The thermometer indicated 16 degrees F at sunrise this morning. I stepped outside to fill the birdfeeder. The wake of a passing tug jostled the layer of ice on the water. Undulating with each wave, the ice made a thin, metallic sound. If you ever stood on a railroad platform and listened carefully as a train approached the station, you’d probably recognize this icy sound as something similar to the high-pitched pings darting through the rails in advance of the train.
I am anxious for the river to freeze enough for iceboating, so this new ice that formed overnight is encouraging. I also look forward to the cacophony of ice noises of which this morning’s sounding was just a sample. Last winter, I tried to describe a few of the ice sounds I noticed.
People ask me what I do out here on this lonely spit of land when the world is frozen and silent. Then again, maybe not so silent. When I first moved here three winters ago, someone (I can’t remember who) told me, “The ice talks.” I’ve been listening ever since, trying to decipher the language of ice. I’ve been watching and listening to the commotions of river ice–indecisive waters, constantly moving, back and forth with the tide, back and forth between liquid intuition and structured crystals, stiffening to commands of nighttime cold, eased by the sun.
The human eye is wired to recognize faces, so (should it come as a surprise?) the visage of Mary appears on a piece of toast, or the devil’s grin in a cloud of smoke. So too is the ear is attuned to the human voice, hearing rumors in a rustle of leaves or long orations in the rainfall. What elaborate sentences are diagramed by the frost on the window pane, I wonder.
A makeshift catalogue of ice sounds: (I’m open to suggestions)
1) old man noises: Taking a break from iceboating, standing with men around a burn barrel at the edge of the ice, hands outstretched towards the fire to keep warm. A sudden noise from the ice–a snow-muffled boom underfoot. Everyone looked around at the frozen landscape, then at each other. Someone finally piped up. “Ice fart,” he said.
Now I hear the grumbling of old age–not quite speech–bodily noises, like hunger, groaning with the rough creaking of joints. A few coughs, as the ice complains under the stress of a shrinking tide. When the tide expands, a surge of gurgling and belching, followed by one long sigh.
2) sounds from deep space:
High-pitched, ethereal ping, transmitted through the ice sheet like snapping piano wire, like steam-pipes and radiators singing with an ancient boiler. Space-age special effects fold into deerhide shaman’s drumming.
“It takes courage to greet the universe as it really is, not to foist our emotions on it.”
A metallic retort, then monolithic silence.
3) puffed-rice breakfast cereal sounds:
krack, smack, krunch, kapow. knuckle-breaking comic-book brawl
4) squeegee-like squeaks
Ice talk must have been on my mind when I dreamt of of a book made of ice. The warmth of my hands and the heat of my breath melted the pages as I read them.
When I awoke, I looked out the window and saw reams of river ice stacked by the muscle of the tides, piled in the shallows, shuffled into fractals of the underlying geometry of water molecules. Tugs are brought to a standstill. Buoys are pulled off their moorings. The ice doesn’t care, and I am glad of it. A naked voice, like someone, having reached the end of a lifetime and seen it all, shrugs off worry.