Water & Ice

Thu, 01/24/2019 - 8:00pm

motion in the lot behind my house catches my eye.

It is my dog, Autumn, on her usual patrol. She has gone back there since she was a big puppy, following the trails deer made through the increasingly dense foliage from what used to be a bar-way at the end of the laneway. I could see her, golden in the sun, weaving through the goldenrod and tall grasses. It was not until she disappeared late one fall afternoon and I thought I heard barking back there that I realized just how overgrown — and impassable — it had become.

That lot is clear, again, the access easy, and much of a row of scrub trees that had grown tall, blocking my view from the window by my desk more than I realized, is gone. I see Autumn, almost daily, wandering around back there, and wonder whatever it is she thinks she will find. Or once found.

The temperature was mild Sunday morning but it poured, dumping more water than the land, saturated since fall, could begin to absorb. Later, as it began to clear, I went to the gate and saw the swale in the north pasture, usually a pondlet in rainy seasons, turned to a near lake, larger than I remember it ever being. It might have been, it is low enough that I have to go to the gate to see it in the dip in the land, and I do that more often now that there are horses nearby, hoping for the thrill of a beach run or, more often, dinner.

It was water, still and wide when it did not seem the temperature could drop as quickly and by as much as was forecast. As Sunday faded, the mild turned to cold turned to what may well stand as the deepest freeze of the year. Close to 11, I went to the door to let Autumn out, remembering to look at the moon. The eclipse had begun, but clouds were racing across the sky, creating that dizzying and disorienting sensation that the moon itself was moving at some impossible pace. A chunk, a taster's bite from a round cookie, had been taken from the pale disc but it was so cold and so windy — and I was so tired — that I came back inside, waiting for my dog to make her let-me-in noise before going to bed.

The water that had filled the low spaces in the front field had frozen into planes of solid white, looking like patches of snow in the first light of Monday morning. The promised cold was firmly in place and I pulled on layers of clothing, the rare luxuries of a pair of wool socks and silk long underwear, under regular winter garb, and ventured downstairs. Autumn, of course, wanted to go out and play, chasing the rope toys lying in the yard and tossing about her “sticks” - ends of branches snapped off in windstorms.

I left her outside, got my coffee, and stood in the kitchen, warmed by sun, and looked south and east, seeing what I knew was there, the ethereal beauty of a very cold morning beside the ocean. The skies had cleared and the sun shone golden in the southeast. The air, turned truly frigid during the night, was passing over that thick, moisture-filled layer that rides on the surface of the winter water. Sea smoke, icy vapor, billowed from the ocean, swept by the chilling northwest wind.

It astonishes me, still, every time I see it, this gift to assuage the sting of a bitter morning, but some days it is even more extraordinary than others. I saw sea smoke pouring off the bay but, also, in the distance, tendrils rising from behind the Southeast Lighthouse, far away, white with morning sun. I later heard reports of water spouts but I am not sure how anyone could differentiate one form of airborne water from another in that great, steaming caldron.

The cold was deep but it would not last long, I was not at all worried about pipes freezing until I heard someone else's had. In that kind of cold I do not fret how often the furnace comes on, and there was never a long enough spell of silence that I worried it had stopped.

It was Tuesday before I went out, despite all that Monday morning attention to dressing for an arctic adventure. Everywhere, there were signs of too much rain followed by deep cold. The water in the swale in the north pasture was so solid one of the horses stood with his front hoofs on its edge — I later learned another had skated across the slick surface on the coldest day, abetted by the studs on his winter shoes; a frozen river hugged the edge of the Neck Road where there is normally a benign stream seeping from a Mitchell Farm meadow. I was reminded, again, how fortunate we were that the rain stopped and the wind blew before the cold arrived; our trees and wires were not encased in ice.

That moon had been full in the first minutes of Monday and the milk-white ice marking the reach of the tide was still in place at the marshy edge of the New Harbor. The inverse was true closer to town, where the salt waves left only a white cap on the one rock always visible off the Surf Beach, and on the upper parts of the breakwaters.

Just a casual conversation about the full moon and the wide, wide beach made me think of the almost magical influence ascribed to it. This chunk of matter that does not even cast its own light has the power to pull the ocean away from the shore and push it creeping up the lower sides of docks and to the toes of bluffs. Of course it has an impact on us.