Ice Time by Richard Hague
Nor need we trouble ourselves to speculate how the human race may at last be destroyed. It would be easy to cut their threads at any time with a little sharper blast from the north. We go on dating from Cold Fridays and Great Snows; but a little colder Friday, or greater snow, would put a period to man’s existence on the globe. —Thoreau, 1854
I sneaked out around lunch time today and walked the four long blocks from
school to the river overlook at the end of Ingleside Avenue. It’s late December, the wind roaring, temperature falling: a lean day with its skin barked off, raw and stinging as a bare-knuckled punch. I could see that the river was up after several days’ rain, and under the glowering gray of the sky, it looked much like T. S. Eliot’s Mississippi, that “strong brown god.” The Ohio was massive, broad-shouldered, muscling its way through the hills. The wind had raised a chop on it that I could see even from my height and distance, and a tangle of big logs heaved and rolled in the middle of the channel. To a giant tow of coal or gravel and sand, these great soggy dangers would mean nothing. The bows of the barges would loom over them for a second, then under the logs would go, moiled and churned, booming along the metal hulls, then they’d be afloat again, scarred by the propellers, maybe—and the barges and boat none the worse for the wear. But to a pilgrim in a canoe or a john boat, such drift would threaten destruction. “Sawyers,” they were called by the old river pilots, for what they’d do to the flimsy wooden hull of a shallow draft sidewheel packet built of little more than sticks and paint and bunting. I imagined for a time the sudden breaking loose of those logs in a high creek somewhere in Pennsylvania or West Virginia. I imagined that they had been seedlings a couple of centuries before the First American Regiment came downriver to guard the surveyors of the Seven Ranges of the Northwest Territory in the old Fort Steuben, on the site of my home town. As mature trees, they had fallen, maybe forty years ago, washed downstream on the Allegheny or Monongahela, the Kanawha or Big Sandy, and snagged in a choked bend. There they had lodged for years, maybe, then, a week or two ago, suddenly they gave way, and six or eight of them washed out at once, and began a seaward journey that had begun when Shakespeare was alive.
A third of a century ago, during the first of two successive brutal winters in the Ohio Valley, the river froze from shore to shore. Here in Cincinnati, daredevils walked across it; some rode bikes, and I even heard rumors of attempts to drive across in cars. One day I was ice-walking along the solid sheets close to shore, noting the crushed canopies of ice lower down the banks like the one weighing over a thousand pounds that had collapsed and killed a boy just a week before. I lifted my eyes and saw what I mistook for fungi growing at the same height from almost every tree. I doubted that all those trees could be dead; just the summer before I had veered and stumbled through them, my fishing pole tangling in the undergrowth. It couldn't be fungi. On closer inspection, I saw that those elephant-ear-like protuberances were instead tongues and filthy hat brims and ragged ledges made of dirty ice, and that they marked the high water of that frigid winter. There was freshly scraped bark on many of the trees where great rafts of ice must have crashed against them during break-up. Even more amazing to me was that none of the trees had been taken down. As the river fell and the ice broke up, a chaos of grinders and slicers and crumpling sheets had rumbled south, crushing a legendary local riverman’s workboat against the Markland Dam and sinking it. Back up the bank, walking to my truck, I noticed graffiti on the building at Turkey Ridge Park: “Jeannie Odell is a fox.” “I love and dig James Chaplin.” But they were summer scrawlings, made in the heat of passion and bright steamy days. Nowhere could you see, “Ice here in the winter of ‘78,” and underneath it, a cold, brown, final line.
What the ice said, of course, was that your world was not stable, not even in a geological sense. Impermanence rules. Even the very landscape you have come to know your way around in, to feel at home in, can be ground away, utterly obliterated.
The ice, back in the old days that helped shape the Ohio’s course, worked its way south, too. The air at its advancing edge must have felt much as this air today, sharp, heatless, a kind of invisible form of danger from which the body shies as it would from a charging bear. And if you turned your head just right, so that the breeze didn’t roar across your ears and drown it out, you could hear the sound of the ice advancing, a little pebbly clatter at its leading edge, mixed with the deep, continental grind of its rock-clogged heart, holding boulders so tightly they carved yard-wide grooves along a thousand feet of bedrock. You would almost think the ice was speaking, and you would shiver with dread for not knowing what it might tell you—or for intuiting, suddenly, exactly what it said.
What the ice said, of course, was that your world was not stable, not even in a geological sense. Impermanence rules. Even the very landscape you have come to know your way around in, to feel at home in, can be ground away, utterly obliterated. You are a small, small thing, the ice announces, tiny in your fragile hut of bones, and you will not live to see my retreat. You may not even survive this annual winter I bring with me; surely you will not survive the epochal winter I portend, an era of darkness and cold as long as a hundred of your generations.
But this is all academic. Although recent discoveries are challenging the conventional wisdom, it is still perhaps reasonable to claim that there were no human beings on the continent at the height of the last Ice Age. Such a profound and absolute absence of the human in the landscape is almost utterly impossible for us, in our anthropocentric culture, to comprehend. Let us imagine the absurd notion that we have been taken back in time to about 11,000 years ago, when the last of the Scioto Lobe retreated, but with this one exception: the outerbelt freeways around the Cincinnati metropolitan area, I-275 and I-471, somehow already exist. On either side as you drive there is nothing but tundra, boulders strewn here and there, known as “glacial erratics,” and kettle bogs—small ponds formed by melting blocks of ice—dotting the landscape. Here and there a kame—a little hill of deposits left by a stream running under the glacier—wanders across the landscape. If there is any living movement at all, it is far distant— a mastodon, or a giant beaver, or a loose skein of storm-blown seabirds flung across the sky. For all your life, if you imagine yourself in this world, you will hear no car horn, no airplane droning over, no recorded music. You will hear the wind; you will hear thunder, maybe; you will hear all summer the ceaseless roar of the frigid glacial rivers pouring out from the edge of the ice; all winter you will hear almost nothing beyond the crackle of fire close up as you hold your hands out over it to warm them in the star-crazed empty night.
There is an appalling loneliness in all this, and in the vastness of the world around you. It is a world fit to its own size, silent in its own silence—not altered, patched, plotted, intersected, developed, subdivided, malled. If you want to hear a human voice, it will have to be yours. What are you going to say in all that vastness? What are you going offer it in words by way of introduction?
Thus the time of the ice is, I would guess, the time of the first poetry, for only poetry dare approach and try to give voice in the presence of such magnitude and power. The pioneer North Americans came across the Bering land bridge at about this time, and they brought with them the memory of that far northern crossing, the vastness of the sea, the presence of the ice, the unceasing hiss of the wind.
How stupid to make small talk into the profound human void of continental North America. Those firstcomers must have felt the challenge of that fresh and unworded world, and they must have felt that what they spoke into it should be worthy, and, as best as they could manage it, in scale with nature. For nature’s steppes, there must be language as large and with equally broad horizons; for nature’s boulders, those erratics left behind by the retreating ice, there must be words that stand as solidly and largely and that build meaning in solitary and in sedimentary ways, single pronouncements as startling as pyramids or complex layers upon layer accreting and accumulating; for nature’s fishes and fowls, there must be poems as fluid and as free as the milky streams roaring from the foot of the summer glacier or the wind off the winter ice face.
In l928, Henry Beston, having spent a year alone on the great Outer Beach of Cape Cod (itself the product of glaciation— in effect a huge stratified pile of sand and gravel left behind by the ice), summed up his experience there: “The world today is sick to its thin blood for lack of elemental things, for fire before the hands, for water welling from the earth, for air, for the dear earth itself underfoot.” I can’t help but think that he is still right. And I think of how, at the turn of this millennium, we have lost the first poems said by our ancient brothers and sisters. We have forgotten even how to speak and listen to their language. Much is irrecoverable.
So remembering the Ice Time may be a useful exercise in renewing our sense of where we are, in time and place, and of avoiding any false sense of security, conquest, or entitlement. Yes, we and our PCs and laptops and stock markets and Pentagons and Kremlins survived Y2K, we have recovered from 9/11, and we have not been completely undone—yet—by fracking, mountain-top removal, increasing carbon dioxide levels, and Gulf oil spills. But those were entirely man-made threats. The ice may return, despite—or, in the marvelous unpredictable long-term permutations of chaos, precisely because of—global warming. And if it does, it will change everything—everything.
Nor are we exempt. Our cleverness and our wealth and our planetary power thrown at the ice (or the heat) will not turn it back. All of our most earnest occupations in defending ourselves from it will be to no avail. We are a part of nature, not apart from it. When—if—the ice returns, it will have us.