Winter Solstice

categories: Cocktail Hour / Getting Outside / Our Best American Essays



From my book Temple Stream [then as now, though the dogs are gone, and a new one in their place, pretty Baila, Elysia not only born since (her birth part of the narrative) but eleven years old!]:


Winter Solstice


Starting as early as October, but more likely November in a given year [and not till mid-December in 2011], Temple Stream begins to freeze.  Every day the ice changes, grows, shrinks back, advances.


And every morning the dogs and I hiked down there to have a look, and hiked down again each evening, just to see what had changed.  Ice paved the way: the muddy parts of the path were thrown up in frost castles, delicate keeps and crenellations of dirt and ice that collapsed with a satisfying crunch underfoot.  The kingfisher was quietly gone, the mallard pair, the great blue heron–all the late stayers had quietly movced on, no fanfare, only absence.

In the stream, pullucid ice formed up around rocks and alder roots, around the branches of strainers and sweepers.  Alder tips that had dipped into the water with the weight of summer collected balls of ice that grew to knobs, crystal as fine as Victorian chandelier glass.  In the extended cold snap we’d just suffered–a week or so with nighttime temperatures in the single digits–the knobs morphed into globes and rare platters, nymphs on dolphins, grew until they touched, the edge lace spreading till the filigree and figurines and beadwork of one branch or rock met that of the next, thinnest sheets of ice growing out into the quitet parts of the stream like etched panes.

Wally, his winter coat coming in sleek and long, his bull’s chest thrust forward, his tail wagging high, was first to try the ice.  He rushed down, saw that the stream had hardened, balked.  After some expressive barking, he put a mighty paw down, tapping his claws where water had been.  The offending ice didn’t break immediately, so he scraped and scratched in outrage until it did, flipping up chunks that turned out to be textured underneath, intricate relief sculptures carved by hydraulic friction and the water’s slight heat.  Path cleared, heeless of the chill, exultant Wally splashed in among his own flaoting shards till he was up to his chin, drank as from a smashed chalice.

Desi was next.  With his senior citizen’s hard-won disdain for lesser minds, he found a place Wally hadn’t sullied, tried the ice gingerly.  Finding it sultable, he proceeded, mincing toward free water on tippy-tippy claws untrimmed.  The ice sighed and he pulled up short, listened a long minute before his next brief steps right to the fine edge of the flow, where he took a cautious drink.  The ice out there poopped and his ears flew up in alarm.  He retreated, slow steps in reverse.  The ice crackled and broke along minuature fault lines, and the good dog looked back to me for courage, straining every muscle skyward in an efffort to make himself lighter.

Night by cold night, the ice sheet thickened.  Breezy conditions would have made a rippled surface, but we’d had days of cathedral stillness: window glass.  And now snow: the ice was gemstone black, a portal to the booom, stream grasses still flowing under there, the familiar rocks and sands of summer arranged as in a display case or aquarium, one torpid minnow finning bast, then another.  I stared into the world daily and lingered, thinking of the time long since that I’d had the luck of seeing a muskrat cruising under the ice.

By mid-December the stream was nothing but a channel, the thickening ice sheet closing in from both sides.  I ventured out upon it behind the test dogs, sliding one foot then the other, listening like Desi for any sound of cracking, lingering over an ice-trapped oak leaf encrypted by the warmth of the sun in a perfect oak-leaf-shaped jewelry case, oak-leaf-shaped lid on top, oak leaf itself nestled several inches down, where it would sunbathe itself clear to the water, leaving just its shadow in the ice.

  1. Bill Diskin writes:

    Temple Stream continues to offer comfort in these weeks since my mother’s passing. Thanks for sharing this excerpt. Perfect timing…no fanfare, only absence.

  2. Richard Gilbert writes:

    Thanks for this beautiful excerpt, Bill. I have read Temple Stream three times. A masterpiece . . .