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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Holiday Show, Part III

Air Date: Week of

– In the final segment of Living On Earth’s holiday show, author Rick Bass shares a story from his own collection, of a hidden world beneath the ice.


CURWOOD: Welcome back. It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. This week we're celebrating the solstice with Rick Bass, Dovie Thomason, and Fiona Ritchie. They join us from as far away as Montana and Scotland. The theme is hibernation. Rick, do you have a story for us today?

BASS: It's called The Hermit's Story. And this section I'm going to read starts up with this bird dog trainer named Ann, who is just this genius trainer. And people send her their dogs to train for bird hunting. And she'll keep the dogs for half a year or a year and then take them back to their owners and show the owners how to work their dogs once she's brought out their fuller potential. And in this section she has six German shorthaired pointers that she's been training for a client named Gray Owl, who lives up in Canada.

So they're out there and have run out of daylight chasing these quail all over the place that they're practicing training their dogs on, and all they have is a little day pack with a tent and a little gas stove and not much else.

The temperature was dropping as the north wind increased. "No question about which way south is," Gray Owl said. "We'll turn around and walk south for three hours, and if we don't find a road we'll make camp."

They came in day's last light to the edge of a wide clearing, a terrain that was remarkable and soothing for its lack of hills. It was a frozen lake, which meant, said Gray Owl, that they had drifted west, or perhaps east, by as much as ten miles.

Ann said that Gray Owl looked tired and old and guilty, as would any host who had caused his guests some unasked-for inconvenience. They knelt down and began massaging the dogs' paws and then lit the little stove, and held each dog's foot, one at a time, over the tiny blue flame to help it thaw out.

Gray Owl walked out to the edge of the lake ice and kicked at it with his foot, hoping to find fresh water beneath for the dogs. If they ate too much snow, especially after working so hard, they'd get violent diarrhea and might then become too weak to continue home the next day, or the next, or whenever the storm quit.

Ann said she could barely see Gray Owl's outline through the swirling snow, even though he was less than 20 yards away. He kicked once at the sheet of ice, the vast plate of it with his heel, then disappeared below the ice.

Ann wanted to believe that she had blinked and lost sight of him, or that a gust of snow had swept past and hidden him. But it had been too fast, too total. She knew that the lake had swallowed him. She was sorry for Gray Owl, she said, and worried for his dogs. Afraid they would try to follow his scent down into the icy lake and be lost as well. But what she was most upset about, she said, to be perfectly honest, was that Gray Owl had been wearing the little day pack with the tent and emergency rations.

She had it in her mind to try to save Gray Owl, and to try to keep the dogs from going through the ice. But if he drowned, she was going to have to figure out how to try to get that day pack off of the drowned man and set up the wet tent in a blizzard on the snowy prairie, and then crawl inside and survive. She would have to go into the water naked, so that when she came back out -- if she came back out -- she would have dry clothes to put on.

The dogs came galloping up, seeming as large as deer or elk in that dim landscape against which there was nothing else to give the viewer a perspective. And Ann whoaed them right at the lake's edge, where they stopped immediately, as if they had suddenly been cast with a sheet of ice.

Ann knew the dogs would stay there forever, or until she released them. And it troubled her to think that if she drowned, they too would die. That they would stand there motionless as she had commanded them, for as long as they could, until at some point, days later perhaps, they would lie down, trembling with exhaustion. They might lick at some snow for moisture. But that then the snows would cover them, and still they would remain there, chins resting on their front paws, staring straight ahead and unseeing into the storm, wondering where the scent of her had gone.

Ann eased out onto the ice. She followed the tracks until she came to the jagged hole in the ice through which Gray Owl had plunged. She was almost half again lighter than he, but she could feel the ice crackling beneath her own feet. It sounded different, too, in a way she could not place. It did not have the squeaky, percussive resonance of the lake ice back home. And she wondered if Canadian ice froze differently or just sounded different.

She got down on all fours and crept closer to the hole. It was right at dusk. She peered down into the hole and dimly saw Gray Owl standing down there, waving his arms at her. He did not appear to be swimming. Slowly she took off one glove and eased her bare hand down into the hole. She could find no water, and tentatively she reached deeper.

Gray Owl's hand found hers and he pulled her down in. Ice broke as she fell but he caught her in his arms. She could smell the wood smoke in his jacket from the alder he burned in his cabin. There was no water at all, and it was warm beneath the ice.

"This happens a lot more than people realize," he said. "It's not really a phenomenon, it's just what happens. A cold snap comes in October, freezes a skin of ice over the lake. It's got to be a shallow one, almost a marsh. Then a snowfall comes, insulating the ice. The lake drains in fall and winter, percolates down through the soil." He stamped the spongy ground beneath him. "But the ice up top remains, and nobody every knows any differently. People look out at the surface and think: Aha, a frozen lake." Gray Owl laughed. "Did you know it would be like this?" Ann asked. "No," he said. "I was looking for water. I just got lucky."

Ann walked back to shore beneath the ice to fetch her stove and to release the dogs from their whoa command. The dry lake was only about eight feet deep, but it grew shallow quickly closer to shore, so that Ann had to crouch to keep from bumping her head on the overhead ice, and then crawl. And then there was only space to wriggle, and to emerge she had to break the ice above her by bumping and then battering it with her head and elbows, like the struggles of some embryonic hatchling. And when she stood up, waist deep amid sparkling shards of ice, it was nighttime now. The dogs barked ferociously at her but remained where she had ordered them to stay. And she was surprised at how far off course she was when she had climbed out. She had traveled only 20 feet, but already the dogs were twice that far away from her.

She knew humans had a poorly-evolved, almost nonexistent sense of direction, but this error, over such a short distance, shocked her. It was as if there were in us a thing, an impulse, a catalyst, that denies our ever going straight to another thing. Like dogs working left and right into the wind, she thought, before converging on the scent.

Except that the dogs would not get lost, while she could easily imagine herself and Gray Owl getting lost beneath the lake, walking in circles forever, unable to find even the simplest of things: the shore.

She gathered the stove and dogs. She was tempted to try to go back in the way she had come out; it seemed so easy. But considered the consequences of getting lost in the other direction, and instead followed her original tracks out to where Gray Owl had first dropped through the ice. It was true night now, and a blizzard was still blowing hard, plastering snow and ice around her face like a mask.

The dogs did not want to go down into the hole, so she lowered them to Gray Owl and then climbed gratefully back down into the warmth herself. The air was a thing of its own, recognizable as air, and breathable as such, but with a taste and odor, an essence unlike any other air they'd ever breathed. It had a different density to it, so that smaller, shallower breaths were required. There was very much the feeling that if they breathed in too much of the strange, dense air, they would drown.

They wanted to explore the lake and were thirsty, but it felt like a victory simply to be warm -- or, rather, not cold. And they were so exhausted that instead they made pallets out of the dead marsh grass that rustled around their ankles. And they slept curled up on the tiniest of hammocks to keep from getting damp in the pockets and puddles of dampness that still lingered here and there.

All eight of them slept as if in a nest, heads and arms draped across others' ribs and hips. And it was, said Ann, the best and deepest sleep she'd ever had. The sleep of hounds, the sleep of childhood. And how long they slept, she never knew, for she wasn't sure later how much of their subsequent time they spent wandering beneath the lake and then up on the prairie, homeward again. But when they awoke it was still night, or night once more. And clearing with bright stars visible through their porthole, their point of embarkation. And even from beneath the ice, in certain places where, for whatever reasons, temperature, oxygen content, wind scour, the ice was clear rather than glazed, they could see the spangling of stars, though more dimly. And strangely, rather than seeming to distance them from the stars, this phenomenon seemed to pull them closer, as if they were up in the stars traveling the Milky Way, or as if the stars were embedded in the ice.

It was very cold outside, up above, and there was a steady stream, a current like a river, of the night's colder, heavier air plunging down through their porthole, as if trying to fill the empty lake with that frozen air. But there was also the hot muck of the earth's massive respirations breathing out warmth and being trapped and protected beneath that ice, so that there were warm currents doing battle with the lone cold current. The result was that it was breezy down there, and the dogs' noses twitched in their sleep as the images brought by these scents painted themselves across their sleeping brains, in the language we call dreams but which, for the dogs, was reality. The scent of an owl real, not a dream. The scent of bear, cattail, willow, loon, real, even though they were sleeping, and even though those things were not visible, only over the next horizon.

The ice was contracting, groaning and cracking and squeaking up tighter, shrinking beneath the great cold. A concussive, grinding sound, as if giant were walking across the ice above. And it was this sound that had awakened them. They snuggled in warmer among the rattly, dried, yellowing grasses, and listened to the tremendous clashings, as if they were safe beneath the sea and were watching waves of starlight sweeping across their hiding place. Or as if they were in some place, some position, where they could watch mountains being born.

After a while the moon came up and washed out the stars. The light was blue and silver and seemed, Ann said, to be like a living thing. It filled the sheet of ice just above their heads with a shimmering, cobalt light, which again rippled as if the ice were moving. And like deer drawn by gravity, getting up in the night to feed for an hour or so before settling back in, Gray Owl and Ann and the dogs rose from their nest of straw and began to travel.

They walked a long way, Ann said. The air was damp down there, and whenever they'd get chilled they'd stop and make a little fire out of a bundle of dried cattails. There were little pockets of swamp gas pooled in places, and sometimes a spark from the cattails would ignite one of those. And those little pockets of gas would light up like when you tossed gas on a fire. Explosions of brilliance like flashbulbs, marsh pockets igniting like falling dominoes, or like children playing hopscotch until a large enough flash pocket was reached, sometimes 30 or 40 yards away. That the puff of flame would blow a chimney hole through the ice, venting the other pockets. And the fires would crackle out, the scent of grass smoke sweet in their lungs. And they could feel gusts of warmth from the little flickering fires, and currents of the colder, heavier air sliding down through the new vent holes and pooling around their ankles.

The moonlight would strafe down through those rents in the ice, and shards of moon ice would be glittering and spinning like diamond moats in those newly-vented columns of moonlight. And they pushed on, still lost, but so alive.

The small explosions were fun, but they frightened the dogs. And so Ann and Gray Owl lit twisted bundles of cattails and used them for torches to light their way, rather than building warming fires. Though occasionally they would still pass through a pocket of methane and a stray ember would fall from their torches, and the whole chain of fire and light would begin again, culminating once more with a vent hole being blown open and shards of glittering ice tumbling down into their lair.

What would it have looked like seen from above? The orange blurrings of their wandering trail beneath the ice. And what would the sheet of lake ice itself have looked like that night? Throbbing with the ice-bound subterranean blue and orange light of moon and fire. But again, there was no one to view the spectacle, only the travelers themselves, and they had no perspective, no vantage or loft from which to view or judge themselves. They were simply pushing on from one fire to the next, carrying their tiny torches. The beauty in front of them was enough.

They knew they were getting near a shore. The southern shore, they hoped, as they followed the glazed moon's lure above. When the dogs began to encounter shore birds that had somehow found their way beneath the ice through small fissures and rifts and were taking refuge in the cattails. Small winter birds -- juncos, nuthatches, chickadees, skittered away from the smoky approach of their torches. Only a few late-migrating or winter-trapped snipe held tight and steadfast, and the dogs began to race ahead of Gray Owl and Ann, working these familiar scents. Blue and silver ghost shadows of dog muscle weaving ahead through slants of moonlight.

The dogs emitted the odor of adrenaline when they worked, Ann said. A scent like damp, fresh-cut green hay. And with nowhere to vent, the odor was dense and thick around them, so that Ann wondered if it, too, might be flammable, like the methane. If in the dogs' passions they might literally immolate themselves.

They followed the dogs closely with their torches. The ceiling was low, about eight feet, as if in a regular room. So that the tips of their torches' flames seared the ice above them, leaving a drip behind them and transforming the milky, almost opaque cobalt and orange ice behind them wherever they passed into wandering ribbons of clear ice translucent to the sky. A script of flame or buried flame, ice-bound flame. And they hurried to keep up with the dogs.

Now the dogs had the snipes surrounded, as Ann told it. And one by one the dogs went on point, each dog freezing as if pointing to the birds' hiding places. And it was the strangest scene yet, Ann said, seeming surely underwater. And Gray Owl moved in to flush the birds, which launched themselves with vigor against the roof of the ice above, fluttering like bats. But the snipe were too small, not powerful enough to break through those frozen four inches of water. Though they could fly 4,000 miles to South America each year and then back to Canada six months later.

And as Gray Owl kicked at the clumps of frostbit cattails where the snipe were hiding, and they burst into flight only to hit their heads on the ice above them, they came tumbling back down raining limp and unconscious back to their soft, grassy nests. The dogs began retrieving them, carrying them gingerly, delicately, not preferring the taste of snipe, which ate only earthworms. And Ann and Gray Owl gathered the tiny birds from the dogs, placed them in their pockets, and continued on to the shore, chasing that moon, the ceiling lowering to six feet, then four, then to a crawlspace. And after they had bashed their way out, with elbows, fists, and forearms, and stepped back out into the frigid air, they tucked the still-unconscious snipe into little crooks in branches up against the tree trunks and off the ground, out of harm's way, and passed on south, as if late in their own migration. While the snipe rested, warm and terrified and heart-fluttering, but safe for now against the trunks of those trees.

Long after Ann and Gray Owl and the pack of dogs had passed through, the birds would awaken, their bright dark eyes luminous in the moonlight. And the first sight they would see would be the frozen marsh before them with its chain of still-steaming vent holes stretching back across all the way to the other shore. Perhaps these were birds that had been unable to migrate, owing to injuries or some genetic absence. Perhaps they had tried to migrate in the past but had found either their winter habitat destroyed or the path so fragmented and fraught with danger that it made more sense, to these few birds, to ignore the tuggings of the stars and seasons, and instead to try to carve out new lives, new ways of being, even in such a stark and severe landscape. Or, rather, in a stark and severe period. Knowing that lushness and bounty were still retained in that landscape. That it was only a phase. That better days would come. That in fact, the snipe, knowing these things with their blood ten million years in the making. The austere times were the very thing, the very imbalance, that would summon the resurrection of that frozen richness within the soil. If indeed, that richness, that magic, that hope did still exist beneath the ice and snow. Spring would come like its own green fire, if only the injured ones could hold on.

And what would the snipe think or remember, upon reawakening and finding themselves still in that desolate position, desolate place and time, but still alive and with hope? Would it seem to them that a thing like grace had passed through as they slept? That a slender winding river of it had passed through and rewarded them for their faith and endurance? Believing stubbornly that that green land beneath them would blossom once more? Maybe not soon, but again. If the snipes survived, they would be among the first to see it.

Perhaps they believed that the pack of dogs, and Gray Owl's and Ann's advancing torches, had been only one of winter's dreams. Even with the proof, the scribing's of grace's passage before them, the vent holes still steaming, perhaps they believed it was only one of winter's dreams.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Rick, there's one thing I'd love to hear from this story. And that's about the ice.

BASS: Well, I kind of worry -- or used to worry about myself sometimes. I have such deep feelings for such simple things. Not just ice, but fire and snow and the four primary seasons, and stone and antlers and bones and feathers. Just stuff like that. That story about northern people having so many different words for snow and ice. And it's true. I mean, even though it's elemental it's not simple, and it's not limited.

RITCHIE: Rick, it reminded me of the most wonderful wilderness experience of my life. Which was an opportunity to visit Alaska in January. I had a chance to go dogsleding with an outdoorsman who allowed me to drive his sled, team of six dogs, down a frozen river for about ten miles. And we stopped and had lunch just sitting next to a beaver lodge. And we saw wolf tracks. And it has occupied in my mind a much larger space than it actually took in time. And it took me there when you were describing that landscape.

BASS: Isn't that astounding, that notion of a river still being a river even when it's not moving, or when you don't see it moving?

RITCHIE: Yeah. What a fantastic landscape. And, you know, the darkness of it in the winter time and the glow of the moonlight and the sunlight on that snowy landscape, and the black and whiteness of it all appeals to me hugely. I would love to go back there that time of year.

BASS: I love it, that notion of the rules changing or turning upside-down, where what was water is now drivable. Things just get turned upside-down, and most of the animals leave, and instead of it being a busy, crowded time and place, it's so austere.

CURWOOD: I just want to thank you all -- Fiona Ritchie and Rick Bass and Dovie Thomason, for taking this time with Living on Earth.

BASS: Thank you, guys. It was my treat listening.

RITCHIE: It was nice that -- I just love that we were all just voices to one another, you know? Because that just made the listening all the more intense for me, anyway.

THOMASON: The old storytellers say you should be able to tell your stories in the dark, you know? And that -- that's kind of what we've been doing, isn't it?


THOMASON: Telling our stories in the dark.



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