Depths on the surface

Ice. It hung in spikes from the eaves. It gathered in great cobbled chunks in the downspouts. It grew in frosted thickets inside the storm windows, and rattled like broken bottles along the sidewalks, and lay in shattered panes over the places where puddles used to be. In the rural Massachusetts winters of my youth, it was everywhere.

But most of all, it turned an otherwise indifferent pond in the local woods into a hockey rink. Many a Saturday I gathered up my thickest socks, scrounged among mittens and caps for a puck, and took my tape-wrapped stick from the garage where it leaned incongruously among a summer stack of rakes and spades. Then I would set off for the mile-long trudge through the woods, the black skates with toes like baseballs strung over my shoulder.

I was never very good at hockey. Nor were my friends. Frankly, we never had much chance to practice: we spent most of our time shovelling snow off the make-shift rink. After that, we were too tired to play. So we'd sit on the mounds we'd made and talk, our thick sweaters warm from exertion and the wan winter sun.

That, of course, is the problem with New England ice: a lot of the time there's snow. So the skates, exuding an air of hurt rebuke like dogs you have forgotten to feed, hang in a thousand woodsheds and chimney corners for weeks on end, awaiting that rare season when the freeze comes smoothly across a still night and the cold stands snowless for days.

When that happened, of course, we looked to greater things than our two-bit makeshift rink. I had friends who lived in a village north of town near a mile-long pond. They kept close watch on it. When enough below-zero days had passed, and enough fishermen had been seen strolling across its surface, and enough fathers had looked down the fishing-holes and nodded approvingly at the thickness of the ice, the word went around: there would be a party on Saturday night, down by the church where the road swings close to the shore.

And so we would gather in the cracking cold, with the moon hung like a great lemon ice over the trees, so close you wanted to eat it. Someone would build a fire far out from the shore, dragging out tree trunks to circle it. There we would bend into agonizing shapes, tugging our rebellious laces to tightness - until at last we stumbled into motion, spreading ourselves outwards from the fire into our own individual worlds while the ice, like a gruff old patriarch proud of his grandchildren, grumbled beneath us. It was entirely exhilerating. And yet it was somehow so wholly commonplace. I remember thinking, even then, how much I delighted in the experience, yet how little I knew why.

I had occasion to think on these things again recently when, as though flung back twenty winters, I found myself once more on skates. The lake - this time in Maine - was frozen under a snowless afternoon. Again we spread out, putting a quarter of a mile between us with a few minute's effort. Again the ice grumbled , and the great ragged cracks gaped harmlessly beneath our blades. And again, by an entirely natural legerdemain, the impassable depth became an easily-charted land.

And as we skated that day, I began to grasp what it was that for so many years had appealed to me. It was not just that, like the skaters in a Breugel painting or a Currier and Ives print, we were carrying forward a tradition of almost classic purity, one that had changed hardly at all over the years. Nor was it simply that we were conquering the winter, turning to our advantage the dragon that defends New England from those who care only for warmth. It was more. We were, however accidently, exploring the unknown.

For a frozen lake is always, in some ways, unknown. Map it though we might, it will never again be the same. This black patch of ice over here, that rough and rippled section over there - under the different winds of another year, they will not set up that way again. A tract of unaccustomed territory, it is the creation of a particular year. Like the various people on it - the skaters, the few fishermen, the occasional walker with dogs - its various years have common features of islands and shorelines. Yet each year, like faces and fingerprints, the details are wholly unique.

How does that great uniqueness shape itself? Why does it happen that one year the ice is smooth just by the shore and rippled farther out, when the next year reverses the pattern? Why should it be that, far away from any obstacles to bend the wind, a mirror-smooth midlake patch sits right beside a swirled and rippled washboard surface? Why does ice shade so variously from deep black to opaque white?

I haven't any answers. Nor do I mean to sound mystical, delighting in ignorance for its own sake. I find it, instead, rather humbling. I'm sure there is a science governing these effects, and that if we knew it we could explain - perhaps even predict - the entire topography of each winter's lake. But the fact is that, as in more things than we care to admit, we don't know the underlying laws.

And therein, perhaps, lies a message for those of us who mistakenly imagine that man has got his vision of nature all tidy and under control. We need not look upon the baffled rings of Saturn or the undersea mysteries of the Cayman Trench to sense the limits of our comprehension. Even the ice throws up its constant queries. It reminds us that we are not as profound as we think, that our so-called laws have hardly touched the depth of nature's grain, that we are skating on the surface of our ignorance.

To realize that is to sense the promise of a still-uncaptured world. It is to delight in the recollection of our own meekness, refreshed by the still-unfathomed grandeur of the commonplace.

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