The Miraculosity of Ice


There’s a school of thought out there that holds miracles as ordinary happenings rather than the extraordinary material of a special people chosen by God, written down in a hoary text.

Today stands as the last day of the Year of our Lord, 2004, and I suppose it is a miracle that the mercury cloys out of its winter torpor to stretch up into the cloudless blue of 59 degrees F and counting.  I claw my away out of my own Chicago torpor.

You need to send out your work, my voice told me; that first voice.  The one which speaks first, always insistent, never consistent.  The superego, the should machine.  And yet, part of my work is to come to know that to work is sometimes to play, and that when I live in my bliss, the two – toil and play –merge in the world of the forest.  I close my office door against the cats, slip on my jacket and boots, and head to the river.

That river world which sits a little muddied today, and which stands as a contrast between arboreal winter and a sun which holds in its solstice dimness the long off promise of a spring sure to come.  I plied the old familiar forest paths and decided to purposively lose myself in the major shroud composed of thousands of wooden old bones, and bones they’d remain until late April at least.  A vertical ossuary.  In places, small backwaters that had frozen over began to thaw in the past two days of near Floridian conditions.  The voice, that terrible voice they install in you when you’re four and five and in which in some of us masquerades as an unpleasable God, told me I should be working out at the health club.  Okay, I give in.  I make my pilgrimage to the other side of the jungle, where the fitness temple awaits my bodily sacrifice.

I decided to take a new way out of the woodland, down a straight path that doubles as a drainage to the river.  A small creek swollen with new rains blocked my egress.   The stream seemed partly froze, partly unfroze in the strange, frothy slurry called grease ice, a thicket of downed hawthorn branches looked just thick enough for me to take a chance at fording the creek.

I looked into the creek.  Millions and millions of infinitesimal bubbles rose in columns, frozen in place under the ice, bubbling to the surface as if someone had dropped Frisbee-sized Alka Seltzers into freezing water and then watched the frazil froth freeze over.  Most of the bubbles suspended in the glacial glass block, smaller than dope seeds.  Some swirled in a blizzard in miniature, causing near white-out conditions in some regions of the ice.  I decided to spend time in examination of this giant Christmas paperweight suspended in storm.

I wanted to know how thick the ice grew.  I knelt down and knocked on the diamond skin, solid to the bottom of the backwater, which lay only six inches or so from the top.  But the ice formed thickest in the middle of the stream, where a bottleneck of twigs and litter allowed the ice to precipitate like mother of pearl around it in the stream in a block about 10’ wide by 10’ long frozen to the stream bottom.  I tossed a small branch beyond the bottleneck: splash!  On either side, where the stream flowed wider and deeper, the waters ran ice free.  Yet the shallow portion in the middle froze iced up.

A ½ inch coat of clear water over the ice lubricated it and made things very slippery.  I crouched down on my haunches so that the backs of my ankles touched my ass.  I inched my feet across, keeping them flat on the ice so I didn’t keel over.  I peered into an underworld frozen but clear as mountain air.  Mattes of leaf litter, two or three seasons worth, suspended in the middle of the ice block, as if flash frozen.  A Kirlian aura made of vertically streams of bubbles wreathed leaves of elm and maple, ash and linden, but mostly oak.  Perfectly preserved leaves floated above the forest floor, suspended in the middle of the ice like fossils petrified in quartz.  Around many of the leaves, a second coating of ice adhered, forming crystallized casts that fit like gloves.  Ice bodies frozen within ice.  Pockets of gas enveloped the leaves, while ice fit itself in snug pockets around the lobes.  A generous noon sun gilded the leaves silver.  Some of the carapaces, especially the oval elms, decoupled partly from their leaves as the melt liberated the leaves from their casts.  This made flawless ice facsimiles of the leaves pealed back from the leaves themselves, the palmate veins carved in minute filigree like Waterford.

The silver and white, the clear, gleaming evanescence of water and ice and light overwhelmed the brown and gray of the decaying mattes.  In other cases, the leaves weren’t there at all anymore.  In their places, clone crystal leaves fluttered frozen in place under the surface.  The shell of a sugar maple leaf cut in glass glittered in the ice and seemed to float by, replete with its stem.  The leaves, mostly black oak and pin oak, gilded in pewter by the light, suspended as empty chrysalises, their inhabitants flown off into the world.  Where had the leaves themselves gone?  Behind me, where the ice met the melt water of the larger stream, bubbles gurgled topside in a low moan.

The ice trapped some leaves near its surface.  With the care of a surgeon, I pealed the soggy tissues of a black ash from its gleaming jacket near the skin of the pond.  I crouched and slid on the ice, talking to myself, watching bubbles belch to the surface like globules of oil in veins.  I swept my cold hand over the place where the air had squeezed through. Not a trace of a blowhole.  All that frozen effervescence a methane let off by the decaying vegetation trapped beneath, burping its way to the surface.  Waves of delicate white, like glassy spider’s webs, rolled in waves between swirls of air pockets that silhouetted the leaves.

I’d received a great a gift on the last day of the year 2004.  This are my gifts are, not glittering diamonds or crackling applause.  I’d bounded through the riparian woodland, studying the old field succession, just grateful for the warmth of the sun.  I’d prayed with gratitude for the way things stood, just as they stood.  I’d prayed for nothing, wanted nothing – a very difficult place to stand, in that equanimity.  Yet in that balanced place, the willing receive.  Miracles only happen to people who look for them.  Miracles always rest in the present and they rest in each and every leaf and pond and sheet of ice.  A miracle dwells within each object and circumstance if I spend time with it, if I take the time to look.

© 2015 by Michael C. Just