The scene was a public path, bordered on the left hand by a river, behind which rose a high wall. On the right was a tract of land, partly meadow and partly moor, reaching, at its remote verge, to a wide undulating upland.
The changes of the seasons are less obtrusive on spots of this kind than amid woodland scenery. Still, to a close observer, they are just as perceptible; the difference is that their media of manifestation are less trite and familiar than such well-known ones as the bursting of the buds or the fall of the leaf. Many are not so stealthy and gradual as we may be apt to imagine in considering the general torpidity of a moor or waste. Winter, in coming to the country hereabout, advanced in well-marked stages, wherein might have been successively observed the retreat of the snakes, the transformation of the ferns, the filling of the pools, a rising of fogs, the embrowning by frost, the collapse of the fungi, and an obliteration by snow.
This climax of the series had been reached to-night on the aforesaid moor, and for the first time in the season its irregularities were forms without features; suggestive of anything, proclaiming nothing, and without more character than that of being the limit of something else—the lowest layer of a firmament of snow. From this chaotic skyful of crowding flakes the mead and moor momentarily received additional clothing, only to appear momentarily more naked thereby. The vast arch of cloud above was strangely low, and formed as it were the roof of a large dark cavern, gradually sinking in upon its floor; for the instinctive thought was that the snow lining the heavens and that encrusting the earth would soon unite into one mass without any intervening stratum of air at all.
—Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd, Chapter XI
This is another beautiful description of the natural world, tied into a chapter that in its plot contours aptly reflects the desolation and featurelessness brought to life in these lines. ‘The embrowning by frost’ indeed! Hardy creates a profound and thoughtful metaphor by likening the signs of the advent of winter to the signs of other seasons, then describes them for the reader’s benefit. The metaphor goes both ways: we city dwellers now know that the seasons—winter surely, and summer and spring too—advance in well-marked stages. I don’t know what embrowning is per se but I can understand pretty easily that it has to do with winter being on the march.
It’s so weird to read this passage this first week of March, as it appears I’ve come back to the archipelago in the anteroom of spring. We skipped and frolicked this warm weekend in anticipation of the crocuses and new growth, and you could take note of the live worms shifting underneath the chilled and barren ground. Down at the secret city, the winter, with its rains, was the life-giving season and the summer was ready to scorch everything living back down to the roots again. Spring and fall were notional. The idea, therefore, of such a steady progression through the seasons as Hardy describes, instead of the pesky fight for survival recapitulated in each patch of quickly growing grass that I saw at the secret city, is bizarrely thrilling and exotic.