Bene Vixit Bene Latuit*

“We don’t see things as they are. We see things as we are.”

Anais Nin

10_05_10_Matches2It 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.

P1030983Carrying 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.

gentleman-matchesTo 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.

tumblr_liflao7oaI1qagc5do1_1280Slipping 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.

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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.

Russian-Matchbox-Labels_01Like 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.

xmatch_winged_koi.jpg.pagespeed.ic.uV-73JKyTwAs 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.

P1030984Almost 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.

Screen-shot-2013-03-26-at-14.09.53Pulling 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.

il_570xN.374922236_edrn*”The good life is the hidden life”

the epitaph found on Descartes‘ gravestone

North Wind

Jordan Pond January 34

In the midst of a meadow

A skylark singing

Free from everything

Jordan Pond January 35

There are hotspots on the ice, on the lakes and ponds of our island, that look like black neurons embedded in the hard, icy surface. The pattern they make echoes perfectly the endings of our neural cells, or the pattern of growth in reindeer moss, or the paths of rivers as they progressively etch the surface of our planet.

Jordan Pond January 36

Why are there such similarities in shapes and forms that are found in nature? Why is that the millions of bubbles suspended in the ice of a frozen pond mimic the lattice of old bridges, or that the edge of a huge crack in that same ice, one of the cracks that stretches thirty feet in one direction and 4 inches down, has the same structure and form as a chunk of granite a few feet away at the water’s edge? Why does ice, frozen under the lake’s surface, look like a field of daisies, or the surface of a sea urchin, or the tentacles of a jellyfish?

Jordan Pond January 22

Are we, as humans, so desperate to find meaning in our lives, however short they may be, that we find meanings and patterns in natural phenomena? Or are those patterns simply patterns: repeating shapes and structures that are big and small, in hot and cold, in water and air, all through our Earth system? When I look at photographs of nebulas and galaxies, I see shapes that resemble eyes and horseheads. When I sit on a frozen pond and stare down through the ice, I see shapes that resemble stars and clouds in space. Perhaps there is no great meaning in these similarities: perhaps they are simply a repetitive alignment of the atoms that make up all that is our planet Earth.

Jordan Pond January 5Jordan Pond JanuaryJordan Pond January 14

It is very, very cold here at the present moment. Last week, on the coldest day of the year, I went ice skating with a friend on Little Long Pond, at sunset. As the sun’s light descended into peach and orange, all around us, the shadows stretched long and the fir trees reflected, black, on the pond’s surface. I skated to the far end of the pond, across a patch that, in summer, is a swampy bog of reeds and grasses. I skated over ice with brambles and grasses growing up out of it: it looks like hair growing out of skin. As I headed back to my boots as they sat on shore, I noticed the sunset, pink, reflected on the ice’s surface.

Jordan Pond January 6

Three times lately, I have been skating at Jordan Pond — an epic and majestic place with two mountains at the end of the lake, and trees on all sides. In summer, this place is crawling with people; now, not a soul. On my first and second visits, the wind blew, shrieking with all her force, out of the north with a viciousness and a bite that is unexplainable except when you are experiencing it. (Estimated wind chill was -33F!!!). I struck out on the ice, fighting the wind and battling forward along the middle of the pond. The pond narrows at the boat launch, where my boots and the truck sat, and funnels the wind into a tunnel of cold, strong air. The wind was blowing at 30 knots at least, and it almost blew me over as I stood up on my skates.

Jordan Pond January 1

Fighting forward, swinging my arms and legs side to side like a high speed Olympic skater in slow motion, I was dressed in mechanic’s coveralls over a down jacket, performance fleece, wool leggings, corduroys, a hat and a  hood on my head and a scarf wrapped around my face. I scooted, slowly over the ice, occasionally pausing during greater wind gusts, turning my face away from the inevitability of frostbite and giving my legs a break. Slowly, across an intense, bumpy ice flow that spanned the width of the lake, I inched my way toward the smooth center of Jordan Pond, and stared down beneath my feet at frozen bubbles and black water. So clear that you could detect stones and branches beneath you, it felt scary and unnatural, as if you were flying or scuba diving, or both.

Jordan Pond January 3

Skating over this alien landscape felt dangerous and otherworldly: as if I was caught here in this moment in time, and that I would never be able to be here again because it could just disappear with the snap of my fingers, or this week’s thawing temperatures. Flying and gliding over the ice is like riding a bicycle or racing a sailboat or sawing a piece of silver or vacuuming a large carpet: all you think about in those moments of movement is the act itself, of paying attention to the ice beneath your feet so that you don’t catch your skate blade in a crack and fall. In those moments, you hear the wind howling in your ears, the rapid flapping of the leather of your mittens, the clattering of a piece of velcro as it is wrenched loose from the hood that protects your head from losing all of your heat, gliding over green water and black, staring at pond stones and deer bones and birch trees now suspended, frozen, at the lake’s bottom.

Jordan Pond January 13Jordan Pond January 11

 This past summer I took some friends who had never been to Mount Desert Island around this lake on a walk, and listened to the water lap the rocks at pond’s edge. Now the water is silent and like glass; it still looks like open water at a distance, but is 6-10 inches thick, solid, frozen. Patches of snow-ice dotted the pond the further I skated down, as if they were giant white lilypads stretched across the lake’s surface. Skating over those lilypads is deliciously bumpy, and you feel the shock absorbing properties of your knees and ankles as skates and your body bounce across.

Jordan Pond January 10

The wind was at my back as I skated over to a sacred spot discovered the day before: a place where the ice had frozen into tiny, perfect floral shapes, where it looked like algae or sea urchins or jellyfish, or all three at the same time. The wind, with so much force, pushed me so hard that I sped up very fast and took a few moments just to glide between the icy lilypads, leaning on one skate or the other to direct my path around and between them. Needing no push from my muscles, I was simply guided forward by gusts of intense north wind. I finally managed to slow down by doubling back and facing the wind again: able to slow down and stop, I took a moment and looked at the two mountains that are the distinguishing feature of this pond.

Jordan Pond January 18

Returning for a third visit this morning, at sunrise, I spied birds’ wings made of ice trapped under the pond’s surface, and vertebrae, and skeletons. I saw the shape of two birds fighting each other, complete with feathers flying. I saw jellyfish, and shapes that looked like antique carousels, and baskets, and cages. I saw spirals trapped and motioning me down into the black depths. I took a few moments and lay down on the ice and stared at a 10 inch crack in the surface. I looked at it from one side and saw how the early morning sunlight was shining through its cracks, making it appear polka dotted, or etched by some invisible hand. I looked at it from the other side, and peered closely and noticed how much it echoed the shape of the mountain that stood in front of me, on the west side of the pond. I noticed the strings of bubbles and noted how similar their patterns are to the way cave glow-worms hang, or the shape of the nails and pins we use to build houses. As my friend and I lay there, bundled up against the cold, on our bellies, gazing into the ice, a huge boom echoed below us as a new, large crack formed somewhere behind us. The boom, the cracking, was so forceful it shook us: you could feel the vibration all through your body. At that moment, we stood up and skated around each other again for a few moments, savouring the serendipity and the silence and silkiness of perfect ice, and then went off to begin the day.

Jordan Pond January 4