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IN the winter the pond finds a voice. The great sheet of foot-thick, white ice is like a gigantic disk in a telephone, receiver and transmitter in one, sending and receiving messages between the earth and space. Probably these messages pass equally in summer, only the instruments are so tuned then that our finite ears may not perceive them; for the surface of the pond has its water disk in the summer no less than in winter, but an exquisitely thinner and finer one.
Taking to-day my first canoe trip of the year about the edges where the imperative orders of the coming spring have opened clear water for a half-hundred feet, I could not help noticing this thinner disk.
The west wind blew keen, but lightly, and had crowded the ice over toward the eastern shore, leaving me free northwest passage in sunny shallows where no ripple disturbed. Every dip of the paddle threw drops of water on the surface, drops that shone like diamonds in the warm sun, but sought, always for a time in vain, to reunite with their kindred water. This invisible barrier held them up and they rolled about without wetting it, just as they might have on a glossy disk of metal, though they finally vanished into it. Like the drops the disk was made up of molecules of water, but the fact that these rested on the very summit of their fellows and between them and the air seemed to change their character and give them a property of impenetrability.
It is this disk of water on water that holds up the summer water striders, lean and ferocious-looking insects that skip about on the surface, the tips of their long legs denting it but never being wet. There is a big black land spider that lives on the water's edge summers, who is husky and heavy, yet will run along the surface, galloping and jumping just as if on a dry and sandy beach and neither falling in nor wetting his feet.
When I see the silver dimples that the water strider's feet make in this elastic surface and note this land spider galloping across a cove, the disk of the pond's summer telephone receiver and transmitter becomes very real to my eyes. Very likely the under-water people, mullet and bream and perch, read these messages in summer and know in advance what the weather is going to be. If not, what is it that stops their feeding and disturbs them before any rumble of the approaching thunderstorm has reached in years? Perhaps in this way they learn of other universe happenings, if such are the subjects of messages that pass, though I am not sure of this, for such information as I have been able to intercept has always referred to approaching meteorological conditions.
They come to my ears only in winter, after the ice has reached a thickness of a foot or so, these promptings out of unknown space. Sometimes you need to be very near the receiver to note them. It is not possible for a mile-square, foot-thick telephone disk to whisper, yet often it grumbles only a hoarse word or two at so deep a pitch that you would hardly know it was spoken. The lowest note on a piano is shrill in comparison to this tone, audible only when the ear is within a few feet of the ice. But there are other times when the winter ice on the pond whoops and roars, and bellows and whangs as if all Bedlam were let loose and were celebrating Guy Fawkes day. A mile away, of a still winter evening, you may hear this and be dismayed, for the groanings and bellowings are such as belong to no monsters of the present day, though they might be echoes of antedeluvian battles corked within the earth for ages and now for the first time let loose.
It is all very simple, of course, says my friend the scientist. It is caused by vibrations due to the expanding or contracting of the ice, or the expanding or contracting of a portion of it causing big cracks to run hither and thither. It means simply that a change in temperature is going on.
But does it? Or if so, is that all it means? I crossed the pond not long ago of a beautiful spring-like morning, after the sun had been up for two hours or more. There was then no voice in the receiver other than the gentle thrumming caused by the chopping of the fishermen, making holes wherein to set pickerel traps, nor was there a cloud in the sky. An hour later the soft haze of a coming warm gale spread over the horizon to the southward, and as if at the touch of a key the pond began to speak a word now and then that rapidly changed to full conversation. From the near hilltop where I stood it was as if I had cut in on a telephone line where two giants were eagerly talking under conditions that made the hearing a difficult matter. There was question and answer, query and interruption and repetition and change of tone from a low voice to a shout.
It was humorously like a fellow townsman having trouble with Central so far as inflection went, but there was a quality in the tone which barred the human. You had but to listen with closed eyes to know that here spoke the primal forces of nature. You may hear that same quality in the voice of a gale at sea. I don't mean the shrilling of the wind in the rigging, or the cry of the waters, even, but that burbling undertone of the upper air currents, growling and shouting at one another as they roar by far overhead. An Arabian might say these are the voices of Afrites, journeying through the air to the kingdom of Ethiopia. So even in the bright sun of that spring-like morning these solemn voices of the winter ice seemed like echoes of messages super-human, passing from deep to deep.
At the time I laid the cause to the changes in temperature produced by the warmth of the morning sun on the thick ice. Yet the uproar began after the sun had been shining for an hour or two, and it ceased within a half-hour. That night came the south blow and a warm storm.
In the whirligig of our New England winter weather the soft rain and strong south wind passed. Then the wind blew strong from the northwest and fair skies and low temperature prevailed for some days, welding the erstwhile softened ice into an elastic surface as resonant as tempered steel. Then came a still warm day in which we had the same increase of temperature under spring-like skies as on that previous day. Yet the pond never uttered a word – audible to my listening human ears. Here were the conditions like those of the other message period, yet not a word was said. Even the soft haze which presaged another south blow filled the sky, so apparently nothing was wanted but the voice at the other end of the line. It was along in the evening that I heard the first call, followed rapidly by a great uproar, so that people heard it in their houses half a mile or more away. Immediately I looked up the thermometer. The temperature had not changed a degree for hours. Yet here were the primal forces telephoning back and forth to one another and fairly making the welkin ring with their hubbub. Surely wires were crossed somewhere on the ether waves, or else the tempers of the primal forces themselves were out of sorts.
I seemed to hear familiar words in their roarings, admonitions to get farther away from the transmitter, requests for strangers to get off the line and other little courtesies that pass current in the telephone booth: and so for a half-hour they kept it up. It was all very ghostly and disquieting and savoring of the superhuman to listen to it in the night and wonder what it was all about. At last one or the other giant hung up the receiver with a tremendous bang, and nothing more was to be heard but the mutterings of the other, grumbling about it in notes low and tremendously deep.
Before morning the wind was blowing a wild gale from the south, rain was pouring in torrents and we were evidently on the outer edge of a winter hurricane that had been well up the coast, perhaps as far as Nantucket, when the pond began to talk about it. No; I do not think changes in temperature have much to do with it. My explanation for the scientist is that these noises begin with a drop in the atmospheric pressure, a region of low barometer moving up in advance of the storm. Taking the pressure quite suddenly off the ice would start all the air imprisoned in solution beneath it to pushing upward for a chance to get away. No wonder it groans and whoops with all that wind in its wame.
But privately I am not so sure. We have so many sure-thing theories, and so much definite knowledge to-day that tomorrow is all discredited and cast aside leaving us groping for another theory, that it is just as easy to believe myself eavesdropping at telephone talk between giants. That particular night it sounded to me like Hercules on his way up from Hades with Cerberus under his arm and a bit over-anxious lest the deities fail to have the dog pound ready for him on arrival in the upper regions – but of course that's pagan myth. Anyway it was a great uproar. I fancy winter ice makes the same outcry on other ponds, though I never happened to hear it anywhere else.
To-day the ice was quiet enough on my side of the pond, though you could see where it had been at work. With the west wind as team mate it was dredging and grading over on the east shore. This is the every-day winter work of thick ice. It picks up big rocks on the beach and carries them off into deep water or moves them up or down the shore as it sees fit. But always it pushes back the sand and gravel and stones on low shores and steadily builds them up till you find wide shallow ridges between the water's edge and the slope of the land farther ashore. My pond is very young, scarcely three-quarters of a century old, yet it shows marked evidence of this work all along shore. When ice is thick and the wind strong, especially toward spring when there is apt to be free water along the edge, you may stand by and see the dredging effect at work, see the low, long mound of gravel or sand slide backward up the beach while the edge of the floe crumples and grinds and crumbles, but still moves irresistibly to its work.
Over at Ponkapoag Pond, which is perhaps a hundred thousand years older, the effect of this pushing ice through the ages, working at various levels, has been to produce mounds and dikes almost beyond belief. Moreover, these are placed in such situations that it is plain to see that the water was for the greater part of that long time some feet higher than now. In my first acquaintance with these ridges I thought them dikes raised by modern men, early farmers, perhaps, who thus for some occult reason banked the pond as they surrounded their fields with the stone fences which last still. No man of today, however ardent a farmer, builds these great barriers between field and field. Yet even with the stone walls before the eye it is hard to believe that men built dykes along the pond shore that averaged a hundred feet across and were in some places much more. A ten-foot bank would do, and it was hard to believe that so much labor would be willingly wasted. Yet along the Ponkapoag Pond shore in one place is a barrier many feet high and broad built, not of sand, but of the rough slate rock of the region, thrown together loosely in huge rough blocks and tamped with earth. This is so much bigger than any of the field-enclosing stone walls that it puts the modern farmer quite out of the question, and on finding it I had pleasant dreams of a prehistoric race of mound-builders who might have preceded the Indians in their occupation of the land and have built these pond embankments for purposes of their own.
Again my scientific friend disapproves my dream theory in well-chosen argument that is very convincing – to him. Nevertheless I go my way with mind equally divided, between theories as to prehistoric men-mound-builders and the probabilities of the work having been done by that great beaver which, according to the Algonquin legend, made the world out of mud brought up from the bottom of a lake.
Mind you, I am quite convinced that it is the ice which is doing this on the Reservoir shore, but Ponkapoag – that is far enough away to be in the land of legend and all sorts of wonderful things may have happened on its borders. Whatever its work, the ice for this winter has nearly completed it. In early December its crystalline structure was that of ferns, laid flat and interwoven, making it strong and elastic. All semblance of these has vanished, and there remains but a loosely adhering structure built like the Giant's Causeway in the north of Ireland of vertical irregular columns jammed together side by side. Moisture is all between these, and if the temperature is below freezing cements them firmly together, and it is safe to walk on the surface. The ice is almost a foot thick still, but let a warm spring sun in on it, and this cement softens, and what seems a firm foundation crumbles and fails beneath your foot. All along the edges to-day the process of disintegration was going on, and you could hear the little seeping swan song of these ice columns as they slid apart and lay flat, making mush ice in the open water where they soon dissolved and disappeared. Thus the ice waits the mandate of the spring. Some day, soon, it will fall apart as if at a word, and vanish, and by that token we shall know that the winter has really gone, and we shall go about in a pleasant glow, listening for the first voice of the spring frogs.
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