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Interstice: Ice and Snow Winter is refuge and deathbed, monastery and ivory tower, cave and ghost. —Gretel Ehrlich, The Future of Ice Whoever will be an inquirer into Nature let him resort to a conservatory of Snow or Ice. —Francis Bacon, Sylva Sylvarum “Ice,” Thoreau once announced, “is a fit subject for contemplation.”1 Perhaps this is so because it seems to refract back not just our physical images but to encourage mental ruminations—our very own reflections—radiating them in return in slightly altered form to their points of origination, enchanting us like a mirror but denying us entrance like an inscrutable stone. As with fire and water, ice possesses a curious coterie of paradoxical qualities. Covering a tenth of the Earth’s land and slightly less of the planet’s oceans, it is both fragile and extremely strong; rock solid but slipping easily into liquidity. Ice is also in its own way quite “hot,” always lurking relatively near its melting point and floating as well in its own melt, the juice of its disintegration. As Mariana Gosnell tersely puts it: It is more brittle than glass. It can flow like molasses. It can support the weight of a C-5A transport plane. A child hopping on one leg can break through it. It can last 20,000 years. It can vanish in seconds. It can carve granite. It can trace the line of a windowpane scratch. It can kill peach buds. It can preserve mammoths for centuries, peas for months, human hearts for hours.2 Ice, of course, assumes many garbs and guises, existing as the most common of more than a dozen possible solid phases of water and transmuting itself as well into an earthen mineral or the celestial rings of Saturn. From ice cubes and icicles to 137 138 | Elemental Philosophy rime and glaciers, ice is a shape-shifting and protean substance. As frozen rain, it tethers itself to the gables of a house or dangles delicately from tree branches so as to trigger a kaleidoscopic display of silver light. As a continuous sheet, it blankets over like translucent cement an entire aquatic world for months at a time. Some scientists even believe that the first life on earth may have been birthed slowly by way of water molecules that hitched a ride through the cosmos with ice-encrusted comets before crashing to our planet. If stone, iron, and bronze are each honored with an era in human history, ice belongs to the ages, likely to return again and again to encase and preserve the geologic and cultural jewels of our planet like fossils buried in amber. Such is its elemental importance. If we stretch language to its embodied limits, ice almost seems to possess a melodic, moody, or melancholic voice. For anyone who has resided along a river that freezes in winter and breaks up in spring, the sound of it murmuring is quite memorable. The first tide of vibrations to register upon your senses is the heaving groans: the friction and frisson, the clanking and creaking moans. Birth pangs. Smooth serene silence crackles; something seems to be hatching. In “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Coleridge speaks of ice itself conversing: “It cracked and growled, and roared and / howled / Like noises in a swound!”3 Indeed, the expressive grunts, sighs and pings of ice have inspired songs and whole concerts. For example, the British Antarctic Survey commissioned Peter Maxwell Davies’ “Antarctic Symphony” on the fiftieth anniversary of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Symphonia Antarctica” (1953), which conveys the raw wonder, deep mystery and frigid chill of this ghostly realm, including the thunderous movements of icebergs. Of the polar world, Admiral Richard Byrd proclaimed: There is no other music like the toneless music of millions of years of accumulated silence, through which come bars of unearthly colours. There is no need for ears to hear the fugues played on this ice organ. Here nature has set aside for man a domain of beauty and inspiration such as he cannot know elsewhere on this planet.4 Indeed, given that less than three percent of its landscape is defined by outcroppings of rock, Antarctica is without much exaggeration a continent constructed almost entirely of one substance fused to itself and to the elemental world assembled about it. It is as if water were seeking to build an intricate cathedral—part architecture, part sculpture, part glorious throne—of, by, around, and to itself. Here, ice links “land to land, land...


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