Out Divine Corners Way
by Jonathan Shimkin
In January I watched the ice-fishermen gathered on Morningside Lake. They were spread out in a rough line, not far from shore, each station marked by its own ice-cutting and its own ice shanty, a tall oblong shack for shelter and supplies. The ice shanties gave the lake the look of a Victorian seaside scene, with bathing machines dotting the strand.
The fishermen seemed confident about their position out there on the frozen lake. I recalled a time when I went walking across wintry Echo Lake and was startled to find, at mid-point, my steps leaving shallow indentations in the ice and water starting to pool in them. I held my breath at the sight of that and stepped back, most gingerly, till I was sure of firmer ground, then hightailed it back to shore.
Ice is less unyielding than it looks. For all its seeming solidity, it has a labile quality and is subject to swift changes of form. You can hear this in the sounds it makes in winter. On a walk by the pond on the Milk Train Trail, in Hurleyville, I heard – and felt – what sounded like a subdued sonic boom, a “whooomp! whooomp!” that I took for echoes of construction activity coming from town. I was mistaken; it was the sound of the ice itself, contracting and expanding in response to fluctuations of temperature, making its unique winter music.
Thoreau, our most astute observer of ponds, heard such sounds emanating from Walden on February 24, 1850 (I love that he recorded the date) and wrote: “Who would have suspected so large and cold and thick-skinned a thing to be so sensitive?… The largest pond is as sensitive to atmospheric changes as the globule of mercury in its tube.” The ice is indeed a mercurial membrane, a compound of solid and liquid, land and water, stasis and motion. It confounds these opposites, which makes it a particularly apt element for the clamorous winter of 2021.
Wind can sculpt ice. The nor’easter of early February shaped icicles off my neighbor’s roof that curved upwards, like curled fingers gripping the underside of a handle, reaching back towards the house with a certain ferocity about them. My neighbor, viewing them from inside the house, said they looked like teeth ready to take a bite out of the siding. The icicles vanished in the next day’s sun, like something we had dreamt or hallucinated.
Winter makes a point of icicles. Once I hiked to Verkeerderkill Falls, out from Sam’s Point, in mid-January. The Falls is nearly 200 feet tall. As you approach it through the woods you hear the whoosh of water increasing from trickle to roar. On this frigid day, however, there were no sounds at all as I approached the site. Coming out of the woods, onto the ledge that overlooks the Falls from the west, I saw why: the water had frozen from top to bottom. Verkeerderkill Falls had turned into a two-hundred-foot icicle. Small trickling rivulets were visible through the ice, but the huge immobility of the scene was stunning. It was the reverse of the Hurleyville pond, where I saw stillness and heard motion; here, I anticipated motion and met stillness.
Ice: a border where contraries meet, the most commutable of elements. I salute the faith of fishermen and skaters and walkers over frozen fields of water, all those who take the risk that the surface will hold and provide a solid foundation for their efforts. Winter, especially this one, is the season for such tests of faith.
Jonathan Shimkin, writer and editor, may be contacted at email@example.com, or via his website: jonathanshimkin.weebly.com.]