← Back to archives

Polylith 002   ☷   March 02019

Varied plumage, dizzying gyre


Hello there fellow equinoctial passengers. Equinauts! Happy spring to those of you here on this hemisphere – and happy autumn to all of you on the other, I know there are a few! This is the time we meet in passing for a quick hand-clasp as we swing on toward opposite points of the wheel. Trippy that these two processions are happening simultaneously on one planet, isn’t it? How wonderful and strange that we can transmit messages across this dizzying centrifugal gyre.

And with that:
This letter comes to you from a thawing peninsula, where half a year’s worth of water is slowly percolating down through the soil into the glacial drift. Sweet holy water. The surface of the earth is soft and squishy with it, and the detritus of last autumn is pressed into a thin brown sheet. Winter entertained the illusion that this detritus, this history, had gone, that the world was entirely mineral and fresh, having ascended slowly to another plane like an inverse evening snowfall. But it has been with us all along, and spring lays bare the illusion. Divinity is a varied plumage, polychromatic, iridescing from blinding feldspar white to dull humus brown, from dormant maple-lattice burgundy to electric lime peeking from a splitting bud. Here we are!

It’s so good to walk with you again, so to speak.

Flux

Since I last wrote, back when the ice was still sound, I crossed a nearby frozen lake on skis. My dog Tucker and I started on one shore, crossed the hour-long diameter, had a snack on the breakwall of a shuttered marina, and made the return passage as the sun set behind the moraine. It was lovely.

I savor the strange perspective standing out in the middle of a frozen lake, which presents infinite possible passages in all directions like the spokes of a slowly turning wheel. It’s a perspective I don’t get swimming, and certainly don’t get aboard a boat. But now that the spring flux is underway, my ski-tracks from that passage are melting away as I write this. They’ll soon join the deep lens of cold water supporting the ice-disc as it breaks up, and none of us will have access to that perspective again, not exactly, until late next winter.

In this narrow sense the spring flux is one where the possible becomes impossible. As winter wanes into spring, ice-walking goes from pleasant to unwise to impossible in a matter of days. Come May, who among us can walk with our soles a hand’s width above the surface of the water? Right where the eyes are as we breaststroke out into the clear, chilly lake? (What about atop an expensive bit of fiberglassed foam, you ask? Perspective may be marketed, but it cannot be bought.)

The autumn flux, on the other hand, sees the possible becoming the merely difficult. For example, as autumn turns to winter, swimming remains a distinct possibility (as it does throughout; ask your local ‘polar bear’ club), but how many of us continue submerging?

A black and white photograph of the brink of a high bluff overlooking Lake Michigan. Blades of dunegrass bend in the wind and pebbles peek from beneath a thin layer of sand. In the background is the wavy surface of the lake, and in the foreground is the blurry face of a dog in profile. They have seemingly wandered into the frame just as the photograph was taken.

Oscillation

Have you seen the way ski-tracks melt? They’re last to go, like any track left by compaction, so as the surrounding loose snow melts away they stand proud of the surface for a time, a negative image of themselves. The more passages the tracks bore, the longer they persist this way. As it turns out, we can see this same process happening in glacial till, where instead of skis sliding over the surface, tires and the burnished blades of grading machines have compacted a ribbon into the the moraine.

On another ramble recently, Tucker and I followed just such a shadow road; a negative image of itself standing proud of the surrounding wind-scoured till, slowly melting, as it were, back into the moraine. At a point where the old road traverses a steep slope, a torrent of snowmelt had recently washed away a two-wingspan-wide vee of roadbed. The shorn faces were fresh as broken bread, moist mineral crumb seeing the sky for the first time in a human generation. I climbed down into the wash and studied the layers of clay and gravel pressed atop the unsorted body of the moraine. It is a sweet thing to behold, the entropic spring thaw healing this wound of a road. I’ll write more about its provenance in a future letter.

In the imagination, that eroding line parallels my ski-tracks melting into the lake. The two erosions share a certain character, and they certainly find themselves in phase with one another as winter thaws into spring, but the two processes take place on vastly different timescales. The ski tracks and the ice beneath them will disappear over a few weeks, while the shadow road has been disintegrating for longer than I’ve been alive, and sections of it will surely outlive me.

We find ourselves at the center (each of us, pebbles, pines, humans; everywhere is the center) of a dizzying gyre, where close-in the cycles repeat quickly: the sun rises, reigns, sets; the wind tries out the four quarters and dunegrass blades trace out a record. Out from there the cycles repeat progressively slower: the moon jutters from new to crescent to full and back again; the planet’s axis processes through the equinoxes and the seasons follow on the hemispheres, fully out of phase; ice ages come and go, sediment becomes stone, stone becomes sediment. From our perspective at the center, these cycles move in and out of phase, they echo one another, coincide, drift in evolving diachronic oscillation. The plumage iridesces from white to brown to electric green before our eyes.


Thank you (!) to everyone who wrote and spoke to me in response to the first volume of Polylith. Your words of encouragement mean so much. They arrived as postcards, emails, kind words over the kitchen counter, and a delightful hand bound zine-letter. I count myself a lucky human – and I look forward to the conversations that lie ahead. Until next month!