where the writers are


Nine degrees below zero.  This cold has swept down from the arctic as silent as the wings of a snowy owl.  It is powerful like the owl, a predator: furious, deceptive, and beautiful.  It is the only force strong enough to calm the water of the big lake.

I walk on water as deep as my heart, surrounded by a landscape of head-high hoodoos, ice volcanoes, craggy peaks, canyons, fissures, and crevasses.  The world here is raw, new, unformed; a topography constantly changing, constantly forming and reforming, consistent only in its inconsistency.  In places the ice is lumpy like ground meat, in others glass-like or fractured into crystals; smooth and reflective or blasted and rough; with stalactites dripping from the ceilings of caves and volcano tubes polished by motion.  It is graceful in the way of things untouched by life: the intricate calcite formations that dripping water deposits in caverns, the wind-blasted rock of badlands, the sweeping rhythm of desert dunes.  Do landscapes such as this attract with their purity of form, their innocence, or their potential?

The lake ice is a world of white: not the white of absence but an artist's white, alternately concealing and revealing a full spectrum of color.  Nearest the shore, shards of ice embedded in the sand glow with a blue as deep as an Icelander's eyes.  The morning sun, just clearing the ridge of trees to the southeast, gilds the farthest ice peaks with tones of apricot and gold.  The interior of the ice volcanoes, smoothed by frequent eruptions of waves rich in eroded mud, carry the red color of the clay cliffs that line the beach, while the inner reaches of the deepest ice mountains glitter with a milky, absinthe-like green.

Wednesday's quick clipper system left a powdered sugar dusting of snow on the ice.  In the frozen valley between two mountains, I find the elegantly narrow print of a fox's back paw.  I search for a trail but in the patchy snow the visitor left only this single track behind.  I wonder what lured the fox away from the forest and into this icy landscape: certainly not the promise of food.  Was the fox, like me, seduced by the beauty of this new-made world?  Or was his mission more prosaic, perhaps a risky descent to lap water from the still-liquid surface of the lake?

This snowless cold would seem prime to provoke thist in animals: rivers, streams, small lakes are all frozen solid, their water inaccessible.  During a normal winter, animals obtain water by eating snow.  But with the little snow that remains on the ground, would a fox risk thin ice and potential drownding for the liquid water he could find in the lake beyond the ice mountains?

Away from the corntorted shoreline, the lake lies as flat as the end of the earth, still and waveless like death.  The water beyond the ice palace shore appears to be frozen solid, but when I scale the farthest peak and gain the edge of a fiord, I realize that the ice sheet is not absolute: it seems almost elastic, with water oozing to the surface in places while in other areas the sheet brittlely sheds shards of crystals as it rubs against the concretions of shore.  As I watch, I see the entire sheet of ice rise as one unit, then fall in a motion that probably correlates with the swelling of liquid waves beneath it.  The motion resembles nothing so much as the breathing of a huge, slumbering animal.

And where liquid water has oozed free of the ice sheet, that too is like breath, steaming as if with the heat of a living body.  In order to be liquid, the water's temperature must be 32 degrees or higher.  Forty degrees colder, the dry arctic air sucks vapor from the water in breath-like clouds that blur the horizon despite the dawn blue sky that's reflected up to itself by still, unfrozen pools that steam on top of the ice.

The sleeping lake breathes rhythmically in its watery bed, its exhale an empty promise of clouds.  The sun rises, strengthens, colors.  The wind is calm but even without movement my face burns from the cold, a cold as ephemeral as ice.