For several years each February close to Valentine’s Day, our traveling poetry salon wrapped itself up in scarves and pulled on our boots for the sandy half mile trek out the Saugerties Lighthouse, where Patrick Landewe, the keeper, greeted us with his black winter beard and friendly manner, allowing us to cover his kitchen table with chocolate treats and then, after noshing for a while, crowd into his living room warmed by a coal stove and sunlit through windows offering views of the river ice, sometimes oatmeal mush, sometimes shattered plates shoved up here and there into giant white fins. Yet as fierce as the winter may be outside the Saugerties Lighthouse, inside we found a cozy refuge of historical Americana. Those white walls were as thick and secure as a bunker.
As the organizer of these gathering, I made it my responsibility first to carry out two gallons of apple cider in my daypack to be heated on the restaurant-size kitchen stove and served in mugs with cloves and cinnamon, then to lead the round robin sharing of poems read aloud, a romantic way to spend a Sunday afternoon. Since the lighthouse functions as a B&B, Patrick wasn’t unaccustomed to guests, so he retreated out of our way, until at the end I invited him to read his own writing for us. One year he described the voices he heard in the ice, a captivating account I haven’t forgotten. Thomas Wolfe’s description of the various lights seen in the Hudson brought it to mind. Patrick has revised what he originally read to us. Here are the voices as he hears them now.
People ask me what I do out here alone on this remote spit of land when the world is frozen. Short answer: I listen. With the addition of ice, the Hudson River’s slow but powerful current is made audible. Large chunks of frozen river move around with the tides, forward and back and forward again, grinding against one another as they flow, creating eerie sounds. A channel marker downstream resounds like a kettle drum each time it is hit by a large ice chunk. In the shallows on the north side of the lighthouse, piles of broken ice pop and crackle as they shift with rising or receding water levels. “The ice talks to you,” some people say.
Alone in winter, I listen and lapse into reveries, trying to decipher the language of ice. Deprived of human conversation, the brain turns towards voluble aspects of its surroundings. Not unlike the way the human eye, wired to recognize faces, looks at lines of woodgrain and sees a face grinning back. The visage of Mary appears to believers on a piece of toast or the devil’s eyes in a cloud of smoke. So too the ear is attuned to the human voice, hearing rumors in a rustle of leaves or long orations in the rainfall. What elaborate sentences are diagrammed by the frost on the window pane, I wonder. The scrawling of frost are mere whispers compared to the muscular epics of river ice. Ice talk must have been on my mind when I dreamt of of a book made of ice. The warmth of my hands and the heat of my breath melted the pages as I read them. When I awoke, I looked out the window and saw reams of river ice stacked by the muscle of the tides, piled in the shallows, shuffled into fractals of the underlying geometry of water molecules. I study the commotions of river ice–indecisive waters, constantly moving, back and forth with the tide, back and forth between liquid intuition and structured crystals, stiffening to commands of nighttime cold, eased by the sun. Whoop gasp moan grunt snore. As the winter chill seeps through my woolen jacket to my ribs, I sense the fierce indifference at the core of this frozen landscape. I snap from my reverie and recall a thought from Carl Sagan: “It takes courage to greet the universe as it really is, not to foist our emotions on it.”
I compiled a makeshift catalogue of ice sounds:
1) puffed-rice breakfast cereal sounds: krack, smack, krunch, kapow. knuckle-breaking comic-book brawl.
2) squeegee-like squeaks like furry little mice complaining about the icy cold.
3) old man noises: For example, one day, while taking a break from ice-sailing, standing with men around a burn barrel at the edge of the ice, hands outstretched towards the fire to keep warm. A sudden noise from the ice interrupted the conversation–a snow-muffled boom underfoot. Everyone looked around at the frozen landscape, then at each other. Someone finally piped up. “Ice fart,” he said. Now, I hear the grumbling of old age, not quite speech but bodily noises, like hunger, groaning with the rough creaking of joints. A few coughs, as the ice complains under the stress of a shrinking tide. When the tide expands, a surge of gurgling and belching, followed by one long sigh.
4) sounds from deep space: High-pitched, ethereal ping, transmitted through the ice sheet like snapping piano wire, like steam-pipes and radiators singing with an ancient boiler. Space-age special effects. A metallic retort, then monolithic silence. The wake of a passing tug jostles the newly-formed half-inch layer of ice on the water. Undulating with each wave, the ice makes a thin, metallic sound. If you ever stood on a railroad platform and listened carefully as a train approached the station, you’d recognize this icy sound as something similar to the high-pitched pings darting through the rails in advance of the train.
5) primal animal motion: After dinner, sitting around the dining table at my neighbor’s house, the dogs’ ears prick up. They leap to the door and bark into the night. They sense something out there in the dark. It’s the river ice, like a large, lumbering beast on the move.
I’m not the first person to listen to river ice and try to describe its noise. The naturalist John Burroughs heard a slumbering ice-god, snoring and grunting, with the occasional thunderbolt leaping forth. Or a gigantic phantom skater, “one who covers a mile at a stride and makes the crystal floor ring beneath him.” The ice groans to the rise and the fall of the tide. It resounds to the daytime expansion and nighttime contraction of temperature changes. Tugs are brought to a standstill. Buoys are pulled off their moorings. The ice doesn’t care, and I am glad of it. It speaks a naked voice, like someone, having reached the end of a lifetime and seen it all, shrugs off worry.