Winter’s new ice (Walden 161)

Ice at Holmes Lake, Lincoln, Nebraska.

Ice at Holmes Lake, Lincoln, Nebraska.

Merry Christmas! If you’re like me, by the evening of Christmas Day all the family festivities are over and you’re ready to do something else. (Granted, this post was written and scheduled in advance.) If it’s cold where you live, maybe it’s time to go outside and look closely at ice.

In today’s reading, winter comes to Walden Pond, and Thoreau examines the first ice, so much better than the later ice:

“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, and study the bottom at your leisure, only two or three inches distant, like a picture behind a glass, and the water is necessarily always smooth then.”

I’ve always heard that you should stay off of ice that’s only an inch thick (2.54 cm), but Henry is right by the shore where the water is shallow, and he lies down to spread out his weight. Among other things, he is fascinated by air bubbles:

“If you examine it closely the morning after it freezes, you find that the greater part of the bubbles, which at first appeared to be within it, are against its under surface, and that more are continually rising from the bottom; while the ice is as yet comparatively solid and dark, that is, you see the water through it.”

Have you ever done this? Go out to a newly iced-over pond to examine the air bubbles? Henry writes about in such a way as to assume that you’ll run to the nearest body of water at the next freeze and take a look. He kept tabs on the bubbles, now encased in ice, noting how they changed over time as the temperature rose and fell. Not only were the bubbles beautiful, but they helped him understand how the ice melted: “I inferred that the infinite number of minute bubbles which I had first seen against the under surface of the ice were now frozen in likewise, and that each, in its degree, had operated like a burning-glass on the ice beneath to melt and rot it. These are the little air-guns which contribute to make the ice crack and whoop.”

So you have your assignment. If you live in a part of the world where it freezes, go out and look closely at the ice. If not, here are a few pictures. What’s pictured here isn’t the new ice Henry is talking about (as you can tell from the cracks in the ice), and it really doesn’t do justice to the intricate patterns in the ice (my point-and-shoot camera had difficulty focusing… that’s right, I’m blaming the camera). But Thoreau didn’t even have a camera. The main thing is to get out there now and then this winter, and pay attention.

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(About  “A Year in Walden”)


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