In late November, night’s grip on the sky eases early. But along the rivers and ponds, beneath their banks, cold darkness often holds on, and if you are of a mind to find it, skim ice spreads its first hands – sometimes you can see it form even while you linger, your back and high head in the sun, your feet in the still gloom. What is it about watching the world turn solid that transfixes us?
Here’s what Henry Thoreau thought one late fall day when the ice arrived: “The first ice is especially interesting and perfect, being hard, dark and transparent, and affords the best opportunity that ever offers for examining the bottom where it is shallow; for you can lie at your length on ice only an inch thick, like a skater insect on the surface of the water…” (Housewarming, Walden)
For me following Henry Thoreau’s fascination through these few pages of “Housewarming” is akin to returning to childhood. Then, I kept close eye on the nearby pond I walked by on my way to school. Rabbits Pond was an unremarkable scrap of water not far from the middle of town, but like all water it had also its romance – its few small fish in the summer, its hours of skating in the winter. And, like all water, it drew occasional visitors – ducks and geese passing through, the odd heron; once, story has it, the pond was even the scene into which an irate future movie star named Bogart pitched his dormitory supervisor from the nearby independent school.
When the coming winter’s ice first formed, we would gather beside the pond and begin our calculations – when would it bear us? When could we lace on our skates and glide over this new world? The thin blades of our skates would provide the final test, but as children impatient to cast off into this season, we had earlier ones. And here we mimicked Walden’s “child,” Henry Thoreau.
Though fond of food, I was among the slightest, and so, after some tossed rocks had skipped pingingly off the pond’s new surface, I would lie down on the shore with my hands outstretched on the ice. And like a seal pup I would begin to wiggle and paddle forward, feeling the ice flex, wondering wondering. Usually, it held. And a yard or so from shore I would lie there looking across the smooth expanse and its perfect glassiness. As the cold seeped up through my thin jacket, I would look down into the “parlor of the fishes” and wonder some more. Sometimes, when the light was right, I’d see another me looking up. A few days later, if all was right with the weather world, we would be skating and whooping over the pond.
First ice still brings back being a kid, still summons the excitement of the little worlds that will soon be open to you, even as others are sealed off for the winter.
We’ve not reached it yet, that moment that Henry Thoreau waited for, when the new ice will bear a body’s weight, just. Or at least we’ve not had the cold night that thickened the ice enough for me to risk a dousing with some majority of confidence. But I’m checking, and the week’s wintry forecast says that soon, I’ll be able to lie down at water’s edge and slide over its flexing skin for a yard or so. And then I’ll look down.