Rick Bass discovers the redemptive power of a frozen landscape.
The girls and I wander out onto the marsh to go for a ski while the moon is still full. The clouds are gone and the night is cold. Due to some random sequence of the frost-thaw cycle—warm snow followed by repeated nights of intense cold and, who knows, perhaps even influenced by the solstice, the eclipse, and other rare phenomena—the snow out on the marsh has rearranged itself into a flat skiff of broad plates, each snowflake now recrystallized into a perfectly planar structure. The entire snowscape before us appears to have been converted into a land of fish scales, three feet deep, each one silver-blue in the light of the moon.
The re-formed flakes are arrayed in all directions, brittle in the cold, leached of all moisture, dry as fossil fish scales. And though most of them are one micron thick, and lying parallel to the ground and the pull of gravity, enough of them tilt upward, as if in strange geological yearning, so that they sparkle and glint like huge sequins in the blue light. The entire world ablaze with shimmering coronas and prisms cast by the fish-scale flakes.
Through snow as loose as sand, the blades of our skis cut across these fish scales, making music as if we’re crossing sheets of glass wind chimes.
We ski through the blue light. I hold my breath, hoping the girls will remember the sight—though better still, they might take it for granted, assuming such wonder to be a daily occurrence. And that would be all right, more than all right. Nonchalance and awestruck wonder right next to each other.
On the way home we stop to pick up handfuls of the flaked snow, tossing it to the moon. We watch as the snow comes sifting back to us in silvery, shining columns, beams of blue electricity set loose by our hands, our hearts.
New Year’s Eve, the Millennium
Around ten o’clock, the lights go out. There’s no punch line, no alarm or surprise for even the briefest and most delicious of moments. The darkness is sudden and absolute. Laughing, we light candles and pass out flashlights, which are staples in the homes up here. The main propane generator is down, as often happens in deep winter, and so we’ve been using the back-up gasoline generator. It’s run out of gas, is all.
I slip outside into the silence of hard-falling snow. Away from the party and from my friends, the thought of my mother arises. Gone nine years, and it still doesn’t seem right.
When I was little, maybe seven or eight, I asked her about the year 2000. Would I live to see it, and how old would I be if I did? I asked her if she would still be alive then, and she told me yes.
It seems like something from a fairy tale—such a soft, heavy, calming snow. What if the world doesn’t end in fire or chaos, but in snow? All the despair through the years not merely hidden but transformed, covered with beauty, converted to beauty. As if all failure or disappointment or hunger or absence has somehow been redeemed.
The snow comes down. Not as some meteorological phenomenon, but as if some dense and infinite reservoir has opened up. Snow falling like feathers, falling hard and steady, stacking up. I stand outside a long time: Snow is more mesmerizing than fire. Each snowflake falling as it does, so simply.
There’s an inch or more of snow on my shoulders when I step inside. Browsing on the bounty of food and drink, we joke and visit. All our discussions are of the future: our hopes, our wish for joy. We play board games, games of skill and chance all night long. The children wander into the forest with sparklers in the last hour before light.
It’s still snowing hard. We set off a single firework, a large one, and it goes hissing and sputtering and smoking upward into the illuminated sky of falling snow; the sparks and traces of light unfold as incandescent blossoms. Soon after, once the mounds of snow are cleared off from their trucks, our friends embrace us and drive off. We feel their presence lingering as we wander up the steps in the morning light.
The century has ended, another century has begun.
I love driving Mary Katherine and Lowry to school each morning; I love traveling the same route through the snowy woods, the days growing incrementally longer as the month goes on.
Anything is possible. We’ve seen mountain lions bound across the road in front of us, and elk and coyotes, and once, a weasel. Always, deer.
Always, looking upriver as we cross the bridge in town, the mass of Mt. Henry, with the line of its 1994 burn zigzagging halfway up it, neat as the faint scar from long-ago surgery on one’s abdomen.
The river is almost always frozen by January. Lunar patterns in the whorls of ice: stress fractures and rifts that have sealed back over themselves. The script that is ice, after each night’s flexion, traceable in the long, sweeping arcs and the perfectly straight lines that cross the span of the river. Perfectly carved, as if transcribed by some giant compass—an odd assemblage of straight lines, like those in a game of tic-tac-toe—or as if a pile of spindles has been spilled onto the ice in a game of pick-up-sticks.
The impression you may get is that each riverine marking in the ice, remnant and residue of the previous day’s and night’s thermal variation, is not random, but exists in this world under the auspices of some mathematical formula. Some reason-for-being as yet unknown to us. One may imagine that these elegant, unknown equations are pursued by women and men like hounds. Gazing at the ice, it’s easy to believe that knowledge of the formula will evade them.
Punctuating the river’s crust are the stippled tracks of deer, their hoofprints sometimes as small as coins. It’s easier to interpret this snow-made language: Here is where they crossed over to browse the hawthorn bush. Here is where they came down off Hensley Mountain in search of morning sunlight. Here is where a doe with two yearlings wandered along shore’s edge, nibbling at the dried stubble of last autumn’s wild roses.
Sometimes there are dark ovals, shadowy lozenge shapes in the river’s snow about the size of a deer’s body, where the stippled tracks vanish. Though deer are for the most part equipped with a reservoir of instinct, refined and accumulated across the millennia, so too is there the element of unknowing as they go in the world. Pale bones decorate the river’s stony bottom like jewelry.