The Elegant and Elusive Igloo Takes Shape

My daughter, Jenny, is visiting us on the Maine coast, and one way we plan to celebrate her homecoming is to spend a day outside. We have always enjoyed working in the woods: the sweet pungency of fresh-cut spruce and fir; the chance to share the resonant quiet of frozen woodlands (once the chain saw quits its yakking).

When we leave for the woods, we know the deep snow from several previous storms might give us trouble, but we shoulder our chain saws, fuel cans, and pulp hooks and head out with our pockets stuffed with sandwiches. At groves and crossings, red squirrels announce our arrival and then cheer, with greater enthusiasm, as we pass below down the woods road. Chickadees and nuthatches flit and twitter. Crows, with their own suspicions, raise a ruckus from the high branches of impenetrable spruces.

All along, the snow stays consistently deep, and by the time we reach the trees beyond the clearing where we are set to work, we know it's no good. Even in these dense woods, the snow is above our knees, and neither of us looks forward to a morning spent lunging about on rough terrain with a chain saw going lickety-split. So we retrace our steps, put the cutting gear away, and then stand outside the barn, momentarily stranded, like a pair who has just missed the bus.

There are paths to clear, however, so we get out shovels and open ways to the compost bins and various outbuildings. It is then we notice that with each shovelful, the snow comes away in crisp units.

This is tender stuff, but if we lift blocks carefully with the flat of our shovels, we quickly see that they will form a wall. Instantly this realization brings to life the latent snow engineer that dwells within so many of us.

Both my daughter and I have spent childhood winters tunneling through snow- banks and rolling sticky balls into complex fortresses, but at last we have the chance to construct an igloo together, that most elegant and elusive of all snow structures.

We find a section of level, untrampled snow near the barn and, working back-to-back, begin to cut blocks and arrange them in a circle. Unsure how high we can stack them before they tumble down, we plunge ahead.

The one thing this snow surely does is stack, and soon we divide our labor. Jenny stays inside the rising circle to settle blocks in position and chink from the inside. I cut new ones from the outside and serve them up, ever higher, from my shovel. A spiral develops as we work upward, making the structure more stable. This stability allows Jenny to form the dome by laying each successive course slightly inboard. If we squeeze or push too hard, blocks explode in a sparkling shower, but mostly they hold their integrity until first Jenny's grin and then her purple hat disappear behind the ascending wall.

Frozen gloves and soaked knees go unnoticed. All that matters is the feel of snow and the amazing, improbable closing of the dome.

At last, only one engineering problem remains: to cut a door in from the outside, so Jenny can get out. But as I slice through the wall - with a sudden and dramatic ba-whump! - the edifice drops a full 10 inches. We expect the hilarious catastrophe of total collapse. But instead of chaos, that downward stroke, like the final thrust of a conductor's baton ending a symphony, settles the igloo with startling symmetry. If anything, the compression makes it stronger. I gingerly trim more snow from the doorway, and Jenny slithers, seal-like, back into the sunshine.

An Eskimo could have built it better and certainly faster. But we have always tried to live by the elusive notion that it's the blessed man who plays at work; the blessed child who works at play. Now, as we're fully immersed in shining snow, the thin division between work and play dissolves altogether. We inhale the joyful air of two generations of childhood fused into one, and when at last we crawl in through the igloo's tiny door to sit together under the dome of ice-blue light arching above us, we feel whole decades strip away.

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