifeline going. But they did teach me the joy of occasionally casting your fate to the winds.
|Thyme-leaf speedwell (Veronica oltensis)|
The speedwell didn't mind the frost the other morning any more than it had minded the feather. Just to give you a sense of scale, its leaves are only about 1/8 inch across. The ice crystals on them are tiny, indeed. Some had been just pinpoints of water vapor before alighting on the colder surfaces of the leaves, where they condensed and froze. It's hard to believe such delicate particles had the power at their backs to fell the milkweed overnight, to cast it into a deep sleep as surely as a bite from a magic apple.
Even mid-December has days of fair-weather clouds—"decorative clouds", as one of my favorite weather forecasters calls them. You don't expect any moisture from them, and they don't really get in the way of the sunshine. They just cast softly shifting patterns across the sky that mesmerize you with their fluidity. They float along in such an easy way, like milkweed seeds held aloft and slowly spinning, drifting on the wind. That effortless buoyancy, though, belies their enormity. They carry 350,000,000,000 water droplets per cubic foot (according to the The Cloudspotter's Guide). "Modest-sized clouds" weigh as much as a 747 or possibly 6,268.75 blue whales—about as many as you can shake a fish at in a day. Even smallish clouds stretch to a kilometer in diameter.
And from here they look as light and insubstantial as a bit of down.