For it is February, and the idea of winter is often tiring now. The dirty banks of snow are coughing up their gutful of detritus, and cold mornings on the way to work seem like one more trial to be endured. But…
Sometimes, you work your way into the bare branches of the alder brush, the snow hard and crunching and up to your knees, and you make your choice between staying in cover with the deep-drifted snow or making fast progress across open barrens that are at least wind-swept clear. That choice, of course, is between the tiring slog of the drifts, or the knife-cut of that snow-clearing wind across your face.
The air is sharp and dry in a way it isn’t in summer, the sky bright, and there are berries left on some of the exposed bushes, berries that are dried hard like shrunken Christmas ornaments left on the tips of the branchlets. Sometimes, they’re broken up, broken open recently, seeds and leathery skins scattered about, and if you look hard enough, you can see the fading tracks of the birds that have picked the berries apart. Sometimes, it’s the repeated footprint semaphore of field mice or voles, or the Morse of rabbits, dot-dot, dash-dash.
Enough life around to let you know that, for some creatures, there’s nothing unusual about the constant cold.
With the leaves off the trees and shrubbed alders, you can see the shape of the land better, can see the dips and folds and hollows, until you finally reach a spot where you know there has to be standing water: dowsing with nothing more than your eyes. It’s practice that slows you down, that makes your feet do more than simply step confidently ahead — your stride changes as you set your feet down more gently, testing the ground, trying to feel the give of it to decide if ground has become marsh, has become shallows, has become pond.
And then you’re on the flat plane of it. Once fully on the ice, the very flatness of it gives the pond away, even under the snow. You don’t need to see it to know it.
You’ve kept track of the bitter cold nights and the days that swing between freeze and thaw, and can anticipate the ice’s thickness. The sun is bright white on everything, and the snow only serves to accentuate that.
Sometimes, it’s the repeated footprint semaphore of field mice or voles, or the Morse of rabbits, dot-dot, dash-dash.
You’re dressed warmly enough to kneel on the ice, warmly enough to stretch out flat and brush the snow away from the clear surface of the pond there in front of your face.
Pressure cracks shoot through it, some wide, white and opaque, others so thin and new that they are like a break in crystal. It is the fine new ones that catch the sunlight and break it into brilliant and waved rainbows, crazed blues and reds and violets.
In all sizes, entrained air bubbles hang, caught in frozen fixative, and there seems no reasonable explanation of physics for why a vertical line of bubbles can be so many different sizes, or why there are bunches here, while there it is only clear ice reaching down into the dark.
Later on, after you’re back and warmed up in a wood-stoved cabin, filled full with dinner, the cold driven back out of your fingers and toes, you might go outside and stare up at the clear night sky.
And realizing, jarringly, how much the bright stars and dark sky, the purpled stretch of the Milky Way and the vague drawings of constellations, look like the ice-stopped pattern of bubbles and cracks from the recent afternoon, fixed under ice.
Recent columns by this author
Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 36 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org — Twitter: @wangersky.