“We don’t see things as they are. We see things as we are.”
It was one of the last warm mornings, and by warm I mean it was in the low 40s, as we drove a silver truck down a lonesome highway on a small island toward an equally small pond.
This pond, owned by the Rockefellers and gifted to us as our dog park, is one of my favorite places on our island and the site of many morning and evening ice skates of last winter. Little Long Pond was even memorialized into a pendant made of silver, which I, of course, forgot to photograph. It was purchased by a lady book seller from the Yosemite Valley of California, who found it to be truly beautiful despite never having been there. I asked her to please go to the pond after she left my little town, and she told me she would take her son there and take photographs.
In the bed of the truck lay tied a red canoe: flat bottomed, without a keel, it promised to glide over the smooth surface of the pond at that early morning hour. It was Saturday, it was sunrise, and we were all alone, as we are during most of our adventures. Ours is a sort of magic that one finds only maybe once in a lifetime, and the moments one finds to be so precious you hold them in your heart like the palm holds a delicate match’s flame in the darkness.
Carrying the canoe down to the water, I was surprised at how heavy the canoe was and found its fiberglass-plastic to cut into the palm of my hand. Switching positions, my friend ended up dragging the boat to water’s edge, to the very same spot that we had laced our skates nine months before. There is a stone bench under a sweeping tree with weeping branches, covered still with leaves turning gold and rusted brown. The canoe slipped into the water, and I stepped in slightly to push us off and back. I simply kept the pace as all navigation was taken care of for me, slipping away, away, and down the pond.
To my right lay the bank that, last winter, was frozen and held in ice and snow. I used to skate near that bank and watch the snow’s height grow and shrink. I saw how the wind carved the snow and ice as the winter progressed. It was there that I gained confidence as a skater, doubling back many times to skate in large swathes, circles and ovals, taking precious time that I know made my friend impatient.
We paddled on, toward the end of the lake, watching the trees and grass on the left and the boathouse on the right. The boathouse is brown, and the ground near it was littered with brown leaves and yellow ones, too. The boathouse is always empty: its windows are like eyes, downcast.
Slipping through that water in the early morning, I looked back toward the ocean and saw the colors of the sunrise beaming to us across the water. A crowd of eider ducks ahead of us were disappointed with us interrupting, and whined and cried and muttered and flew off to the far end of the pond. We paddled on, looking at the muck of the pond’s floor, the grasses and reeds covered with detritus. Some of them coiled and looked like fuzzy brown intestines, clumped together on the floor. So shallow this pond: months ago, I dreamed of its depths, of the ice cracking and of my body slipping below into black water so cold and bottomless. Only now I know that it was shallow enough to stand up in the whole time.
Towards the end of the pond lie two beaver dams, one closer and one further away. They are constructed of branches and twigs and leaves and myriad other items, these bower birds of our biome no doubt are resourceful. Most of their dam lies beneath the water’s surface to protect their homes from predators. That morning, they were coated with hoarfrost, and glistened in a musky way. The eider ducks continued to watch us from the left side of the pond, and we endeavored to paddle further back into the cattails, into the marsh, into the rivulets we had skated last winter. We were, alas, curtailed, by a low water mark that caused our boat to run aground in silt, and we turned away. As we glided by the closer beaver dam, my friend remarked to me to look at the water’s surface and as I listened to a strange, slight crackling, I realized we were canoeing through thin sheets of ice.
Like the sound the wind makes through leaves, like the feeling of your hand brushing across grasses in an open field, like the cracking of a crusty piece of bread, the bow of our boat pushed through the ice crystals, breaking them apart into hundreds of invisible pieces. I reached out and tried to touch them, only to pull my hand away when I realized that I would do nothing more than disrupt them myself. The crystals had formed large triangles, prism-like, as if they were transparent, gossamer wings stretched across the water’s surface.
As we headed doggedly back to where we’d started, the ice dissipated, seemingly only to be found where the eider ducks swam, where the water was least disturbed by the tide or perhaps the wind off the ocean. Canoeing on through those shallow waters, I remembered skating for hours on this same pond, when the ice was bright grey, when I imagined wolves and foxes and harpies and Russian faerie tales alive in these woods, so silent as they are in midwinter.
Almost back to the stone bench, we slipped around an edge of the pond that was covered with small lily pads, the same ones that soon will be frozen into its surface. Skimming among and between them reminded me of skating in tight circles, of avoiding the leaves and lily pads because they caused the ice to melt and form dodgy places that could catch the tip of your skate and cause you to fall.
Pulling the canoe out of the pond, my friend dragged it back to the truck and I helped him hoist it into the bed once more. He tied it up, we climbed back inside, and returned along that same highway, not so lonesome as before as others had woken while we were paddling, and returned home for another late autumn day in Maine.
*”The good life is the hidden life” –
the epitaph found on Descartes‘ gravestone